“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
I have read and preached on numerous occasions about Jesus’ invitation to cross-carrying discipleship. Yet when I recently wrestled with these words in the safe and comfortable confines of my local coffee shop, I paused. I have never been threatened with the fate of a cross. The ancient Roman symbol of criminality and treason has not been hoisted upon my shoulders or public record for any reason, let alone my faith. While I have faced a few inconveniences and made marginal life alterations based on personal convictions and matters of faith, I have done so at my own will. Even my choice to participate in occasional activism has been a free decision with minimal consequence. My story of discipleship encounters little resistance from outside authorities and is framed by privilege not persecution, which occasionally creates dissonance when I read Jesus’ words.
For most in the Western world, this is our story. We do well to acknowledge such positions of assumed comfort, especially as we pray for and become more aware of those for whom the cross is more than a devotional exercise but a daily burden carried as it intersects with the their race, orientation, economic class, the laws of the land, and encounters with oppressive systems in this nation and those abroad. Their voices and witnesses must be elevated as those most credible to speak to the depths of discipleship.
But my privilege is not the end of my struggle with Sunday’s gospel narrative. I also wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ invitation to the denial of ourselves as a prescriptive measure for discipleship.
Since the beginning of Lent, my newsfeeds have been dominated by stories of young people rallying around the country in light of the horrific events that unfolded on Ash Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They are calling attention to how, in light of yet another mass shooting that has claimed the lives of our youngest citizens, they are regularly denied the very protection and security of themselves. While adults spin wheels in partisan debates about gun laws and how to make their schools safe and secure versus domestic war zones, youth are taking to streets and microphones to demand immediate action that improves their condition and eases their plight right now. I lament that grown-ups have made it so youth feel the need to act as their own advocates, but I am grateful they are doing just that. They refuse to be denied themselves and their right to life. We would do well to join their cause.
The same could be said of those most marginalized by pervasive and systemic racism, women whose stories trended the #MeToo movement and underscored the reality of gender inequality, sexual harassment, and abuse, and others most susceptible to pipelines to prison that exploit young people of color in ghettoized communities that lack access to necessities like grocery stores, clean water, and quality education. Their very selves are being denied and their cries for a more just society frequently become exploited as pawns in abstract rhetorical games.
Again I hear Jesus and pause, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I then wonder, what does it mean to deny ourselves and follow Jesus when so many have had their selves denied not as a mark of discipleship but as victims of a broken, divisive, violent, and wounded world?
One answer may lie in our willingness to embrace the call of Christ to deny anything that isolates us from the concerns of or increases the risk of harm to our most vulnerable neighbors. Instead, we walk, possibly even march, alongside any and all whose selves are being denied. We do so no matter the cost to our personal well-being or the life of our institutions, preferring the divine thing of steadfast commitment to God’s concern for those on the margins over human things of privilege, power, insulated self-interest, and right to bear arms (Mark 8:33). This is the bedrock of Jesus’ words and witness that we are neither to be ashamed of nor deny in the midst of this “adulterous and sinful generation” (Mark 8:38).
Over the last three years of my call to serve alongside the faithful of this Presbytery of Philadelphia, I have been deeply moved by the cross-bearing, self-denying witnesses of our churches and related ministries. Congregations and worshipping communities have constructed T-Shirt memorials for victims of gun violence, attended judicial hearings for detained immigrants, provided hospitality for refugees, and written grants for mural projects created alongside artists previously incarcerated who work collectively towards restorative justice and the reform of the prison system. There are faithful saints who developed programs to provide nutrition for children in at-risk and neglected urban neighborhoods and other congregations partnered with local agencies to combat the opioid epidemic that continues to deny their neighbors wholeness and health. In all of these faithful expressions and more, isolated categories of conservative or progressive have been cast aside and minds set not on human things but the words of Christ, who was always on the side of the marginalized and oppressed.
As we continue to move through this Lenten journey, which began with an all-too-familiar reminder of the brokenness of the human and social condition, may we ponder what it means for us to deny ourselves for the sake of all those whose selves are being denied. May we continue to listen to the cries and concerns of our neighbors, especially the youngest disciples among us, in efforts to imagine how Jesus is inviting us to carry crosses either alongside or on their behalf. May we cling to and fix our minds on the words and witness of Christ versus any other human thing, to include partisan agendas. In so doing, may our discipleship begin to bear fruit of solidarity and hope in even the darkest and most despairing of places, no matter the cost.
*This post originally written for the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Artwork by Betsi Moise.