Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Today’s message is the second of two parts based on a pivotal conversation Jesus had with his first disciples.
It’s a conversation that began with a question – a question asked by Jesus.
After initially asking about the consensus opinion of the crowds as to his identity, Jesus pivots and asks his disciples,
But who do YOU say that I am?” – Luke 9:20
To be clear, this is not just ANY question; this is THE question all who encounter Jesus must answer – especially those who claim to follow him.
And as we learned last week, this is one of those questions for which a pat answer will not suffice.
A pat answer is a simple, default, perfunctory response that is said quickly and without any real thought.
All too often we rely on and repeat pat answers when it comes to proclaiming who Jesus is.
As Christians we can learn to be well practiced in parroting back what we’ve heard or learned from others – offering boiler plate responses dressed up in churchy language without ever speaking from any experience of living life with Jesus – in Christ.
We know the right thing to say about Jesus: Jesus is THE Messiah.
And yet, as professed followers of Jesus, we strain and struggle to articulate how exactly Jesus is MY Messiah.
Most Christians can declare Jesus is Lord and Savior because Jesus died on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins and then defeated death through his Resurrection and if we believe in Jesus, we will go to heaven when we die.
But such a declaration serves as nothing more than a pat answer as to the question of what the Gospel is, of who Jesus is, if we cannot express how Jesus is OUR Lord and Savior – specifically how Jesus reigns in our lives, particularly how Jesus saves us now from ourselves – reshaping our will, transforming our character, and changing how we think, speak, and act.
The only way we can fully come to know who Jesus is NOT by giving a pat answer to his question but through living the answer – by continuing to listen and learn by the Word and the Spirit – by unrelentingly following Jesus.
This brings us to today’s scripture – the rest of the conversation where Jesus lays out what it means, what it looks like to follow him. Let us listen attentively and carefully. (TEXT)
How are we to follow Jesus? What does it look like?
Some might answer this question this way – following Jesus looks like Read and study the Bible. Pray. Be a part of the Church.
Interestingly, being in the Word of God and praying to our Father are practices Jesus models for us – but doesn’t necessarily associate with following him.
In other words, these practices that orient, guide, and empower us in knowing the way, truth, and life of Jesus but they are not the defining characteristics of what it means to follow Christ.
And being a part of the Church is just another way of saying following Jesus alongside others who are likewise seeking to follow Jesus.
So again, what does it look like to follow Jesus?
Others might answer following Jesus looks like living according to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.
Love God by loving your neighbor as yourself. Tell others about Jesus. Serve others in the name of Jesus. Lead others to Jesus and make disciples – followers of Jesus.
And while this response is certainly on point, while these are specific and direct commands Jesus gave to those who would purpose to be his disciples, what is missing is exactly how we fulfill these commands.
In other words, how are we to love our neighbor as we love ourselves?
How are we to tell others about Jesus, to serve others in Jesus’ name, and ultimately point others not just to believe in but to pursue Christ with their whole lives?
Again, what does it look like to follow Jesus?
Here, Jesus tells us what it looks like – what Christlike love and service entails – what the shape of our witness to Jesus as our Messiah, as our Lord and Savior ought to look like.
The first thing following Jesus requires is denial of self.
“Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves…” – Luke 9:23
It is important that we understand what this means and what it does not.
The self-denial to which Jesus call us is not self-neglect or self-abuse.
Each one of us is uniquely, fearfully, and wonderfully made by our Creator.
Jesus is not calling for the eradication of our uniqueness – the squelching or throwing away of the callings, resources, and gifts, God has given to us.
Likewise, Jesus is not directing us to neglect our God-given feelings or to ignore particular sensitives and vulnerabilities we possess when it comes to entering into certain situations – environments that will be particularly toxic or unhealthy for us or harmful to others.
Biblical self-denial isn’t about beating ourselves up physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually – inflicting unnecessary self-harm all for the sake of proving our devotion to Christ.
The self-denial to which Jesus calls us is our ultimate reliance upon ourselves.
While we are not to deny who we are, this is not the same thing as acknowledging we are not all that we can be – all we were meant to become by God.
We live in a world, a creation that is beautiful and yet broken – not the way its supposed to be – because we, while beautifully made in the image of God – are broken – falsely believing and acting as if we are the lords and saviors of our ourselves.
But when each person lives and answers only for themselves, chaos and suffering result.
Inequity. Injustice. Poverty. Hunger. Violence. War.
