Tomorrow I plan to record my final sermon as Pastor at Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship. On the one hand, I feel some pressure to put it all on the table, to preach a final epic sermon. On the other hand, the practice of our church has always been to simply and methodically preach through the Bible.
I had two series going, one through Jeremiah – which I concluded in September – and one through Mark – which I returned to last week. Then I preached on Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29) This week I preach on Jesus’ call to discipleship in Mark 8:34-38: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
And so I plan to simply exegete this text and not worry that this is a “last sermon” (at least in this particular role and context). And yet, if somehow I knew that this were my last sermon ever, the central message of the text comes close to what I would choose that final sermon to be: Follow Jesus, no matter the cost.
There’s a cost to following Jesus
Jesus sets the bar for discipleship high: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). Following Jesus requires radical self denial and cross-bearing. Commitment to him and to the gospel will cost us our very lives (8:35).
When we follow Jesus we follow the path he blazed for us. He described that path just a few verses earlier: “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” (8:31). Jesus’s journey involved suffering and death, so will the journey of his disciples. After all, “a servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted [Jesus], they will persecute [his disciples] also'” (John 15:20).
Jesus’ words proved literally true for his disciples. All of them were persecuted and, according to tradition, almost all of them were martyred. Peter was crucified upside down. Christians around the world continue to follow Jesus at the cost of their physical lives.
Every day examples
I will not likely experience that same fate and I don’t expect the members of Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship to either, but the principles of cross-bearing and self-denial are no less pertinent. Following Jesus still entails a death, of a sort. I see this in at least three areas: Our desires, our relationships, and our witness.
Our desires: As James K.A. Smith describes in “You Are What You Love“, to be human is to love. We are shaped by that which we desire. We were made to love, to long for, to delight in, and to desire some vision of the good life. However, because of our rebellion from God, our desires have become disordered and we seek what we desire in harmful and sinful ways.
Following Jesus requires us to align our loves, desires, and longings with his. To do that, we must simultaneously say “no” to our sinful and disordered desires. Paul describes our salvation in terms of the crucifixion of the old and sinful self.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin. Romans 6:5-6
Whereas Romans 6:5 describes something that has happened to us (we have been united with him), Galatians 5:24 expresses the same thing in more active terms: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
Self-denial and cross-bearing in this case means saying “no” to our sinful desires. It means saying no to a vision of freedom that says, “I can do whatever I want.” It means saying “no” to pursuing our vision of the good life through whatever means necessary.
Our relationships: Just as Paul applies the principle of self-denial to our desires in general, he applies it specifically to our life together in relationships with one another.
Consider Philippians 2:1-8. Speaking to the church Paul states “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” In doing so, we are following the example of Christ who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” In other words when, in relationships with others, we look to others interests instead of our own, we follow in the example of Christ, who died for the sake of others.
When we follow Jesus in this way we pay a high price. We give up our own self-interest and our own preferences for the sake of the community.
Paul makes a similar claim when he exhorts husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
Our Witness: This applications come right out of the text in Mark: “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” (8:38).
Jesus knew that his disciples would be shamed for associating with Jesus. This was not just a fear of physical harm, but the shame that comes from being ostracized from the group. This shame would have been intimately connected to the boldness of the Christian community to live out their lives in the public arena. Shame would have showed itself in Christians who either abandoned their faith or hid it from their Jewish and pagan neighbors.
Disciples of Jesus are called to be willing pay a social price for publicly following him. Even if that price does not result in physical harm or death, followers may yet experience a type of social death. He calls us to pay that price.
Follow Jesus, no matter the cost
The cost of following Jesus is high. You will need to say “no” to many of your desires. In groups you will need to be willing to give up what you want for the benefits of others. In your witness, you must be willing to be a social outcast and pariah. To be a Christian is to live a life of self-denial for the sake of Jesus and the gospel.
Yet, following Jesus is worth it. Jesus uses the language of commerce and unashamedly appeals to our self-interest.
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?Mark 8:35-37
He presents us with two options: You can either try to save your life, or you can give it up. If you try to save your life – if you stubbornly hold onto your desires, your rights in the community, your favorable social standing – then you will lose the life that is truly life. You will forfeit that which is of greatest value: Your soul.
But, if you give up your life for Jesus and the gospel, and if you are willing to pay the price, then you are trading up. Your life – your soul – will be saved. Instead of experience the shame of the rejection of the Son of Man (8:38) you will be welcomed into the presence of God with the words “well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23)
Whereas discipleship involves the cost of identifying with Jesus in his death, it also involves the reward of experiencing the joy of the resurrection. This frees us from the power of sin and the fear of man and fills us with eternal and abundant life.
I do not want anyone to confuse these words with works-based salvation. We do not buy our soul through self-denial. We receive salvation by faith alone through Jesus’s death by which he paid the debt of our sin and through his resurrection through which he gives us eternal life. Jesus’s self-denial and cross-bearing are salvific. Ours is not.
Yet, we too often separate salvation and discipleship in a way that the Bible does not. To freely receive salvation means to become a follower of Jesus. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot become a follower of Jesus without humbling yourself to the point of saying “I have absolutely nothing I can offer, I desperately need your salvation Jesus!” And, you cannot have receive his free grace without also saying, “I will pay the price to follow you.” That we daily fail in this resolve does not mean that such a resolve is any less a part of following our Lord.
Follow Jesus, no matter the cost. The trade – this costly grace (to borrow a term from Bonhoeffer) is worth it, a thousand times over. I will conclude with a quote from “The Cost of Discipleship”
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, it it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner… Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship