Saturday, 30 August 2008

Self-denial and following Jesus

Matthew 16:21-end

It’s a well known passage, and there is so much here. But this morning I would like us to look at a single verse in our passage.

Jesus said, 'Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me'.

It is one of those verses that we think we ought to understand, but when we look at it more closely we realise that there is far more to it than we first thought.

So there are three things that we need to do:

1. To deny ourselves

I guess that this is the first step of commitment. If we commit ourselves to something then it means giving up other things.

The athlete training to win the gold will deny themselves the beer and the kebabs and the nights out with the lads, in order to keep fit and to get up in the morning to go for the two hour session in the gym.

The soldier preparing to go to war will deny him or her self comfort and ease in order to train so that they stay alive.

The young lawyer in the city will deny themselves any pretence to a social life, in order to devote 16 hours a day to work, and that goal of the partnership.

The weight watcher will deny themselves that second helping because of their desire to be able to see the scales

And the more important the thing that we are committed to, the greater will be the act of self-denial.

Parents will sacrifice themselves for their children

Sergei Nechaev was one of the early Russian revolutionaries. He is known as the man who wrote who wrote the Revolutionary Catechism in 1869. The first article goes: “The revolutionary is a dedicated man. He has no personal feelings, no private affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. Everything in him is subordinated towards a single exclusive attachment, a single thought and a single passion – the revolution.” (Quoted by Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, Pimlico 1997: 133).

Nechaev is saying that because the revolution is so important, if a person wishes to be a revolutionary, they must deny themselves completely

And Jesus here is saying that if we wish to be his disciple, to follow him, then we must be willing to deny ourselves. We must be willing to put him first – before everything else

I have really struggled with this, trying to work out what it means in practice.

It is very easy to hear the call to deny ourselves as a call to a stricter ascetism. But it is not about that. It is not about fasting more, giving more, praying for longer in more uncomfortable positions. It is not a call to beat ourselves up or to feel guilty whenever we do something for our own enjoyment. It is not a call for us to withdraw into some strict coenobitic existence - to become a hermit.

If it were a call to a stricter ascetism, then when would we stop? We can always deny ourselves something more. Indeed, if Jesus is calling us to a life of total self-denial, then life would be very short.

The call to deny ourselves is not a call to a greater asceticism, but to a greater devotion, a great obedience.

There is a similar passage (Matthew 10:38-39), when Jesus sends out the 12 to preach and to heal. He says there, 'Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me'.

Jesus is not saying that we are to reject mother or father, son or daughter. He is saying that we are to recognise who is bigger than son or daughter, who gave us son and daughter, who loves son or daughter even more than we do; and he is saying that we need to put him first, to put love for him, before even our love for them.

So when Jesus says that we need to deny ourselves in order to follow him, he is saying that we need to be willing to put him before ourselves and before those things that we consider to be important: whether family or career or happiness or possessions.

There will be times when discipleship, obedience to Jesus is going to be very costly. There will be times when what I want is not what Jesus wants. And those are the times when I need to deny myself and put him first.

Peter has just learnt that. Obedience for Jesus means going to Jerusalem to be killed. Peter says to Jesus, 'That must never happen to you'. Jesus rebukes Peter and then says, 'You do not have in mind the things of God, but human things'.

And for us, increasingly, there will be a clash between what I want, and what reality TV, or the chat shows or the soaps tell me is acceptable and OK, and what Jesus wants. And today, there are many areas where the values of Christianity directly challenge the values of society: to name a few - what it means to be a success, how to become great, what sort of standard of living should I expect, how much do I give away, faithfulness in marriage and celibacy outside of marriage, respect for those in authority, and issues of justice, mercy and forgiveness.

The call to deny ourselves is not a call to a greater asceticism (although for some it might be). It is the call to put Jesus first before ourselves.

JC Ryle says, "The self must be daily crucified; the devil must be daily resisted; the world must be daily overcome. There is a warfare to be waged, and a battle to be fought. Never was there a truer word than the old saying, ‘No cross, no crown’".


2. Take up our cross

When we think of the symbol of the cross, we think about it in the light of Jesus' crucifixion.

For the Christian, living after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the cross is the symbol of obedience, of self-giving and of a love that conquers evil and death.

Jesus knew that he had to go to the cross. But his disciples did not. And when he said this, he had not yet gone to the cross.

For his listeners, a person who was carrying their cross was a condemned man: he was going to die, and who was going to die in pain and in shame. The cross, for them, was a symbol of death and shame. It was also a symbol of foreign occupation. Only the Romans crucified their criminals - and they reserved it for people who were not Roman citizens.

So when Jesus says to his disciples, and through them to us, that we must take up our cross, he is saying something about us choosing to live as people who have been condemned by the ruling powers - elsewhere the bible talks about the elementary forces of this world; and he is saying that we must be prepared to live as people who - as far as this world is concerned - are under the sentence of death.

This is not about involuntary suffering, although it might be about our attitude to involuntary suffering.

To take up our cross is about choosing to give up rights, ambitions and hopes for this world in this world. For people who have taken up their cross, the preservation of our life here is not high on the agenda. And it is also - and this is radical and needs to be heard correctly - not only about the giving up of our rights in this world, but about the giving up of the responsibilities that this world places on us.

So, for instance, we neither have the right to be rich, nor the obligation to become rich. Before the summer, some groups of workers were taking strike action for more money. In my more perverse moments, I sometimes think that Christians should be out there striking for less money. Paul talks about how he has learnt to become content with what he has. We do not have the right to be significant as far as this world is concerned, and nor do we have the responsibility, the requirement to become significant: we do not have to achieve great things in this world; we do not have to be extraordinary or unique. Paul in Romans commands us not to - 'conform to the patterns of this world'.

To the person who has taken up their cross, the rights, the rewards and the requirements of this world mean nothing.

The call to take up our cross is an invitation to freedom: not absolute freedom, as we will discover: but a freedom from the 'ought’s' and the 'should’s’ and the 'must's’ of this world.


And that moves us on to the third part of this verse:

3. To follow Jesus.

Baptism is a picture of all this - especially when a person is baptised by being immersed into the water.

In the baptism service we renounce the devil, we repent of our sins, we turn away from evil to Christ.

That is the denying part.

In the baptism service we are washed with water - and in many churches that is done through immersion - it is a symbol of death: that we are dying to ourselves and to this world.

That is what it means to take up our cross.

But then we come up out of the water to a new life.

And this is about following Jesus.

Paul says in one of the most important verses describing the Christian life (Galatians 2:20): 'I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me'.

We have chosen to give up our rights in this world, in order to have the right to become children of God.

We have chosen to give up our responsibilities in this world, in order to take on the responsibility to follow Jesus in this world.

We are invited to live by the Spirit of God and not by the spirit of the age. We are called to be controlled not by the law of the land, but by the law, the ways, of God (which incidentally tell us that we must honour world rulers). And through the Spirit we are to be controlled by faith, hope and love.

So we are called to deny ourselves (to put Jesus first), to take up our cross (to live as dead people to this world) and to follow Jesus.

The warning of these verses is that if we are not willing to deny ourselves and to take up our cross and to follow Jesus, if we are not willing to die to this world and the things of this world, then we will lose our life

The promise of these verses is that if we are willing to die to this world and to the things of this world, for Jesus, then we will find life.