Lives get built on the backs of others.
And the worth of another person fluctuates based on the perception of those in power.
Biblical self-denial is forsaking the myth that we can fix or save ourselves – that we have all need in our own logic and sense of righteousness – that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we are each the masters of our own destiny.
Biblical self-denial is the rejection of the lie of self-determination and self-reliance – that we live for, are responsible for only ourselves rather than together being each other’s brother and sister – and therefore each other’s keeper.
To deny ourselves as Jesus calls us to is to go beyond merely claiming Jesus’ death as the means of the forgiveness of our sins and ultimate salvation; it is to daily rely not on ourselves but on the grace given to us by Jesus – yielding to Christ’s ongoing work of the rehabilitation of our character and purposes – of saving us not just from sin but from ourselves.
It is surrendering our inclination towards self-centeredness and self-interest, and learning from Jesus how to notice and enter into the experience and needs of another person.
It is repenting of our singular fixation on self-indulgence and self-gratification and instead discovering thanks to Jesus, the greater joy and satisfaction of giving – the deeper and wider investment and cascading dividends of generosity and compassion that derive from a daily posture of self-discipline and self-sacrifice – of seeking the good of others.
This kind of self-denial does not come easy for us.
It goes against the grain of the majority of what surrounds us.
As every sales advertisement, most modern philosophies, and much of what we read and hear – all assure us,
“It all about me – my rights, my desires, my dreams, my comfort, my conveinence.”
And so Jesus pushes us further – not just to deny ourselves but in order to do so, to take up our Cross in following him.
“Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” – Luke 9:23
Many of us have internalized the idea taking up one’s cross for Christ is bearing with a difficult struggle or burden that we are bound to carry in life.
Have we every heard a fellow Christian say in relation to an ongoing physical burden, a continually challenging financial, living, or job situation, an ongoing struggle with a difficult family member or friend, “Well, this is just my cross to carry”?
Notice all of these “crosses” to bear are not only different from person to to person but they also all are external in nature.
We might, therefore, be surprised to discover, the cross Jesus is referring to is one we all have in common and this cross to bear has less to do with what is happening on the outside of our lives as it does with what is happening inside of us.
Our shared burden or “cross” is, as I previously outlined, our addiction to self.
Jesus is telling those to follow him that the only way to denial of self is by dying to self.
To put this another way, the only way we stop being self-centered is by letting Jesus put to death the notion that “It’s all about me!”
The only way we cease from stubbornly trying to self-determine our existence is by crucifying our insistence that we are in control – that we look to God only in the case of emergencies, only when death is about to call our number.
The only way we break the habit, the addiction borne of constant self-induglence and self-gratification is through killing the craving of finding lasting satisfcation and peace through whatever we can consume – food, alcohol, drugs, money, sex, pleasure, job titles, shopping, gambling, vacations, even all the relationships in our life other than with Jesus.
At its heart, Christ’s call for us to deny ourselves and take up our cross means relinquishing ANYTHING that competes with and stands in the way of our complete devotion to Jesus.
ANYTHING – possessions, power, achievements, personal glory, pride, the accolades and approval of others – ANYTHING that scratches the itch of our compulsion to self needs to be surrendered to Jesus if we seek to follow him.
Because letting Christ treat the symptoms accomplishes nothing if we don’t let Jesus have full access and reign to heal the cause.
This underscores something else about the image Jesus invokes here.
The Roman cross was a means of carrying out the death sentence.
As we witness in the life of Christ, a condemned criminal would carry the actual cross he would be hung upon.
And so, the instrument of their death became not only what would, in the end, take their life but also the burden they were forced to carry on their way to death.
Utilizing this particular imagery, Jesus is conveying the reality that dying to self is a daily, step-by-step journey and not a one-time event.
Christ died once for all the sins and brokeness of our lives and world.
But Jesus speaks here not of HIS cross but OUR cross.
“Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” – Luke 9:23
And Jesus presents our cross – our denial of self by dying to self as DAILY – as an ongoing work in progress.
Our confession and repentance towards Christ is not a one and done moment at our baptism or even a weekly renewal on Sunday by coming to the table for Holy Communion.
No, following Jesus means each day we take up our cross.
Every day we live for the Lord.
