Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.
Mark 8:34-35 (NIV)
You might remember comedian Yakov Smirnoff. When he first came to the United States from Russia he was not prepared for the incredible variety of instant products available in American grocery stores. He says, “On my first shopping trip, I saw powdered milk you just add water, and you get milk. Then I saw powdered orange juice you just add water, and you get orange juice. And then I saw baby powder, and I thought to my self… What a country!”
Smirnoff is joking but we make these assumptions about Christian Transformation —that people change instantly at salvation. Some traditions call it repentance and renewal. Some call it Sanctification of the believer. Whatever you call it most traditions expect some quick fix to sin. According to this belief, when someone gives his or her life to Christ, there is an immediate, substantive, in-depth, miraculous change in habits, attitudes, and character. We go to church as if we are going to the grocery store: Powdered Christian. Just add water and disciples are born not made.
Unfortunately, there is no such powder and disciples of Jesus Christ are not instantly born. They are slowly raised through many trials, suffering, and temptations. A study has found that only 11 percent of churchgoing teenagers have a well-developed faith, rising to only 32 percent for churchgoing adults. Why? Because true life change only begins at salvation, takes more than just time, is about training, trying, suffering, and even dying (adapted from James Emery White, Rethinking the Church, Baker, 1997, p. 55-57).
Jesus is up against a formidable foe. And in the end this foe may posses more power than he. But the foe is not Peter and it’s not the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate, or Rome. This formidable foe is not even Satan himself. The powerful enemy of Jesus is our quest for positions of rank and status.
To address the confusion Jesus pulls his disciples together and brings them before a crowd. And in front of the crowd he corrects the disciples aspirations for privilege, rank, and power and he gives them this simple little directive: You must take up your cross and follow me. This morning I would like to ask the question “Why must we carry a cross?”
We must carry a cross to remind us that we are not the center of the Universe. That our suffering is part of our discipleship as Christians. It is characteristic of great leaders to make demands upon their followers. When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister he told the British people that he had nothing to offer them but “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” The Italian freedom fighter Gerabaldi told his followers that he offered them only hunger and death. These were demanding leaders, but Jesus was a thousand times more demanding then they were. Jesus said, “So, therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Possession cannot stand between you and the Lord. Jesus went so far as to say, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own mother and father, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, he cannot be my disciple.” Even something as noble as the love of family, as good and right as that is, cannot stand in the way of commitment to the Kingdom of God. Laziness, fear, selfishness, family nothing can stand between us and the call to discipleship. Jesus Christ demands our obedience. Jesus is not some wishy-washy little fellow coming up to us, hat in hand, hoping to win our favor, saying softly: Please sir, may I have a word with you.” He comes to us as the Lord of History and makes His demand: Take up you cross and follow me.” He comes to us as one to be obeyed.
Dear Lord, so many times we want instant Christianity and instant discipleship, knowing all along that it really doesn’t work that way. We look around the sanctuary and the world at the people we know to be disciples and, when we get beneath their story, we find they have been tried and tested by a world of trouble. Their faith, discipleship, Christianity wasn’t instant… it was grown over years of service to other and time on their knees with you. Bring us along in our journey that we may also become disciples who are carriers of the cross. In and through Jesus. Amen.
Grace and Peace