Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me….” –Mark 8:34
Just over a week ago, on Ash Wednesday, we had the sign of the cross placed on our foreheads by someone else, and we then wore that sign of shame and mortality into a world that denies the very existence of both shame and mortality—and if you don’t believe we have lost our sense of shame, you haven’t stared slack-jawed at an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians or Judge Judy as people parade their worst versions of themselves on TV simply so they can say they’ve been on TV. In fact, the amount of time the Kardashians spend obsessing about perceived flaws in their appearances is also wrapped up in our culture’s denial of mortality, as well.
Another thing we have turned into an article of faith in our society is our lack of obligations to others. This has been especially pronounced in the last few years, especially in American political discourse: the same people who used to tip their hats and say, “Much obliged,” now would sooner chop their right arms off than acknowledge that they have an obligation to anyone but themselves. And yet the more they isolate themselves from their neighbors, the more vulnerable they feel. And rightly so.
The time in which Paul and Jesus lived was a time in which the vast majority of people in the Roman Empire lived in abject, crushing poverty. Scarcity and want were real and pressing concerns. And the thing about living in a scarcity mindset is that it heightens one’s sense of disconnection and competition against one’s neighbor.
Being willing to appear weak in front of others has NEVER really been considered to be a desirable situation, whether in first century Palestine with its rigid cultural and honor barriers, or in 21st century America. We live in a culture awash in “rugged individualism,” in which any need for someone else is portrayed in the public American ethos as a failure. And ironically, the same people who extol individualism fear the power of the community even while they decry the loss of those “good, old-fashioned American values” that supposedly existed somewhere back in the mists of time, but in actuality have NEVER provided equal benefits for all people.
Remember that each of the Gospels was written for a particular community of Christians. The community for which Mark writes is undergoing persecution itself at the time that the gospels being written. Thus, in a way, these are words of comfort for them, because it lets them know that their suffering was foreordained by the words of Jesus himself. It reminds then that their suffering was shared by Jesus.
However, it doesn’t just go to suffering. The core of discipleship is self-denial. It is at this point especially that Jesus makes it quite clear that the gospel is certainly counter-cultural. However, one could take “losing your life” more than one way. Losing your life can also be seen as shedding the old way of living that was in harmony with the values of the world.
The cross in Jesus’s time was shameful, yet for us it is a sign of faith and hope—and so it is important to remember how shocking and brutal the cross was as a symbol but more importantly as an instrument of execution. If we remember that, it is indeed shocking that we now regularly make the sign of the cross over ourselves as we are blessed or absolved. The cross itself was not then a sign of hope, but a sign of shame.
From our side of history, we know that the cross led also to the resurrection. What if we understood that denying ourselves and taking up our cross is meant to remind us that we are called as Christians into obligation with each other, in the name of God? We are called to love each other, be compassionate toward each other, and take care of each other in faithfulness, in good times and bad. What if denying yourself and taking up your cross was understood as giving up something you have a right to, if that would spare someone else pain or suffering? What if denying ourselves and taking up our cross means that instead of using people and loving things, as so much of society tells us to do, we loved people and used things to help us accomplish that?
We are indeed, much obliged to God, and to each other. What if denying yourself actually means being true to what makes us children of God, made in God’s image—that we are called together to live in community, loving our neighbors as ourselves and not trying to draw lines about who are neighbors are, and who are neighbors aren’t. What if it means putting down our solipsism and the fear and anxiety that generates, and instead embrace the beauty of community, held together by love and the hope that gives us the endurance we need for times such as these?
What if we understood what Jesus is saying here as “Take up your love and hope, and follow me in truly loving each other?”
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.