The Cross: The Mark of Discipleship
Text: Luke 9:23-26
Rev. Garry E. McCaffery
Over the last several weeks we have been looking at and talking about the cross and what it means to us. We have talked about the cross in terms of its place in the church. It belongs in the church, of course, as a symbol to remind us of the presence of Christ in our midst. We have talked about the cross as a stumbling block, as foolishness to those who are not open to Christ or to His Spirit of reconciliation. We have looked at the cross as a revelation of humanities wickedness, as a sign of our worth and value and, we have looked at the cross as a demonstration of God’s love for you and for me.
This morning, I want to look at the cross as the mark of discipleship. Before we get into this, however, I want to share that this may be a difficult message. It was difficult to prepare because it confronted me with my own relationship with Jesus Christ. It brought to my attention areas of the Christian life wherein I need to grow. It may do the same for you. Nevertheless, I think it is important for us to be challenged and to ask God to help us grow in our understanding and in our faith. That being said, let’s put on our life vests and jump on in.
In the beginning of the year, as you may recall, we studied our Disciple Making Process. We looked at how our lives must be Christ centered; Christ centered on an individual level, and Christ centered as the church, the body of believers.
As genuine disciples we are called to willingly carry the cross. We heard that from our gospel reading, “pick up the cross daily and follow me.” To carry the cross means, we are totally committed to Jesus Christ, even upon the pain of death. “Whoa, what, the pain of death? That doesn’t sound like too much fun. We profess Jesus, isn’t that enough?” Yes and no. Yes, professing Jesus as Lord and Savior is enough for our personal salvation. However, Christian discipleship must go deeper than mere profession if it is to mean anything. Let’s face it, even the devil professes and acknowledges that Jesus is Lord, but that doesn’t make him a disciple. Even the forces of evil will acknowledge that Jesus is Lord, but they will not follow him.
Jesus even pointed out that not every person who professes his name will enter the kingdom of heaven. Listen to his words from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:21-23, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonders in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness!’”
Salvation is not for those who only profess to obey Jesus, calling him Lord. Rather, it is for those who actually do God’s will. Being a Christian is more than just saying, “I believe in Jesus.” It is not just saying it, it is living it. How do we live it? We live our faith in Jesus through obedience to the word of God. In John 14:15 Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep my commandments.” Hear again what Jesus said in Luke 9:23-24, “Then he said to them all, ‘If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’”
The “them all” Jesus is talking to in these verses is his disciples. The “them all” now includes you and me. Jesus is saying to us, “If you desire to follow me, if you really and truly want to be my disciples, my own, this is what is required of you. This is the cost of discipleship.”
If we desire to follow Jesus, to live as a disciple, to live out our faith, Jesus says we must deny ourselves. “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself…” Deny one’s self. This is lent, and I’ve given something up, therefore I’m denying myself, right? This isn’t quite what Jesus is saying. Jesus isn’t speaking of denying ourselves of “something” for a short span of time. Jesus isn’t talking about giving up chocolate, pizza, or chicken wings, which could actually be sinful to give those up. Jesus is talking about our denying ourselves in terms of our ambitions, our self-interests, perhaps even our own goals and desires.
Jesus is saying, what we want for our self, must no longer be the number one concern in our life. We must deny, that is give up, our rights, our privileges, our wants, for the sake of following Jesus and bringing others into his kingdom. Each one of us has something very near and dear to our self that is preventing a whole-hearted Christian life. Yes, even as a pastor, there are things I must deny myself in order to walk in obedience to what God has called me to do.
For some, it may be like the case of the rich young ruler. If you recall, Jesus told him to go and sell all he had and give to the poor. The rich young man couldn’t do it as he valued his material possessions too highly.
For another it may be the love of ease and comfort, not wanting to get one’s hands dirty meeting the needs of others.
For still another it may be the delight of caring for the fleshy, carnal appetites of the body.
There may be any number of things, tangible and intangible, that keep us from fully following Christ. And it is our responsibility to be open to the searching love of the Holy Spirit to point out where these things are so we can repent, confess our sins, and deny ourselves of them. To follow Jesus as a disciple we must first deny ourselves.
The second thing we must do as a disciple of Jesus Christ is to take up our cross daily. “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily…” Jesus pictures his disciples as condemned to death and carrying their crosses alongside him to the place of crucifixion. Not just once, but every day.
The walk of discipleship is a daily walk. Every morning we have the opportunity to decide if we really want to remain disciples. We get to reevaluate whether or not we want to continue to carry the cross. Taking up the cross, of course, implies more than enduring hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. The cross is a symbol of doing our duty, living the Christian life, no matter the cost.
Jesus lived in obedience to the heavenly Father, and he had great compassion upon humanity and that brought him to the cross. Living as a disciple in this world, which goes against what the world says is okay, and living in obedience to the Word of God, will also bring us to the cross. We must live in accordance with God’s Word regardless of what the world says. I’m not saying this is an easy thing. Therefore we need the Holy Spirit. Right now, as is evidenced in the news and through social media, the world is declaring that living, pretty much however we want too, is okay. The world has even crept into the church by pushing the church into accepting as okay and “godly” things that are not. As Christians, we must stand firm on the foundation of Jesus Christ, who came that we might have life, who came so we could be made into a new creation in Him.
Living by the standards of God’s Word will be costly. Taking up the cross daily is costly and hard because it will cost us friendships, it will cost us popularity, and it will cost us in that we will be called all kinds of names and accused of all kinds of things. Nevertheless, we need to decide. Do we want to please other people or do we want to please God? Quite often we can’t do both. If we really want to come after Jesus, if we really want to be his disciples, we must deny our self, pick up our cross, and follow him.
“If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me.” We must follow Jesus. How do we do that? We can gain some clarity about how to follow Jesus by considering a few things. Consider how a painter improves in painting pictures by studying the masters. Consider how a musician gets better by studying the works of the great musical masters. Consider how a writer improves their style by giving all their available time to the study of literary masterpieces.
The same is true of following Jesus. We can never be too familiar with the deeds and teachings of Jesus that are recorded in the gospels. We need to really know the Lord we are to follow, and the best way to get to know him, is through spending time in His Word. We need to see how he acted in various circumstances and how he reacted in different situations. We need to let the life of Jesus so fill our life that we will respond to situations in the Spirit of Christ. We need to follow him in his example of obedience to the Heavenly Father. We need to follow him in his example of sacrifice for the sake of the lost.
There is a cost to discipleship. We cannot just profess Christ with our lips and then proceed to live however we want to. Our profession of faith, and the way we live, must flow from a heart committed to Jesus. They must connect, they must be intertwined. Jesus calls us all to himself, and if we desire to come after him, we must be willing to lay down our life, deny our self, daily take up the cross, and follow him. It is our choice.
As I shared at the beginning, this was a difficult message to prepare because it calls me to account for my relationship with Christ. It reminded me of the importance of taking up the cross every day and of making sure that Christ is at the center of my life. I am also reminded that I am a work in progress. I have not yet made it, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, I strive to live out the life of a disciple. To quote the apostle Paul from Philippians 3:12 -14,
12 Not that I have already attained,[a] or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. 13 Brethren, I do not count myself to have [b]apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Let us pray…
Loving Lord, the price of the cross can be a scary thing to us. We don’t want to have to take it up because it means we will stand out to the world. Give us a holy boldness, Lord, to deny ourselves, take up the cross daily, and follow you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.