Empowered by the Spirit, we begin again by confessing our need for Christ, repenting of our addiction to self and letting go and learning how to be a new creation – how to think, to walk and talk, to act – to encounter and interact with others like Jesus.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” – Luke 9:23
Notice, Jesus says, “Follow Me” AFTER he has laid out the need for our self-denial which can only come through dying to ourselves – again, any aspect of our life and our being we try to live apart from God.
Beloved, by dying, Jesus gives us life, but it is only by dying to ourselves, we receive the life Christ comes to give.
Why do we follow someone?
On the one hand, because we want to go where they are going – to be where they are.
Their destination aligns with where we want to find ourselves.
But at a deeper level, we follow someone we seek to be like.
We respect and admire how they make the journey, how they navigate the path, and so we seek to learn and mirror
their character, posture, decisions, and actions as we press forward.
We can’t and we won’t be following Jesus if Jesus is not the basis of who we are, the motivation for what we do, and the model for how we live.
It is a dangerous misperception to think that following Jesus means simply adding Jesus to your life.
Many will claim they follow Christ and yet all they are really doing is living their lives with Jesus now added into the mix.
They read their Bible. They pray. They come to church on Sunday. They do good things – serving others – in the name of Jesus. They listen to Christian radio. They speak the language of Christianity. They hang out with Christian friends.
But in their day to day lives, when you strip it all now, when you get behind their motivations, when you inventory who or what they are living for – nothing has changed.
It’s still fundamentally about my will, my way, my truth, and my life.
Beloved, Jesus doesn’t come to be an accessory – an add on to our lives. Jesus doesn’t ask us to invite him to be a part of the life we’re living.
Jesus comes, Jesus invites us to live HIS life – the full, abundant, everlasting life we long for – not in part but in whole.
We can only live that life by submitting our will, our way, our truth, our life to Christ and continually following where Christ leads us.
Walking as He walked. Trusting as he trusted. Speaking as He spoke. Loving as He loved.
But then again, no one likes to die – let alone to die to themselves.
Many of us prefer the devil we know over the Jesus we don’t – even if that’s the devil inside of us.
Perhaps, we wonder why we should do this.
What’s wrong with a casual relationship to Jesus instead of a committed one?
Isn’t’ a casual relationship with Christ better than no relationship at all?
Not according to Jesus as he explains to us first that in dying to ourselves in order to follow him what we will receive will be far greater than what we ever give up
“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” – Luke 9:24
as he declares “whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
My friends, following Jesus never ends on the Cross; it always leads to resurrection.
Just as our physical expiration in Christ is never a dead end but becomes a doorway to new, eternal life, dying to ourselves in following Jesus always results not in the loss of who we are but the beginning of the discovery, the journey into becoming the best version of ourselves.
We have no idea of what we’re capable of, all that we can do through Christ who strengthens us – the contentment we can experience, the blessings we can share – we have no idea until we have begun to live in Christ.
As if this promise weren’t enough, Jesus goes on to add,
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” – Luke 9:25
Jesus asserts for all that we may appear to gain – even the whole world – it will never be enough.
Our happiness will be momentary and dependent on our treasures.
When we lose them – whatever it is we treasure above God – we will fall apart until we seize or claim another treasure.
And then the cycle will repeat – over and over and over again.
We will just keep running in circles as we compare and contrast what we currently treasure with what we once treasured – against what others treasure.
All along the way, the fear that drives us and the nagging emptiness inside of us, will not go away.
Even if we manage to convince ourselves we have everything we need, we’re still only marking the time until we have to let go – until our treasure becomes someone else’s trash.
We only lose ourselves when we live only for ourselves.
Jesus is the only treasure we don’t compete for because Jesus is the treasure given and shared for all the world.
Jesus is the only treasure that cannot be taken from us because Jesus is the treasure none of us can earn, inherit, or achieve on our own.
The only way we can lose the treasure that is Christ is not to receive, to take hold of, and follow Jesus.
I don’t know about you but I’ve logged too many miles running my own race – perceiving Jesus as my cheerleader, my on call therapist, and if all else falls apart, my fail safe.
If you asked me, I’d tell you Jesus is our Messiah. I’d proclaim Christ to be our Lord and Savior.
But functionally, practically, I was the king of my castle and the captain of my journey.
And whenever I hit a snag, ran into an obstacle, or encountered some unforeseen storm in my life, I’d confess, repent, and try to hand the keys to Jesus.
But here’s the thing.
While I was trying to ask Jesus to take the wheel, I wasn’t willing to give him ownership of the car I was driving.
