“Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23
Some imagine that this is a word to the Apostles only, or maybe to Christians of the first age, or those in a state of persecution. That would be a mistake. Jesus is speaking to all of us. His message is universal. “If anyone,” of whatever station, circumstance, or nation “will come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross, and do so daily. This calling is not a suggestion for faith; it is indispensably necessary to faithful discipleship. Either we do this or we turn to the ways of the world.
There are many within the Church Universal that still have a hard time with the “grand doctrine of Christianity.” Some Calvinist/Predestinationists barely fall short of declaring war against it. The doctrine is equated with “salvation by work,” or trying to “establish our own righteousness.” It is better, they might say, to not do anything that might give this impression.
We, on the other hand, want to listen to our Lord who calls us to practice discipleship and this word of self-denial and taking up our cross is at the heart of discipleship. We believe that salvation is more than a legal pronouncement; it is a reconciled relationship. It is more than “believing;” it is actively trusting God and taking steps into the vision that God is giving us.
In this calling, we are directly called to participate in our own growth as disciples by first recognizing our corrupt nature, our selfish desires, and by humbling ourselves to the will of God. The call is to do this intentional work daily. Otherwise, we will succumb to promoting self and justifying self and excusing self.
There is no doubt that giving into our own desires can be pleasing in the short term. We might compare this to our love for some foods that actually bring harm to our bodies over time. Without the disciplines of temperance, and often abstinence, we violate our own beings and potentially hurt others as well. Discipline is required. This is true of our spiritual lives as well. To deny ourselves is to deny our own will wherever it does not connect to the will of God.
Next, raising the stakes a little higher, we are called to take up our cross. A cross can be anything contrary to our will, anything displeasing to our nature. As we grow in love, there is often a cross lying in the way, something painful and displeasing to our natural selves, something that is hard for us to consider. At this point the choice is plain. Either we take up our cross or we turn aside from the way of God. Examples from scriptures might be when our Lord tells one man to “go and sell all he has and give it to the poor.” The very thought gave him so much pain that “he went away sorrowful,” choosing to even part with his hope of heaven.
Taking up our cross is different from bearing our cross. We bear our cross when we endure what is laid upon us with humility, patience, and kindness. When we take up our cross we voluntarily embrace the challenging will of God, though contrary to our own natural inclinations. We love before the other proves themselves. We show mercy to those whom others condemn. We show hospitality to a stranger. We embrace an enemy and try to work through our differences. We listen before we speak. We give sacrificially. These are the kinds of things disciples do.
This is why we, as Methodists, give so much attention to the Means of Grace. At one level, we could even call these Means of Grace, the Method of Methodism. We believe that God has given us certain means to grow in salvation, to grow into God’s grace and God’s graceful ways. These means include hearing the word of God spoken with power (preaching), partaking the sacraments (baptism and holy communion), engaging in Christian conversation, communal/public prayer where we join together in the prayers of the whole church and learn how to move from our own desires to the desires of God for us, and private prayer where we pour out our hearts to God. These God-given means are essential for faithful and fruitful discipleship.
Here’s what happens, phenomenologically speaking. In the course of our Christian journey, we “taste the powers of the world to come,” but then our hearts are, once again, tempted by the immediate pleasures of this world. We experience the “peace of God that transcends all human understanding and gives tranquility to our souls in the midst of great turmoil,” but then, once again, give a place to anger or envy. We receive “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts,” but then this love grows cold, like a log taken off the flame. We soon become hardened to the needs of others and focused only on self-protection and desires. Does this not happen?
We could just give up and declare, with the Calvinists, that any talk of holiness on our part is to assert that we are able to contribute to our own sanctification and thus dispute the absolute sovereignty of God. We could resign to the belief that we can only manage our sin, with a human measure of personal morality, outward niceness, and obedience to authority. We can only bear our sin until we are blessed to leave this world with our ticket to heaven. Beyond this, all attempts at personal discipline and intentional devotion with an aim towards holiness and Christ-likeness can come dangerously close to “works righteousness.” All we need to do is “believe” to receive the declaration that we are saved. We do not need to worry about holiness but leave that to God.
But this is not our way. We can find no biblical justification for such resignation and acceptance of sin. God calls us, not into salvation as a declaration, but into salvation as a reconciled relationship where we are given the freedom to participate in our own growth.
Transformation is possible. Love is possible. We can, even in this life, become more like Christ. We can be the body of Christ in the world. It is our calling.
This hope starts with discipleship and the disciplines implied in the calling. It starts with hearing the call of Christ to deny ourselves and take up our cross. If we become lax in following the means of grace, we may still have a measure of the Spirit within us, but we will lose our hunger and thirst for a right relationship with God; our focus will wane from wanting to grow in the whole image of God; the light of the glory of God shining through Jesus Christ will dim in our souls and we will find ourselves in darkness. And it is so easy for us to do the opposite of denying ourselves and instead make excuses. “It’s too cold or too hot or dark or rainy.” We love our excuses. We can’t feed the hungry because we might have to sacrifice something. It might mean being more frugal or giving something up. Or, to visit the sick might mean entering uncomfortable situations. We just can’t handle that – which may be true without discovering the help of God. Or to engage a neighbor might mean having to give up some precious time – perhaps to watch a show. It is easy to justify letting go of both works of piety and works of mercy. But in doing so, we diminish our own growth in grace. It happens, once again, when we are unwilling to deny ourselves and take up our cross.
Oh, you who are asleep in sin, hear the trumpet blow. Oh you who hold out to self, let go and turn to the One who has the power to save. To all pastors and preachers – it is not enough to simply oppose those who oppose this doctrine, or those who just ignore it. This doctrine must be shared, in the clearest and strongest manner. Faithful and fruitful discipleship depends on it.
And finally, see that you apply this, every one of you, to your own soul. Ponder this doctrine in your heart. Practice it this very hour. Practice it daily, until your spirit returns to God. Amen.