(This was the first meditation for the Lenten Service of Motets and Meditations March 16 and 18, 2018)
Matthew 16: 21-26
In Matthew’s Gospel chapter 16 and verses 21-26 we find these words:
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’ Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God but merely human concerns.’ Then Jesus said to his disciples, “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 will find it. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or, what can you give in exchange for your soul?”
In these powerful words from the lips of our Lord Jesus we learn what it means to be a true disciple of our Lord and live the ‘cruciformed’ life, the life shaped and molded by the cross. As our Lord sets his face to Jerusalem, knowing what fate awaits him there, he declares his mission is to suffer, to be killed, and to be raised to life. Peter strenuously objects and goes so far as to rebuke our Lord! “Get behind me, Satan!”, thunders Jesus. As the words of the Gyorgy Orban anthem proclaim, “The Demon sneaks expertly tempting the honorable heart: . . . However amiably the Demon acts, it is still worth less than the heart of Jesus.”
From this poignant exchange where the apostle Peter, under the influence of the Evil One, would divert Jesus from his mission, we learn of what true discipleship consists. Jesus turns to the rest of the disciples and portrays the essence of the cruciformed life with these key actions: (1) Deny yourself; (2) Take up your cross; (3) Follow him. Let us reflect briefly on each of these dimensions of the cruciformed life.
First, what does it mean to “deny yourself”? Put simply, it means to refuse to put one’s self-interest and personal ambition ahead of God’s redemptive purposes and revealed will. To deny oneself is to submit humbly my will to God’s will as Jesus did when he prayed in the garden and as he taught us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. To deny oneself is to seek first the character and qualities of Christlikeness regardless of the cost to ourselves.
Second, what does it mean to “take up your cross”? In the first century, crucifixion was one of the most feared forms of execution. It was used by the Romans as a strong deterrent against insurrection and rebellion. To the first century Jew, the cross was a horrid symbol of pain, shame, and death so it must have been a shocking statement to the disciples when Jesus uses the cross and the crucifixion as an image of discipleship. Although the image is often understood by modern society as bearing up under some personal hardship or difficulty, as used here by Jesus it is a radical call to die to one’s own will and embrace God’s will without any hesitation or reservation.
Third, we are to “Follow Him”. Following Jesus is synonymous with discipleship, and a disciple is a learner. It is a developmental pattern of life where we are more and more transformed and conformed to the image of Christ. Following Jesus is a journey toward Christian maturity where we are reconciled and restored in relationship to God, to ourselves, to our families, to our church, to our communities, and to the world. As we follow Jesus and learn of Him, we start to look more and more like him; and we look less like the world. In the words of the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, “We become like that at which we perpetually gaze.”
Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him. This is the call to the cruciformed life and Jesus tells us the result: we will find life, abundant life, the life for which he went to the cross and was gloriously resurrected. And we will gain our soul, in this world, and for all eternity.
The cruciformed life is wonderfully illustrated in the prayer of Saint Patrick which the Canto Deo chamber choir will later sing. I would call your attention to the words in the bulletin which I would invite you to recite with me now:
This is the cruciformed life. May God grant us grace to live it every day.
Dr. Keith Wells is the Chaplain for Canto Deo and also a Professor at Denver Seminary.