Beginning at Mark 8:34, today's Gospel spells out what is required if anyone, as Jesus says "wishes to come after me." He then gives us three steps: deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me. Each step is important, and they are listed in order. Sometimes we think that we can just take up the cross without denying ourselves, or go straight to following Christ without denying ourselves and carrying our cross. This does not work. And if we examine the three steps, we see the logic.
1. Deny yourself. If we are focused solely on ourselves, it is impossible to be a disciple. If one thing is obvious from the gospels, it is that Jesus always put others first. We hear various accounts when Jesus would put aside His desire for time alone, for example, because others were clamoring for His attention. One of the realities of the human condition is that we are constantly tempted to be selfish. "Look out for #1", "Take care of yourself - no one else will", and "I have a right..." are all expressions that indicate how difficult it is to deny ourselves. But if we are constantly concentrating on our own needs, wants, desires, we are incapable of seeing the needs of others and therefore cannot be a disciple.
2. Take up your cross. This is a tricky one. Often we believe we are doing this because we are stuck with situations in which we have no choice. That is not what Jesus is referring to here. He had a choice whether or not to take up His cross. His was a literal one, but crosses come in all shapes and sizes. And we usually do have a choice. Jesus chose to take up the cross in order to save us. Because He had been denying Himself for years, He was able to see how His decision could benefit others, even though it meant He had to suffer. We also have this choice. Parents usually are the ones who best understand this, since they deny themselves so much for their children and willingly suffer to make their child's life better. But it cannot just be for your child. It has to permeate the entire family dynamic. And since we are all brothers and sisters, children of God, we must be willing to take up the cross for others.
3. Follow me. If we have followed the first two steps, this is really the least difficult of the three steps. It is the way that we follow through and continue to live as we implement the first two. Jesus did not just carry the cross for a while and then opt out. He took it to the ultimate conclusion. And what was that ultimate conclusion? Not death, but life!! And this is why following Christ, becoming a disciple is so wonderful. Even though we deny ourselves and carry crosses, we are going to pass through death to life.
Naturally, everyone is going to die. The question is: when we die what will follow? If we use the formula laid out by Jesus, we can be sure that what will follow is resurrection to a new and glorious life. Now, I am not sure what will happen to those who choose not to be disciples, not to follow these three steps. I will leave that to the mercy and justice of God. But I figure - why take a chance when I know what works? I may not get them right all the time and in every situation, but I need to renew my decision (and it is a decision) each day to work through the three stages of discipleship so that I can one day receive the glorious life that God intends for me. I hope you will too!