Mark 8:34: Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
I must say that this is not one of my favorite Bible passages. Truth be told, I have railed against this image my entire life. I remember a sign that was on the door of the crafts cabin at the church camp I attended as a child. On a piece of driftwood was painted the simple word, “JOY” in vertical letters… “J” on the top; “O” in the middle; and “Y” on the bottom. The crafts director used that sign as an illustration of how we were to order our world. “J” – Jesus – always came first. Then “O” – Others – were to be recognized. And then finally “Y” – You – always came last. At least for me, the implied message was that Self was always the last to be addressed, the last to be honored, the last to be appreciated. Everything and everyone else always came first.
But unfortunately, many folks have come to believe that lie… that they are worth less than God, that they are worth less than others, that they are worthless.
But I think God wants more of us than that. When Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” he responded by saying that it is to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Loving God, loving the other, and loving yourself are all part of the same cloth, and a tear in any one part of that cloth is a tear in the whole cloth.
So then, what is Jesus getting at in this portion of scripture from the 8th chapter of Mark’s gospel? I think that it’s closely tied to the greatest commandment. Denial of “self” isn’t about denigrating the individual… it’s about rejecting the notion that “self” is all there is, that “self” not a part of a greater picture. Our sense of “self” is inextricably aligned with our sense of God and our sense of others – no greater and no less than those other components. When Jesus speaks of denying oneself, it’s about denying the mistaken notion that self is all that there is.
In this season of the Olympic winter games, I am reminded of the old sports axiom that “There is no ‘I’ in TEAM.” As God’s holy people we are bound to one another and to God with bonds greater than our selves. We are a part of something bigger. We are a part of the holy people of God.