“27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:27-38 (Esv)
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
These are the words of Jesus right after he gets done rebuking Peter, calling him Satan and telling him that he has in his mind the things of man, not the things of God. They were harsh words. And they are hard words to hear. They don’t quite make sense to us.
What does this mean, to pick up your cross and follow Jesus, to save your life by losing it?
Peter is having a hard time swallowing the cross. He just confessed Jesus to be the Christ. It is a confession of profound hope and optimism. He knows Jesus has caused a bit of a stir. He knows that Jesus has made his enemies in the world and that people are plotting to kill him in Jerusalem and if Jesus is a mere man it is only a matter of time before they catch up to him. The disciples follow him at great risk to their own well-being. But it is a risk they are willing to take, because they believe he is the Christ, the Messiah.
And for them, this entails the dream of Shangri-la. For them this is the fruition of the Jewish myths that Paul warns Titus about, the type of malarkey you find in the “Left Behind” series, Premillenialism and post millennialism the promise of a golden millennium. It was that sort of fantasy, that has ever plagued the church with fanciful readings of Revelation that whole heartedly ignore the rest of the Bible, or cherry pick and force read it to comply, that caused most of Israel to miss their messiah when he came. Glory and victory factored in to the concept of the messiah, a golden age of government, and peace, that would make David’s reign on earth pale in comparison. These things factored in. Victory over the enemies of Israel as a nation, the vanquishing of the Romans, these things factored in to their concept of a Messiah. Defeat, the cross, betrayal and death did not.
But the minute Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, Jesus begins speaking of his defeat, his betrayal, his death. At least, this is the way the disciples would hear it. Three days and he would rise again? This didn’t make sense to them. What they heard is Jesus predicting his own death. A death they knew could be avoided. A death they didn’t think was necessary because they didn’t quite grasp the nature of the problem Jesus came to recon with. But the death of Jesus would not be defeat but victory.
Pick up your cross and follow me, he tells the disciples. And to follow Jesus is to do just that. To accept his forgiveness and grace is to forsake your own attempts at keeping the law, and to die to yourself. To follow Jesus means to put your life at risk for all the attacks of the devil. “It is enough for a student to be like his teacher.” To follow Christ is to invite the ridicule with which the world reviled our Lord. It is to lose your life in him. It is this that happened in Baptism, when you were buried into his death. It is this that happened in baptism when you were raised to walk in the newness of life. Now you have lost the life of the old way, the life of the law constantly trying to keep a ledger of good works vrs. Sin. Constantly trying to preserve your dignity, your ability to stand before God on account of your own righteousness, to pull yourself up by your own boot straps. To secure your own place. No, that life is gone. Now you have the righteousness of Christ, the righteousness that comes through death and dying to this world and it’s ways of righteousness. A righteousness that comes with humility, and the indignity of accepting charity, of realizing that when it comes to the righteousness of God, your only option is that of a beggar. And to our Old Adam this comes as a cross. But in the cross there is victory because our Lord rose again on the third day, and we now walk in the newness of life, righteous and having salvation.