During this Lenten season, many Christians seek to draw nearer to God by walking more closely with Jesus the Christ in his sufferings, rejections of appetites and the allure of popular appearance (Matthew 4.11). It is the spiritual discipline of self- denial. After foretelling of his death, burial and resurrection, Jesus shares with the crowd, his disciples and with us the key to our own: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8. 34).
This commandment is not a glamorous or financially prosperous one. You won’t appear on the cover of magazines or be a contender for the highly sought after fifteen minutes of fame. It will not put your name in lights and does not come with a red carpet or paparazzi. Persons will not see more of you but more of Jesus. Do we really want that?
Becoming a follower has lost much of its meaning since the days of Jesus and so has the importance of the designation friend. Facebook has redefined the latter so that you don’t even need to know the person in order to be in this category; you can have 5,000 of them. But who, other than God, can claim this level of connectedness with such a vast number of people? It is simply impossible. If we had the interest, we certainly don’t have the energy or the ability to be present for so many people. But, I digress.
Unlike Twitter, Jesus’ standard for becoming a follower is not just a click away and I wonder how many followers he would have had on Twitter in light of these expectations: deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. His standard for commitment to him does not stop there as Jesus says in the Gospel according to Luke: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (14.26). Volunteers, please.
These words are hard and the practice is tough. “You want me to hate them, Jesus?” Yes and by this he means, place no one before or above him– not even yourself. Love no one more than him and if they stand in between you and him, choose him every time. Deny everyone including yourself. It is a matter of allegiance, of commitment and devotion. You must reverence no one but God if you want to be a follower. What a cross to bear and it can only be done alone.
But, who are we as Christians if we do not deny ourselves? If we do not take up our cross, who are we following? The walk with Jesus the Christ involves not only teaching and preaching but death by crucifixion. Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2.20). Crucifixion is the only way to the resurrection, the new birth of the believer. There is no denying this.
So, what of our racialized selves have we denied in order to follow Jesus more closely? What of race do we hate in order to demonstrate and prove our love for and allegiance to God? Or, does it remain in its socially constructed position above God? Will we keep it and walk away from Jesus or will we lay it down, forget about it and behave as if we’ve never met race in order to pick up our cross and follow him?
Yes, it’s tough. And it’s going to be hard because it’s all that we’ve known. But, it is the only way. The commandment is non-negotiable and conditional: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Deny race, its cultural prejudices and stereotypes. Deny your racialized self; confess its inconsistencies and inadequacies. Take up your cross and prepare to die to all that you were, all that you were told that you could be, all that “your people” and “they” have done, all that you expected of your life according to race and racism. And follow Christ who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” forever (John 10.10). Amen.