Jesus 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. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Mark 8.34-38
On holiday this summer I gained a glimpse into a whole new world: the world of selfie-sticks. Everywhere I went people seemed to have these gadgets. They are short sticks on to which you clip a mobile phone so that you can take a photo of yourself. So many people had one that I began to wonder, “what’s wrong with me, am I the only person without one?” In one place a man arrived on a bike and – not possessing a selfie-stick – he tried to balance his mobile phone on a wall to take a photo of himself using the timer. But he couldn’t get it to balance properly and then he got cross when people kept walking between him and the phone as the timer ticked down. Call me old school, but I remember when you used to smile at a stranger, entrust them with your camera and ask them to take a photo of you!
The selfie-stick trend is symbolic of much wider trends taking place in our society. We are infatuated with technology and addicted to possessing the latest ‘must have’ gadget, until the next new thing comes out. We are also increasingly isolated, so that a stranger is increasingly regarded as an irritant (or even a threat) instead of a potential friend or helper. Most of all, our culture encourages us more than ever to place our ‘self’ centre stage. We are all celebrities who deserve to be the centre of attention. The world as we see it is a big and important world (never mind that we share the planet with 7 billion others who each see the world in their own unique way).
Twelve years ago, I went on holiday over New Year and met a man who had invented a slogan to guide him through the coming year: “2003 – it’s all about me!” More and more people seem to be living by this advice. Perhaps our slogan for this year should be “2015 – it’s more about me than it’s ever been!”
It’s not just technology that encourages us to put self at the centre of our world. We are offered products, cars, clubs, clothes, holidays, houses, home furnishings and countless other things that we must have because they will make us feel better about our self.
Deep down we all recognise that at best these things offer only superficial change. They are skin deep and don’t really change our inner self. We long for something deep and satisfying to meet the needs of ourself. That’s why many of us come to church. But we must beware of shaping a skin deep church to match our skin deep culture. Martin Luther famously defined sin as “man turned in on himself”. In the light of this, consider the way we use the word ‘self’:-
Treat yourself. Indulge yourself. Pamper yourself. Be good to yourself. Protect yourself. Reinvent yourself. Rediscover yourself. Self-help. Build up your self esteem. There is even a magazine called SELF, whose leading article this week is ‘Look Taller and Feel Thinner in 5 moves’!
What does that even mean?
Into all this confusion we desperately need to hear the words that Jesus speaks: “Deny yourself”. In our culture, this is a deep revelation, a total revolution. A friend who is struggling with making a life-changing decision that will profoundly shape her family’s future recently confided, “My problem is that I keep forgetting it’s not all about me”. That is my problem too.
Jesus issues an invitation to all those who want to follow him (note that he is talking not just to his disciples but to the whole crowd). Incidentally it is an invitation that we in the church now extend to others on his behalf. The invitation is not to come to a church service. It is not to listen to some good advice. It is not to take up a new hobby. It is an invitation to a new way of life. The earliest Christians were described as ‘followers of the Way’ – it was clear that their whole way of life was determined by their faith. Ours should be too.
Think for a moment about your main goal in life. Is it to travel the world before you die? To be happy? For your family to be happy? Simply to be comfortable (whatever than means)? If you’re honest with yourself, is it to avoid pain and difficult situations? Is it to achieve as much as you can (to ‘make a name for your self’)? None of these things is intrinsically bad, but the problem is that they are all ultimately about Self. Jesus invites us to Deny our Self.
Of course none of us wants to do this. So Jesus follows that invitation with another: “to take up your cross“. After 2,000 years of religious iconography, it is easy for us to lose sight of the fact that this was an invitation to die. Someone seen carrying their cross on the way to their crucifixion would have been in the last moments of their life. Perhaps ‘take the walk to the electric chair’ would be a contemporary translation. The invitation is to put our Self to death – that is to say an uncompromising ‘No’ to all our selfish desires. At first this feels like crazy advice if we want a good life. It feels counter-intuitive that to deny ourself will lead to a good life. But we discover it is true.
Can you remember how it felt to take your foot off the bottom of the swimming pool for the first time? Or to climb on board your first flight on an aeroplane? Or to step onto a swaying rope bridge? You are not sure whether you will be safe if you trust your weight to something strange – but in fact it holds and you feel a sense of exhilaration. It is the same with following Jesus – as he goes on to explain: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” It sounds crazy. But it works. What feels at first like death actually leads to life. As Jim Eliot (an American missionary) put it: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”. It turns out that my life is not about what I want. It is about what God wants.
Deny … Die. And then what?
The third part of Jesus’ invitation is to “follow me”. Note that this invitation is in the present tense. He is not asking if you have decided in the past to follow him. It is a daily decision. A good marriage consists of the daily decision to follow the marriage vows and put the needs of the other before the needs of self. When one or both partners stop making this decision the relationship suffers. In the same way, the day we stop choosing to follow Jesus is the day we start to lose the life he alone can bring us. So don’t put it off until tomorrow!
Neither does following mean simply going the same way. We say that we are ‘following’ another car in heavy traffic, but in fact we are simply both going the same way. If the car in front turns off down a side road that doesn’t lead to my destination, I keep going straight. It turns out I’m not ‘following’ it at all. In the same way, lots of people who say they are following their leader (in politics, business, sport etc.) actually aren’t following them. The test is whether you continue to follow when the leader leads you somewhere you wouldn’t choose to go.
Jesus invites us to follow him – to be his disciple – in every part of our life. I’ve invented a word for this: to ‘disciplify’ our lives. This means to follow The Way in every part of our life. The problem many of us have is that we have some areas into which God is not allowed – work perhaps, or relationships, or ambitions, or money, or intellect, or freemasonry, or some other way we spend our time or money. This is a problem because God is too big to be fitted comfortably into one corner of our life. If he is to feature in our lives at all, He must be Lord of everything. If He’s not Lord of all, He’s not Lord at all!
Each of us therefore has to make an individual decision about whether we will ‘disciplify’ our lives. No one else can do it for us. We must decide alone. You must decide how to respond to Jesus in this, your one and only life. But although the decision is individual, the journey it leads us on is one we make together. We learn how to follow Jesus and to support one another as his family, the church.
This coming autumn we have designed a series of resources to help us on the journey. On October 10th we have a day long seminar on ‘Whole Life Discipleship’. We have planned a series of Sunday sermons on the topic. And there is a DVD based course for Discipleship Groups to study and discuss.
Or perhaps you’re not sure if you are ready to make that journey. Perhaps you want to consider first the implications of who Jesus is and what his message says to you. If so, please come on our Alpha Course running on Wednesday evenings from 30th September. Or perhaps you’re thinking, ‘this doesn’t sound very British – it’s all a bit excessive! I like my religion a bit less extreme’. The truth is there is no other form of Christianity. Jesus says whoever wants to follow me must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. And he also said that if we are ashamed of him and his words then one day – when we meet our maker – he will be ashamed of us.
Deny… Die… Disciplify. That is the invitation. Your life is not all about you. “Whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
Dave Bull, Team Rector
For this and many more stories about what is going on within our church, download your latest copy of The Bridge – the magazine of All Saints Marlow.