Scripture: Mark 8:27-9:1
Key verse: (34) “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Reflection: “Leadership is essentially about self.” That’s how the teacher at the first family systems class I ever attended began his opening lecture. I thought, “That’s the most un-Christian thing I’ve ever heard! At the heart of our faith is Christ’s call to deny ourselves and take up the cross. How can any Christian leader accept that statement?” I came to understand that he was not advocating a narcissistic leadership model, but rather encouraging deeper self-understanding on the part of leaders — clarity of vision and self-definition, capacity to connect with others, and an ability to regulate one’s own anxiety in the leadership role. Family systems theory calls this “self-differentiation.”
Our reading for today comes from the conclusion of the first half of Mark’s gospel. It is a self-defining moment. In vv. 27-30, Jesus asks the disciples about the public opinion polls, asking them, “Who do people say I am?” Then he moves them toward self-differentiation, asking, “Who do YOU say I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” It’s a powerful moment of self-definition for him. Jesus then goes on to explain what that means in the first of three predictions of his coming death and resurrection. It’s a moment of self-definition for Jesus. This causes Peter great anxiety. Failing to regulate that anxiety, he rebukes the one he has just proclaimed to be the Messiah. Jesus equates his anxious rebuke to satanic motives.
Then Jesus sets the terms of discipleship. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It’s always been interesting that John 3:16 became the central passage for many Christians, and not Mark 8:24, (or Matthew 16:24, or Luke 9:23 which say the same thing.) It’s no secret why. John 3:16 is about self-preservation. Mark 8:24 is about self-denial and taking up the cross. How are we to understand Christ’s call to deny ourselves and take up the cross?
Throughout history, this passage has been misused to tell women in abusive relationships that their call was to deny themselves, that their abuse was “their cross to bear.” I find that completely repugnant. Given Christ’s command to love one another, that’s completely inconsistent with the gospel. So what does Jesus mean by self-denial? Does he mean we are to be the doormats of the world, constantly ignoring our own needs in favor of others, putting ourselves last and giving everything we have to everyone else, leaving nothing for ourselves? Is this the life of discipleship? I think not. More often, that becomes the life of enabling everyone around you not to take responsibility for their own lives, leaving you completely empty. So what does Jesus mean?
I asked that family systems coach this very question. After a back and forth intended to get me to answer that for myself we arrived at a conclusion that self-denial for a Christian was about refusing to impose ourselves — our will, our wants, our demands on others, but rather answering our call — taking up our cross, and following Jesus. While taking up the cross is about living out our love for one another and for the world, living out that love does not mean imposing our will on another. When we can “stay in our own skin,” deny imposing ourselves on others, then we live into who we are called to be, and in the process encourage others to do the same. Reading the gospels, I see Jesus do this all the time. Perhaps his followers are called to do the same.
Who do you say Jesus is? How will you live in response to your answer?
Prayer: Grant me eyes to see myself clearly, O Lord; not only my need for your grace, but the gifts you give me by that grace, and the call you have for me in my life. Then grant me the courage to respond to that calling, to take up my cross and follow you in the way of self-offering love. Amen.
Author: Joe Clifford
[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].