Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The Procession to Calvary (1602)

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The Procession to Calvary (1602)

Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples. ‘Who do people say that I am?’ They said in reply, ‘John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, ‘You are the Christ.’ Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him. He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.’ He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:27-35)

This is the second time in the gospels that Jesus has presented the call to discipleship in the terms of the cross ( Matthew 10:38-39), and it is clear in both cases that whatever reality this symbolism is meant to represent, it is not to be taken lightly. It is an abhorrent image suggesting a willingness to experience unfathomable and extreme humiliation out of our love and devotion to Jesus. If we do not wince or shift uncomfortably in our seats when we consider Jesus’ words here, chances are we have not considered them deeply enough.

Nevertheless, it is important not to lose sight of the fullness of what Jesus is saying, nor of how it fits within the larger context of his ministry. This very Lord who demands a willingness to endure sacrifice and humiliation for his sake, is the same one who promises us life (and abundant life at that!) through that death to self; it is the same Lord of whom it was said that he would neither break a bruised reed nor snuff out a smoldering wick (12:20), and who promised rest to the weary and heavy-laden (11:28).

These teachings are not contradictory, but complementary. The call to discipleship is not a call for us to embrace death for death’s sake. It is a call to fullness of life, healing and peace in Him that can only be experienced when those things that are opposed to that life have died within us—our fears, our self-seeking and selfish ambition, etc—for you cannot pour new wine into old wineskins.

Jesus cautions that those who refuse to follow this road of self-surrender by jealously guarding their lives will eventually lose their lives. It is easy to hear this as a threat—as if God would angrily snatch away the life of someone who did not simply obey his will—but history and literature reveal it to be rather a logical outworking. Think of Tolkein’s Smeagol (Gollum), whose very life is drained from him the more he is held captive by his obsession with the ring, or Ebenezer Scrooge who eventually becomes less than human the more he seeks material security to salve the emotional wounds of the past.

The only hope for life for them, us, and all those around us is to deny the power these things exercise in our lives by our willingness to take up our cross and follow Christ—to eschew self-protection, self-seeking and selfishness, etc—trusting that on the other side of that death is abundant life he came to offer us.

Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.