We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You! For by Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world!
Jesus made it very clear that He “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” After this intense teaching time, which included a public rebuke of Peter, Jesus then called the crowd and His disciples together. This word “call” means, “to call to oneself, to summon hither, to bid to come.” Jesus is calling them to huddle up because He has something very important He wants them to know. After describing His fate, He describes what it means to follow Him.
The call that Jesus makes is to everyone, but there are also conditions to following Christ. We see this in the use of the word, “if.” There are four conditions to following Christ. They are desire, denial, death, and devotion. We will soon discover that these conditions are the demands of discipleship, and they cannot be dismissed or downplayed.
Desire. The first condition a person must have is a desire to become a disciple: “If anyone would come after me…” The heart of the matter is a matter of the heart. The phrase “would come” is the idea of intentionality and involves the will. In order to be a disciple of Jesus, you must first want to be a disciple of Jesus.
I love that the call of Jesus goes out to everyone and anyone: to the curious crowd (those nearby), to the committed core (the eleven) and even to the counterfeit (Judas). It strikes me that these three groups are still present today. Some of you are curious about Christ, others of you are committed to Him, and a few have a counterfeit faith. Notice that Jesus is about to give the same message to each of the groups as He calls everyone to Him. It does not matter what you have done or how you have been living. Everyone is welcome. Romans 3:23 states that “all have sinned” and Acts 10:34 says, “…everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.”
Notice the phrase, “come after Me.” This has the idea of movement, of lining up behind the Lord, following wherever He goes. We do not walk in front of Him and ask Him to catch up with our ways and wishes. No, we get behind Him, so that we walk where He walks. We walk after Him, not ahead of Him.
Do you have the desire to follow Jesus as one of His disciples? I am not talking about being just a follower, but a true disciple of His. Many people are followers of Christ, but very few are real disciples. They choose not to be disciples of the Savior simply because they do not have the desire to do so. Listen. Until you desire to be a disciple, you will not be one. If you desire Him more than anyone or anything else, you will be a disciple. In the Book of Psalms, we read: “Who have I in heaven but You, O Lord? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You.” (Psalm 73:25). Discipleship will cost you your life.
The second condition for being a disciple is to deny self: “…let him deny himself…” Everything within us screams against these words. To “deny” means, “to refuse.” This is the same word that describes what Peter did to Jesus. One Bible Dictionary puts it like this: “to disown and renounce self and to subjugate all works, interests, and enjoyments.” Check out what Jesus said in Luke 14:33: “So, therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.”
Denying self is not the same thing as self-denial, like not eating chocolate, going on a Facebook fast, or not rooting for the Yankees (though that would be a good idea). Denying self means I stop thinking I am always right, I stop living in my own power, and I refuse to pursue my own pleasures because I no longer belong to myself. We see this in the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So, glorify God in your body.” (Corinthians 6:19-20). In short, I must give up the right to run my own life because I no longer own my own life. I have been bought with the blood of Christ and I now belong to Him.
Every morning when we arise from sleep, among our morning prayers should be the prayer: “Father, glorify Yourself in my life this day at my expense.” Most of us, me included, are fine with glorifying God, but we do not really want to do that if it costs us something. We cannot fully follow Christ while living our lives any way we please.
A real disciple of Christ lives actively the life of Christ. A true disciple of Christ thinks in these terms: I simply want to serve; I want to help; I make myself available; It is my duty and my obligation; I want to give my hands and feet to Christ; This is my home, so I want to help; I want to do what I am gifted to do; I am grateful for what Christ has done for me so I want to give something back in return; I love my brothers and sisters and want to show my love for them in Christ. These are the words and thoughts of a true disciple of Jesus Christ. But they are more than that. They are given substance and form by tangible and visible works, works that, if rooted firmly in Christ and in the heart of the believer, will bring forth fruit in abundance to the glory of God.
If we want to be real disciples of Christ, then we must be willing to break up with our own selves. There is really no room in our lives for our own self-interests and those of Christ. Our self-interests should be only those of Christ. Either self is on the throne of our hearts or Christ is. Discipleship will cost you your life. That brings me to the third condition of discipleship, which is death.
The first two conditions are desire and denial. As if those are not difficult enough, Jesus next calls us to die: “…and take up His cross…” Crucifixion was a common Roman punishment, with over 30,000 nailed to crosses during the lifetime of Jesus. Everyone knew that the cross was an instrument of shame, suffering, torture, and death. When a person took up his cross, he was beginning a death march.
Unfortunately, we have romanticized the cross and turned it into something we put on our walls or wear around our necks. When we do reference this verse, we often say something like, “Well, I guess that’s just the cross I must bear” and normally it refers to putting up with an obnoxious relative, or living with an illness or some other affliction, or putting up with a spouse’s snoring or stinky feet. You may think these are crosses you have to bear, but you do not know just how lucky you are that you do not have to carry a cross for real. Remember that the cross was carried by condemned criminals and ended with a humiliating and excruciatingly painful and agonizing and slow death. Everyone knew that the person who was to be crucified was saying goodbye to everything and that there was no turning back.