While sometimes my circumstances would change, I never changed.
My faith never grew because I never exercised any faith in Jesus.
All I was exercising was my will – trying to get Jesus to fit into my truth, my way, my life.
I just kept coming back to the same place – going out on my own until I ran out of gas or smacked into a wall, and then always looking for simple answers, immediate results.
As a result the Jesus I came to know became the Messiah of my own making – the one who reigned in my life when I wanted him too, the one who saved me when I decided I needed saving.
But that’s not the real Jesus – the Jesus talking here.
That was me trying to be my own personal Jesus rather than following him.
It’s only when I started treasuring Jesus rather than looking for Jesus to bring and secure the treasures I wanted, that I began to learn who Jesus truly is and to discover the life I was settling for – the me I was settling for – rather than the person I could become, the life I could experience.
A life marked increasingly less by fear and insecurity and more by trust and assurance.
A life with more and more vision, capacity, and means for generosity, compassion, and curiosity instead of a narrow mindset of scarcity and self-protectiveness.
A life less and less haunted by failure or potential suffering but a deepening courage in being stretched and an openness and anticipation for the possibility of growth.
Can you relate to what I’ve shared?
Is your life all about Christ or all about YOU?
Let us reflect, how much is Jesus a part of who I am – of who I am becoming? Where in our lives does our profession that we are following Jesus not line up with how we are living our lives day to day? How is Jesus calling you today to deny and die to yourself so that you can live more fully in and through him?
Jesus ends the conversation with these words:
But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:27
This statement isn’t as mysterious or cryptic as it may first sound.
Whereas the Gospel is often reduced to going to heaven when we die, of experiencing salvation in the next life, at the outset of his ministry, Jesus declared, the Kingdom of God is NOW – present among us.
Jesus teaches us as his followers to pray for the eyes to see the glimpses of God’s reign on earth as it is heaven in our day-to-day lives.
And now, in saying that some of his disciples would not die until they first saw the Kingdom of God, Jesus is reaffirming this same idea – that not all eternal things are future things.
Connecting this with all Jesus has proclaimed in this conversation, Jesus is stating that denying and dying to ourselves – following him – is how we are able to catch a glimpse, a taste, and bear witness to God’s reign here and now.
And this makes sense, doesn’t it?
For the more we let go of having our own way, exercising our own will, arguing for our own truth, the more we are able to see God’s way, to perceive God’s will, to understand God’s truth – being unveiled before us.
The more we follow Jesus, the more are empowered to embody the character of Christ before others.
What might this look like – embodying the character of Christ?
It looks like building bridges of reconciliation and unity even as others draw lines of separation and build walls of division.
It looks like not ignoring or shying away from the pain and suffering of this world but also not giving into despair and hopelessness in the midst of it all.
It looks like facing obstacles and challenges – walking through tough times – not from a place of cynicism, envy, or apathy – but believing and trusting God will bring you out the other side and in that conviction, purposing to learn, grow, and mature through it all.
It looks like entering into the struggles of others not with an air of superiority or from a posture of judgment but instead seeking to help shoulder and alleviate their burdens wherever and however the Lord leads.
It looks like practicing hospitality and extending forgiveness even when doors are slammed in your face and others continue to hold a grudge against you.
It is daily looking for ways to make a difference for the betterment of all – to give, to serve, to partake in Christ’s redemptive work in all creation, and to shine for the glory of God.
We must not profess to speak of Jesus as our Messiah, as our Lord and Savior, unless we embrace how Jesus saves us and commit to following him in the way of that salvation.
The 16th-century German theologian, Martin Luther, is credited with saying, “A faith that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing is worth nothing.”
Gospel writers like Luke are not simply aiming for us to correctly define who Jesus is; they are seeking for us to be shaped as people, as a community that follows Christ’s teachings and actions.
Any question about the identity of Christ is not just a matter of definition but of formation.
Any answer to that question is more than a matter of doctrine; it is one of discipleship.
The answer of “Who do you say that I am?” informs the answer to “What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?”
What we believe and confess about Jesus should shape and guide what we live by and for day by day.
To put this another way, the way we live in the present determines our relationship to Christ in the future.
We are becoming who we shall be.
And being a disciple is more than just being a student of Jesus; it is following Christ. Learning from Jesus demands doing like Jesus.
Being in Christ. Experiencing life with Jesus. Becoming in Christ, the best version of ourselves to the glory of God.