In the Gospels, our Lord presents us with a difficult challenge. He says that if we wish to be his disciples, we must deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him, (see Mark 8:34). Just take a moment to let those words sink in.
As Christians, we hear these words so often that we can easily miss out on the seriousness of what Christ is saying. Jesus, the God-Man, the Messiah, has just told his disciples explicitly for the very first time that he is going to suffer and die on a cross. We are so used to seeing the cross that we can forget that image had a very different meaning before the Advent of Christ. The cross was the most feared, the most humiliating, the most painful method of execution man had ever invented, and we are told that if we wish to be his disciples, then we must take up our own crosses and follow Jesus.
Up to this point Jesus’ disciples have witnessed one glorious event after another in the ministry and life of Christ. They witnessed his baptism in the Jordan, where God the Father proclaimed from heaven that Jesus is his Beloved Son. They witnessed Christ expelling demons, curing the sick, cleansing lepers, healing paralytics, confounding the scribes and Pharisees, restoring a man’s withered hand, calming a raging storm at sea, raising the dead, and miraculously multiplying loaves and fish to feed thousands of people.
The disciples have seen for themselves the awesome power of God in Christ. Their expectations are at an all-time high. The impending victory over their enemies, the Romans and corrupt leaders of Israel, was perceived to be at hand. Jesus, through Peter’s confession, had confirmed that he is indeed the Christ, Israel’s awaited Messiah. So for the disciples, it’s settled. The only question is, what is Jesus’ plan of attack? When will Jesus the Messiah overthrow the enemies of Israel? But Christ doesn’t give the disciples the plan of attack they were hoping for. He says that he is going to Jerusalem, not to kill and overthrow Israel’s enemies, rather, he would die at their hands on a cross. For the disciples, it seems that all is lost. Their Master, the promised Messiah, was willingly marching towards his death. Why?
Could God have led his people to overthrow the Romans, as they had done to the Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Greeks, and the other ancient enemies of Israel? Of course. But the Romans weren’t the true enemy of God’s people. The disciples had hoped that Jesus would be crowned as the new earthly King of Israel like David was. They hoped he would defeat the earthly enemies of Israel as David had. But Christ did not come to be the earthly King of Israel; he came to be the Heavenly King of all. Christ did not come to conquer the Romans and the corrupt leaders of Israel; he came to conquer the even greater enemies of sin and death.
What kind of savior are we looking for? Are we looking for an earthly ruler to conquer our earthly enemies? There is no shortage of people claiming that they have the answers to all of our earthly troubles. They say if we just vote for the right person, all will be well. If we just listen to the right self-help advice, our lives will change for the better. If we just stay positive, think happy thoughts, everything will go splendidly for us. The truth is, there is no politician, there is no celebrity, there is no self-help advice or personal mindset that can save us. There is only one way, one truth, and one life. There is only one Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Unlike our earthly rulers, Jesus doesn’t give us any empty promises or false hopes. He doesn’t pretend that following him will mean an end to our earthly troubles. Following Jesus will not put an end to persecution, poverty, suffering, or death. But as our Lord says in the Gospels, when we follow him, when we give our lives to him and live and die as his disciples, we will receive an even better life than the one we have now. We will receive eternal life.
Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. By his death he has conquered death, and to those of us who die following him as his disciples, he will grant eternal life. St. Paul writes to the Galatians:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Christ loves each and every one of us, and has given his life for us so that we might have eternal life. If we want to receive the eternal life that Christ has won for us, then we have got to stop living life on our own terms. We cannot conquer suffering and death, no matter how hard we try. Many people have tried, and they have failed. There is only one Person who has conquered death, and our hope lies in him. If we want to have any hope of eternal life, then we must deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus.
Shortly after telling his disciples that they must pick up their cross and follow him, Jesus said that some of those who were standing there would witness the coming of the kingdom of God before they died (see Mark 9:1). What did he mean? Where is this kingdom that we were promised, and where is our King? The Gospel of Mark concludes with an answer to these question, it says that the Risen Jesus, “was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But [the disciples] went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs” (Mark 16:19b-20).
Christ reigns as king at the right hand of God the Father. His kingdom and his power is made present in the lives of his disciples. The kingdom was made manifest in the extraordinary lives of the apostles, who proclaimed the good news in word and deed, and by the power of Christ, they too cured the sick, cleansed lepers, and even raised the dead.
We, like the first disciples, have been crucified with Christ through the sacrament of baptism. Through confirmation we have received the awesome power of God. We are now called to live the faith that we received through the sacraments of initiation. We can do this just as the first apostles did, by turning away from our sins, by proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, and by confirming our faith through signs and wonders.
What kinds of signs and wonders is God asking us to perform? He may not be calling us to cure the sick, or cleanse lepers, or raise the dead. But he has called each of us, without exception, to love one another as he has loved us. Jesus gave himself entirely for us. He held nothing back, not even his own life. The greatest love that we can offer is the gift of ourselves. This is why we are asked to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him.
There are people God has placed in our lives who desperately need to experience God’s love for them, our neighbors, our family, our friends, our coworkers, yes even our enemies. They desperately need us to be the disciples God has called us to be.
What is it in our life, what are we holding on to that keeps us from loving others as our Lord has asked of us? We can’t pick up our cross if we’re holding on to those things. Perhaps we are holding onto a grudge or the pursuit of our own self interests. It could be any number of things, but when our hands are busy satisfying our own selfish desires, then they are not free for us to pick up our cross and follow Christ.
Today, tomorrow, the next day, and for the rest of our lives, let us deny ourselves, let us set aside our own self-interests, those things that keep us from loving our neighbor, and let us pick up our cross and give our lives to Christ.
This article was originally given as a homily by the author in Holy Archangel Michael Byzantine Catholic Church, Mont Clare, Pennsylvania on September 17.
Licensed photo is of a statue on the grounds of The Bishop’s Palace in Wells, England, by Stewart Black.