Pastor Brent challenges the conventional wisdom of the day that says you do you by examining what it really means to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.
What do you prefer? Let’s learn a bit about you based on your brand preference:
Zoom or MS Teams? This is the ultimate COVID option.
Coke or Pepsi? The original question.
Casey’s or Kim & Go? What about breakfast pizza?
Levi’s or Wranglers?
iPhone or the other device?
Walmart or Target?
Facebook or Snapchat?
Jesus or Jesus? Jesus that looks like you, or Jesus that looks like the one we see in the Gospels?
Growing up, there were a few ways that companies might use to win you over to their product or at least get you to try to use what they were selling. Today we have social media influencers. Influencers – people who have a large social media following who are paid to endorse particular products or services.
I’ve seen the power of influencers when one of my children made a college selection based on where two influencers he or she followed attended. It didn’t matter how far away the college was or how much it would cost to attend.
Those behind the programming of our social media accounts study us and know what we like or, more importantly, what they would like you to like. And the reason this is important, well there are many reasons, but the one we want to look at today is how if we aren’t careful, Jesus can become just another brand competing for our attention.
In his book “Faith for Exiles,” authors David Kinnaman & Mark Matlock introduce the idea of Brand Jesus, an image of Jesus that fits neatly into our current perspective, never challenges our thoughts, beliefs, or lifestyles, and doesn’t ask too much of us.
It’s when our faith becomes “Me” centered. We hear this expressed in expressions like, “You do you,” or “Speak your truth.” Jesus is just one of the many “influencers” in our life. And often, what we try to do is pick and chose the items Jesus is selling that we like, leaving the other things behind.
Today, I want to push back against the very self-focused, me-centric, speak my truth, what makes me happy, look inside to become the best version of me I can be culture, and discover what life can be when we go Beyond Me.
Who Goes Around Who?
To be fair, the me-centric framework seems to come very naturally to us. You only have to parent a toddler to know this is true. Ok, or parent an elementary-age kid or a teenager. No one has to teach us to assume or desire the world to revolve around me.
It’s kind of like geocentrism, the idea that the sun, moon, and stars all orbit the earth because the earth was the center of the universe. This was accepted science until the 1500’s when Nicolas Copernicus first challenged it. A century later, Galileo supported it and had to go before the Roman Inquisition for charges of heresy, where he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was placed under indefinite house arrest until his death.
We become the center of our universe and everyone else, including Jesus, orbiting around me, my agenda, my desires.
And this isn’t an easy conversation to have because I believe it is something we all struggle with. After all, it is reinforced around us, and we believe that it is the way to fulfillment, satisfaction, purpose, and identity.
But as with many things Jesus said and did, he calls us to a different way. A paradoxical way, if you will. He says that if we buy into this idea of a me-centric universe, it won’t get us where we think it will. It won’t achieve the fulfillment and life we think it will bring, even though it may seem like the good and right way to get there.
In three of the four gospels, we see an interaction between Jesus and his disciples and the crowd who had been following him around. Jesus is just beginning to tell them that he is going to die. They don’t quite understand, and Jesus calls everyone around to tell them what it looks like to really be a Jesus follower.
Let’s look at Mark’s telling of the story. Read Mark 8:31-37:
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
34 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. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
It is so fascinating to see this in the context of all that is happening. If you go back a few verses, you find Peter declaring Jesus is the Messiah, an amazing declaration that Jesus says Peter received from God. Then immediately, you see Jesus saying he’s going to die and Peter taking him aside to say, “Now hold on a second, Jesus. Let’s talk about this. We’ve got momentum. Look at these crowds. You’ve been talking about a new kingdom. It’s time for us to storm Jerusalem, take back our country, and send these dirty Romans packing.” That’s the BIV, Brent International Version.
And in his response, we see Jesus call Peter Satan and make a bold statement we need to consider for ourselves today.
Again and again, Jesus highlights for us the differences between what we think is good, right, and will bring about the world we want, and what he says is good right and will bring about the Kingdom of God.
It’s what concerns God versus what concerns us. And sometimes, these two things don’t align. Shocking! And Jesus uses this as a teaching moment for everyone around to hear.
He lays out what a disciple of his looks like. Of course, to understand what he’s talking about, we need to know what a disciple is. We could say student or learner.
A disciple in the first century would follow a teacher or rabbi around. They would give up their lives to be with them, watch them, model their life after them. They picked up the message, the values, the life of the teacher because they were with them all the time.
So Jesus is saying if you want to learn from me, to live as I lived, here’s what you have to do. And hang on because these aren’t easy.
First, he says you must deny yourself. There’s a popular sentiment. Other ways to say this, forget yourself, renounce yourself, disregard, or pay no attention to yourself. This doesn’t imply self-abuse or a lack of self-esteem. In fact, it is easier to deny yourself WHEN you know who you are and who God says you are and that you don’t have anything to prove.
