“Take Up Your Cross And Follow Me”
34 When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 35 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? 37 Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
There are basically two kinds of sermons on the Christian life. The first type of sermon views the Christian life as a kind of puzzle to be solved, with the message going something like this… Life is full of hardships, and frustrations, and obstacles. But if you do this one thing, if you understand this “one trick” (whatever that may be), then you can unlock the secret to living a victorious Christian life. That secret may be any number of things… prayer, offerings, fasting, or regular devotions, or Bible reading, or “name it and claim it”, but the gist of this kind of sermon is that once you put into practice whatever it is that’s being promoted on that particular Sunday, your life as a follower of Jesus Christ will be simpler, and easier, and more fulfilling.
Obstacles will fall away. Frustrations will vanish. The life of faith will be transformed into a daily adventure filled with joy and delight. I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea. The theme of this kind of sermon is that if your life as a Christian is hard, or frustrating, or less than fulfilling, then you’re doing it wrong. That’s the first kind of sermon on the Christian life. And It’s very popular.
The second kind of sermon is different. This kind of sermon says that life isn’t hard because you’re doing it wrong. Life has been hard ever since Adam and Eve bit into that fruit. Our lives on this earth are often painful and disappointing. We go through times when just making it through the day requires all of our willpower, and joy is hard to come by. Things often don’t work the way they should. People don’t keep their promises. The promotion you worked for never comes. The lab results come back and they’re not good. Your family is in conflict. Or maybe nothing’s really that bad, but you just feel vaguely dissatisfied, and impatient for something better. And that’s life.
But this life isn’t the whole story. In fact, it isn’t even most of the story. There is much more to come, an eternity to come. And in the meantime, our faith can help to sustain us in a world that ranges from very bad, to not so great… to just OK, to pretty good. In the end, if we continue to trust God, and listen, and follow, we will find that it was all worth it. That’s the hope and the promise.
Every choice to continue believing, every choice to continue obeying, every choice to continue persevering in the midst of whatever circumstances we find ourselves, in the midst of whatever mental and emotional state we find ourselves in – every act of faithfulness will be rewarded. And someday not so far from now we will look back on all of this, all the toil, and suffering, and heartache, mixed with joy, and gladness, and times of refreshment, and we will testify that it was all worth it, every bit of it. The good and the bad, the happy and the sad.
Please don’t misunderstand me. There is real value in things like prayer, offerings, regular devotions, and Bible reading. Our faith does bring a measure of joy and peace. Christianity does relieve us of many burdens, burdens that God never intended us to bear. The burden of guilt. The burden of shame. The burden of fear of death. The burden of thinking that we have to earn God’s acceptance by doing good things, and thinking good thoughts, and saying good words – which often translates into trying to please all the people around us, an effort which is doomed to fail.
Faith in Christ does relieve us of many burdens. There are real benefits in this life to following Christ. But we can’t escape the fact that following Christ means following Him in a journey to the cross.
From our opening text. Are you trying to hold on to your life, to keep it? Are you trying to save your life? You might say, well of course I am! But Jesus says that if you are holding tightly onto all the things that the world thinks of as “life,” then you will lose your life. Why? Because you will be unwilling to let go of those things in order to embrace Christ.
You see, we can’t do both. We can’t live for this world and also live for Christ, we can’t seek first what this world offers and also seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, we can’t live as if this life is all there is, and then…gain entry into the next one. We really can’t. We have to choose. And what Jesus is telling us is that when we extend our hand to grasp the life to come, then by necessity…we will also be releasing our grasp on this one.
What does it mean to “lose your life” for the sake of Christ? Jesus says that we must “take up our cross” in order to follow Him. What does that mean? Roman executioners would sometimes require a condemned man to shoulder his own cross, and to carry it to the place of execution where he would be nailed to it, and crucified. That is exactly what they did to Jesus. The cross, then, was a symbol of death. Verse 34 explains the metaphor… “34 When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” Losing our life for Christ, then, means choosing to deny ourselves, relinquishing things that we could legitimately claim and hold on to, things that the world around us considers to be the essence of life.
It means, for example, yielding our right to do we you please with our time. Benjamin Franklin, in his Poor Richard’s Almanak, wrote, “Do you love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of”. Ben was right. Time is life. And so “losing” our life means giving up the right to set our own priorities, and instead ordering our days and years according to God’s priorities. Being willing to relinquish our goals. Accepting the loss of opportunities for personal advancement.
Notice I’m not saying we should have no priorities or goals, no hopes for achievement. I’m not saying we shouldn’t invest in a career, or that we shouldn’t engage in secular pursuits. What I’m saying is that we hold those things with an open hand, so that if called upon to give them up, if presented with a choice between following God and following our goals, we let the goals die.
Sometimes God endorses our passions, sometimes God rewards our pursuits. But we need to be willing to accept the death of those dreams when God has other plans for us. That’s part of what it means to “lose your life” for the sake of Christ and the gospel. It means first of all investing our time…our hours and days, our weeks, and months, and years…as God would have us to do. And it means accepting that even when we have been pursuing what seemed to us to be godly and faithful goals, God may have other plans. Our time, and our lives, belong to Him. “Man proposes, but God disposes”.