As Orthodox Catholic Christians, we called to crucify the cult of self-fulfillment, self-promotion, and self-centeredness. We are to die to our rights – the right to be right, the right to take revenge and the right to fight. Interestingly, according to almost universal tradition and archaeological evidence, the Apostle Peter ended up literally fulfilling this when he was crucified, reportedly upside down, for his faith in Jesus Christ. It is reported that all of the remaining apostles (after Judas committed suicide) died martyr’s deaths. Discipleship will cost you your life.
The fourth and final condition for discipleship is devotion. After getting our desire right, denying self and dying to sin, Jesus gives the fourth condition for discipleship in the last part of verse 34: “…and follow me.” To “follow” means, “to go with” and the tense is ongoing, meaning we are to be constantly following Him. At the core, the word “disciple” means learner, follower, and doer.
Here is what I have observed over the years: the depth of one’s devotion will determine their impact. The words we use are important. While there is nothing wrong with saying things like: “I’m a Christian” or “I’m a believer” or “I’m an Orthodox Catholic Christian,” I have been trying to identify myself this way: “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.” I have also found that asking someone if they are a “Christian,” is not all that helpful because almost everyone says they are. But when I ask someone if they are a disciple of Christ, I find that I am able to cross the bridge to a conversation about the Orthodox Catholic Faith and Church much quicker.
Jesus fought against having false converts by making sure people knew there was a cost to following Him. I think of the rich young ruler in the Gospel of St. Mark who came running up to Jesus to find out how to obtain eternal life. When Jesus challenged his idolatry of self and the pursuit of possessions, we read these sad words in verse 22: “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” I find it very interesting that Jesus did not chase after Him or water down the demands of discipleship. Jesus does not lower the bar. Commitment to Him is costly. Discipleship is demanding. The man was sad, but he would not deny himself or put to death his devotion to material things.
In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus said it like this: “And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:38). Cross-bearers are called to follow the Crucified One. Discipleship is demanding because we are called to die to our desires. St. Luke adds that dying to self and to sin is to happen on an ongoing basis: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).
It is easy to add Jesus as a friend, almost as easy as it is to add a friend on Facebook; it is much more difficult to be His disciple. Jesus is not an app that you add to your life. Because He is Lord, He wants your whole life. Are you willing to renounce every person, every possession and especially yourself in order to be a disciple of Christ? Will you put your faith over your family and over anything else that has been first in your life? What is it that is keeping you from following fully? Jesus is very clear about what it means to be one of His disciples: “So, therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33).
Discipleship will cost you your life. After the call to discipleship and the four conditions – desire, deny, death and devotion, Jesus concludes with three cautions.
The first is this. If you focus only on your own life, you will lose it. We see this in verse 35: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” If you try to hold on to what you have, you will miss what Jesus wants to give you. When you settle the surrender issue and commit to following Christ at any cost, you will end up saving your life. We would do well to adopt the Apostle Paul’s purpose statement from Acts 20:24: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
Do not miss the additional clause that St. Mark adds: “but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” We are to lose our lives in service to the lost as we proclaim the Gospel. We are to spread the good news in this community and throughout the world.
When we lose that which has always been so important to us, we end up finding that which we have been searching for all along. Speaking of those who are completely committed to Christ, Revelation 12:11 says: “…for they loved not their lives even unto death
The second caution is: if you focus only on your own success, you will lose your soul. Jesus asks two probing questions in verses 36-37: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” Jesus is using economic terms here – profit, forfeit and return. You could gain everything and lose your very soul. You could make a lot and but end up in hell. Here is a question to ponder: Will I spend my life for the Savior or will I waste my life on this world?
The third caution: If you are ashamed of Christ, He will be ashamed of you. Look at verse 38: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” There is a cost to discipleship but there is an even greater cost to not following Christ. We are called to confess Christ and not be ashamed of Him, which will become increasingly more difficult in our culture in the months and years to come if the Gospel does not penetrate the hearts and lives of all people.
Whether or not the world is sanctified and the hearts and lives of non-believers are turned to God depends upon whether or not we are ready and willing to take up the Cross of Christ and follow in His footsteps. Though God can do everything, we too, as disciples of His Son, Jesus Christ, must do our part in the divine work of sanctifying the world and those that dwell in it. By our example and witness to the life, love, and Gospel of Christ, we will lead and accompany those who have not yet received the Light to a new life in communion with the Holy Trinity.
Let us not shrink back from the Savior. Let us not waffle with His words as we live in this adulterous and sinful generation. Do not bail on the One who will never fail you. It is time for the Church to be the Church, to be bold in our witness and loving in our Gospel.
Let us declare with Paul in Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” When Paul was in prison, he wrote these words of encouragement to a young Christ-follower in 2 Timothy 1:8: “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share in suffering for the Gospel by the power of God.”
The call to discipleship is costly. It means taking up and carrying the Cross every day of your life and dying to yourself and the world. But believe me, it is well worth it.