What I want, what I desire, how I think the world should be, how I engage with the world all get thrown out to make room for putting God, his Kingdom, and his priorities first.
And before you think I’ve done that. Take a look at your life. This can’t just be lip service. And it can’t just be in one area. Jesus isn’t our part-time influencer or extracurricular activity.
We can’t say I am about the justice and reconciliation of Jesus and then live the rest of your life how you want to, ignoring God’s call to holiness. And you can’t say you’re about the truth and righteousness of God and think that violence and a lack of love are also following Jesus.
Self-denial means a reorientation of priorities, putting off greed, and pride, comfort, and even security, our desire for revenge, or our plans.
And self-denial is a high standard already, but Jesus keeps going and adds to it take up your cross. The disciples knew what this meant. They knew it wasn’t a pretty piece of jewelry they wore around their necks. They walked by the crosses and saw the bodies of those who had been executed by the Roman government.
The cross meant suffering -humiliation -struggle -and death. They would see Jesus literally take up his cross upon his battered and shredded back and try to carry it outside the city to Golgotha where he would be stretched out upon that beam, spikes driven through his hands into that beam and then lifted up naked for all the world to spit at, gawk at, mock at until he breathed his last breath.
Jesus says we must pick up THAT cross. One thing I read this week said, “Disciples must do more than survey the wondrous cross, glory in the cross, and love the old rugged cross as hymns have it. Disciples must become like Jesus in obedience and live the cross.”
And both of these, denying self and taking up the cross, are more about who you are at your core than what you do. These aren’t referring just to how you handle your money or view your job. There is a call to die to yourself, not just what you want or desire, your actual self.
As people followed Jesus around, saw the incredible miracles he did, like feeding the 5,000, casting out demons, they were drawn to the show. They wanted Jesus Copperfield, the magician. But Jesus at this moment is calling them to more. To show what real following, what real disciples look like.
The last part of what Jesus said seems like the easier part…follow me. Until you look at the Greek verbs used in this to see that the first two verbs, deny and take up, are what’s known as aorist tense, which means that something has happened in the past. The next verb, follow, is in the present, meaning that the third isn’t happening unless we have done the first two.
We can think we are following Jesus, we can do all sorts of good things, we can learn all we can learn, but unless we have denied ourselves and taken up our cross, we aren’t really following Jesus. We are just following our own version or brand of Jesus.
What does following Jesus look like? Here are a few things to consider. It is beyond the classroom.
Following Jesus isn’t just something that we think about or study. It’s something we live out. Jesus doesn’t invite people to believe things or even know things. He invited people to follow him.
Sometimes we think I know what I will do. I will memorize this verse. I’ll study it word for word, breaking it down into its grammatical structure, find something cool in the Greek, dissect it from every angle. Jesus isn’t asking you to do that. He’s asking you to live it.
The classroom isn’t wrong but can become a problem if we stay there. It is impossible to walk following Jesus with a desk wrapped around your waist.
Following Jesus is also living counter-culturally. This is not the same as waging a culture war. There is a vast difference between living at war with the culture and living differently from the culture or counter-culturally.
Somewhere along the way, Christians decided it would be best if everyone acted just like them. I think if we could get those claiming to be Christians to look like Jesus, we would change the world. We cannot expect those who don’t follow Jesus to live like Jesus.
And in the same way, not everything done is an insult to your faith. Can we please move beyond the offense of Starbucks putting Happy Holidays on their Christmas cups as them trying to shut down Christmas?
Live counter-culturally. Fight against greed and pride, and selfishness, and me, me me. Lean into those things that Jesus leaned into -setting captives free -lifting up the oppressed -healing the sick -looking after orphans and widows.
Following is also more than do-goodism. It’s not just about the world’s social issues, although some of us need to lean into these because Jesus did. But that can’t be the end. As much as Jesus did for others, he also addressed the spiritual need they had. Repeatedly when Jesus healed, he also forgave sin. He restored them spiritually and removed the religious barriers that kept them from the one who created them for relationship. Who loved them enough to die for them.
We can be drawn to two opposite positions in our country, both claiming Jesus on their side. The right claims Jesus of holiness and truth and sees a battle forming that we must fight. To that, Jesus says, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.
The left sees the value of social justice but forgets we are more than the actions we do. We are spiritual beings, and unless we also address the spiritual side of things as we address the physical, we are putting a fresh coat of paint on a crumbling structure. To this, Jesus says, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.
The interesting thing is that both of these positions have created a Jesus in their own image. One that agrees with them on everything. And once we have that Jesus, we are no longer following the real Jesus.
As I heard it said this week, there is something wrong with your prayer life, Bible study, and listening to the Spirit of God can only agree with you. What if God has something he wants to say to you, but you can’t hear it because it is outside the image of the Jesus you’re following?
The interesting this is that this entire idea is a paradox. We think we have to give up our lives, and Jesus says that is precisely where we will find life. Going Beyond Me, through self-denial, taking up the cross, and following Jesus is where we experience a radical transformation.