Let’s pause for reflection. How do we view our time? Do we view it, first of all, as “our” time, to use however we wish? Or do we view it as belonging to God, to be used as He wishes? Let me give you a scenario. You’ve worked all week. You have a demanding job. Maybe you have children who need to be cared for, helped with homework, driven to soccer practice, Maybe you have older parents who need help and support. Church commitments. A house and yard to take care of. Bills to pay. Etcetera, etcetera. But you’ve managed to carve out a precious couple of hours on Sunday afternoon to relax and watch a game on television or whatever it is that you planned. And just as you’re sitting down on the couch with some chips and a cold beverage, you get a call. Someone in your life is hurting. They’re dealing with an issue. They need someone to talk to.
You know what it feels like to say “yes” to that request? It feels like something is dying. It’s the death of your beautiful vision for how you were going to spend the next two hours. The death of that brief opportunity to relax and kick back. It doesn’t feel joyful. That’s the thing about death. It feels like dying! It doesn’t feel good. It feels bad.
It feels like disappointment, and loss, and seeing something you were counting on, and looking forward to, slip through your fingers. And that’s the kind of choice we are faced with every day. Live for ourselves, protect what is ours, hold onto the things we want and feel we need, no matter what. Or be willing let them go. That’s what it means to lose our life for Christ, and in so doing, to save it.
Dying to self also means yielding your right to do as you please with your possessions. But someone might object, shouldn’t we work, and study, and strive to better ourselves and improve our circumstances? Of course! Paul instructs us in this way…
28 Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.
1 Timothy 5:8
8 But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
14 Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive lives.
Yes, God wants us to work, and to be productive, and to earn a living, so that we can provide for our own needs, and the needs of our families, and so that we can help those in need. At the same time, despite that fact that we worked to earn what we have, we should not regard it as belonging to us, but to God!
Think about it. What happens when we die? We lose all of our possessions. We lose all of our rights. After the funeral, our family members gather together in the lawyer’s office for the reading of the will, and everything we own will be divided up among our heirs. Our bank accounts, our house, our car… all of those things will be given to someone else or sold to the highest bidder and the proceeds distributed. What about our rights? We have no rights. We’re dead.
What Paul is telling us in these passages is that in order to follow Christ, we need to live as though that had already happened, as if we had already departed from this life, and had therefore lost everything. Listen to what he writes in Philippians 3:7-8
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ
What rights do we have? Do we have a right to be free from danger? Free from suffering? Free from false accusations? Free from mistreatment? Free from false imprisonment? God may call us to relinquish those rights for the sake of Christ. Even today, He is calling on Christians in many parts of the world to suffer the loss of those rights.
And so, let me ask you again… are we holding on to our life with a clenched fist, with an iron grip? Are we holding on to our time, and our possessions, and your freedom, our privileges, and our plans? Or… are we holding them with an open hand, offering them up to God to do with as He wills? Remember what Jesus taught us…
35 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.
Let’s be specific. Is there something that God has been calling you to give up for the sake of Christ and the gospel, something that you have been unwilling to let go of? Is there some right that God has been calling you to relinquish in order to advance his kingdom? Perhaps a right to safety and security, or a right to be well thought of, or a right to be untroubled by other people’s problems.
Perhaps it’s simply a right to have a peaceful life free from worry, or a right to protect what you’ve worked so hard to acquire. Do any of those resonate with you? What Christ is telling us is that the more we try to hold on to those things with a clenched fist, the more our lives will squeeze through our fingers and ultimately be lost. If we serve ourselves and our own lives only, we will in the end lose everything, we will lose ourselves and will be lost forever. I pray none of us will suffer that loss.
But there is more to Christ’s words here than just a warning. There’s also a promise. Let’s read it…
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves Me must follow Me; and where I am, My servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves Me.
What I want to tell you this afternoon is that our life can be that grain of wheat, that kernel of corn. Our life can have a positive influence on the world, that is a huge multiple of what we could ever accomplish by serving only ourselves. We can produce “many” seeds. But there’s just one catch. We have to die.
We have to give up our claim to our own life and to all of the things that comprise it, our time, our possessions, our plans, our rights. Are we still willing to do that? Are we willing for God to use our life in ways we never could have imagined? He can and He will. But in order for Him to do that, we have to relinquish our “ownership” over our life and turn it over to Him to use as He sees fit. And at times that’s not pleasant. Again, it’s hard. It feels like dying. It feels like losing, or risking the loss, of everything we have and everything we hope for.
But in reality, it’s just the opposite. It’s not losing everything, it’s gaining Christ, who is worth far more than everything in this world put together, it’s gaining eternal life. Will we decide, today and every day, to do that? Are we, as Paul wrote in Philippians, willing to suffer the loss of everything because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus?
When Jesus calls on us to give up our lives, to lose them for His sake and for the gospel, He is calling us to follow His example. He is calling us to do what He has already done, to follow the path He already laid out. He gave His life for us, He sacrificed everything in order that we might have forgiveness of sins and have eternal life.
In giving His life, Christ purchased eternal life for us. Like a seed falling to ground and dying, His death resulted in untold millions of souls being saved. But God did not permit His death to be final. God raised Him from the grave and exalted Him to the highest place in heaven.
In the same way, God will raise to eternal life and everlasting honor those who relinquish their claim on their own lives in this world in order to gain Christ. Will you choose today to be among them?
Pastor Richard Santos
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