It all comes down to love.
When I read, “Deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23),” I hear something quite different than most folks. (Are you surprised? I do walk to the beat of a different drummer.)
Most folks hear Jesus saying, “Yes, following me will be a huge burden; it will involve suffering. It will involve giving up many things. It may involve walking away from friends and family. It definitely includes telling people about me. Only the fittest will survive this journey. So pick up that cross and follow me!”
I am certain from this point of view comes the fear of displeasing God, of losing his love, of losing salvation. From this point of view comes the fear of not being fit, not fitting in, not performing up to snuff, not gaining entrance to heaven. But we were not meant to fear; we were meant to abide in God’s love so we do not fear. The apostle John writes, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18)
Why else would Jesus say, “I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. These things I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:9-11)
The cross was a horrific image to first century listeners. Today, it would be analogous to an electric chair or a hanging noose. If we are to follow the words and actions of Jesus, we must remember he did not carry his cross alone. Simon of Cyrene helped him on that long walk to Golgotha. (Matthew 27:32) And just as Jesus cast his burden onto Simon and permitted him to assist, Jesus tells us to cast our burdens onto him, and exchange them for his singular burden.
“Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30 emphasis mine)
Based on his words and actions, when I read those words, “Deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow me,” I hear Jesus saying, “Look, it doesn’t matter what your personal prejudices or agendas are; that’s your cross to bear. My commands (the ones I gave to all people in all places for all times) are paramount; they are fundamental, and central to my Gospel. If you want that cross to keep weighing you down, fine. But if you want to follow me, I tell you here and now, my burden is far lighter. My burden is love. Love God and your neighbors. Love each other as I have loved you.
“Yes, make disciples; that is, make people feel safe and loved. Tell people the truth of the Good News, that they are invited into the family of God right now, just as they are. Then help them in their journey to accept the Father’s unconditional love and grace. Are you courageous enough to do this, to take up my burden and walk with me?”
When Jesus said, “Follow me,” he expected us to follow his commands. But which commands? Some of his commands were for a specific time and place (like telling the rich young ruler to give up his possessions), but others, based on Hebrew grammar, were universal:
Jesus answered him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and most important commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)
“I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way that I have loved you.” (John 13:34)
“Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)
“Teach these new disciples to obey all these commands (Yep, these four – five including this one!) I have given you.” (Matthew 29:20)
So, based on these commands, are you ready to follow him?
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves his children, too. We know we love God’s children when we love God and obey his commandments. Loving God means keeping his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And the victory that has overcome the world is our faith. (1 John 5:1-4 emphasis mine)