But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
– Mark 8:33-35 (ESV)
- “21 New Martyrs of Libya”, Tony Rezk, 2015
What does it mean to “deny [yourself], take up your cross, and follow [Jesus]”?
On February 12, 2015, the world was first made aware of a great evil done by enemies of the Church. Twenty-one men, twenty of whom were Coptic Christians, and one man who was a literal moment-of-death convert to the Faith, were tortured and beheaded by persecutors purporting to be the vanguard of an apocalyptic and anti-Christian state. These men were in Libya doing construction work – 20 Egyptian Copts, and one non-believer from Chad. They were kidnapped by masked men and were brought to a Libyan shoreline. One by one they were asked if they were Christians, and then given the chance to renounce this claim, to instead follow a different religion, which they refused. The strength of the Copts’ faith – to die as professed and confessing Christ-followers rather than live as turncoats – caused the 21st man to acclaim “their God is my God” when the enemy made the offer to him, and so die with those who were ethnically and philosophically different from him. The icon of their martyrdom is in the bulletin this week, and I encourage you to take it home with you to remember the sacrifice of your brothers in the Faith.
This is a modern example of what Jesus means when he says that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and gospel’s will find it.”
I fervently pray that none of us is faced with torture and painful execution at the hands of enemies of the Cross. It is my preference to die a Holy death without violence and fully and totally prepared in my faith. However, I feel that it is very important that we understand and fully realize that it is exactly this that Jesus means when he requires his followers to “take up their cross.” We must, whenever and however it is required, cling to the confession of our faith in Jesus as the bedrock of our very existence, so that in the day of trial, persecution, or even martyrdom we may boldly proclaim “Jesus is my Savior and my God.”
I will freely confess that this Gospel reading is one of the passages that has given me the most trouble in my faith. Because I don’t want to “take up my cross.” I don’t, at my core, want to suffer, want to face hardship, want to even be inconvenienced on account of my confession that Jesus is my Lord. I think this is somewhat our nature as humans – we are very good at survival, so to willfully accept and pursue a course that is counter to that fills us with dread and reluctance. Sure, there are thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies – but, being realistic, these are seen as outside the norm, and doesn’t it take a sort of special dedication (or mental derangement) to find pleasure in placing one in harm’s way? The vast majority of humans seek to keep living instead of flirt with death.
This is what makes the faith of martyrs so intense – the martyr’s sacrifice is either undeniably holy or obscenely absurd, depending on who is looking at it. To the one whose eyes and heart have been opened, the Spirit of God can be seen in the faith of someone who is not afraid to die for the witness of the Cross. To the hopeless and adrift, someone who willingly rejects a path to survival is at best a morbid and deluded person to be pitied, and at worst a deranged person to be feared.
The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word “martys” which means “witness.” A martyr bears the ultimate witness to their beliefs – and the history of the Church is filled with accounts of people who became believers as a result of the faith of the martyrs, just like the 21st man on that Libyan shore, who came to belief as his friends and colleagues were killed around him and as he himself faced painful death. This man’s eyes and heart were opened. We have every reason to believe, based on the witness and promises of scripture, that his faithful death was not in vain; that he has won a martyr’s crown with the 20 who were Christians for most if not all of their lives.
The Gospel is a message of two sacrifices: the first is the sacrifice of Jesus, which is the perfect propitiation for our sins, eliminating the need for any other sacrifices of flesh and blood; the second is the “living sacrifice” that St. Paul refers to in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans. All disciples of Jesus are called to give themselves up to serve the Kingdom of Heaven and witness about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If this seems like a difficult calling, don’t feel you are alone – it very much is. This is why the Church has an annual period of overtly sacrificial living embedded in the liturgical calendar.
Lent is a season of self-denial. It is commonly seen as a season of preparation for the coming feast of Easter, when we celebrate the Resurrected Lamb of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is true that you cannot truly appreciate the joys of Easter without the somberness of Lent – just as we cannot truly appreciate the joys of the coming Kingdom without the hardships and sacrifices of this life. Lent is a training ground in the midst of relative joys and pleasures, an opportunity to voluntarily give up luxury and take up discipline of our souls, minds, and bodies. This way, when – not if – the world comes against us and we face hardship, persecution, or even martyrdom, we are prepared.
As our vicar noted last week, this is not a preparation based on our natural hardiness, or on our strength of will – that is stoicism and is devoid of hope and promise. No, just as “success” in fasting is found in prayerful acknowledgment that our natural hardiness or our strength of will is insufficient to give any meaning to our self-denial, the preparation we undergo teaches us to call on Jesus in the midst of all hardships – whether it is temporary or terminal.
Not all of us will be called to be martyred in the flesh, and again I pray that we will all live holy lives and die holy deaths, fully prepared in our faith and untouched by violence. For the remainder of my sermon, I will focus on the general calling of self-denial which does not require facing violence and death, which is what I expect most of us to face in our everyday lives.
While not all Christians are called to face imminent death for their beliefs, all Christians are called to give up passions, sinfulness, unfruitful desires, as well as pleasures that do not edify the soul, or are outright contrary to God’s stated will in Scripture. This in and of itself can be a witness, especially when someone comes to Christ from a life that was devoid of this self-denial. The person who enjoyed riches, and after coming to Christ donated practically all he had to a Gospel ministry bears witness that what used to be the most important thing to them is truly secondary to the message of Christ. Similarly, the person who was mired in drugs and unsavory habits who, after coming to Christ, reaches out to minister to similarly afflicted people bears witness that the anchor around their neck that no one could remove has been lifted from the depths by the strength of the King of Glory.
I struggle with intemperance – with food, with drink, with entertainment, with nearly anything that could be called on its own enjoyable or innocently pleasing. I am at my most un-Christlike when I feel that I haven’t gotten my “share” of something, which generally means if I’m not sick of it yet. This has led to mental and physical struggles with health; dissatisfaction in the gifts that God has given me; friction with my wife, with friends, with roommates, nearly everyone who interrupts my ultimate aim of personal satisfaction. Diets on their own work very temporarily; trying to strongarm my attitude to be more “content” fails after the first minor setback; resolving to be a better husband/friend/roommate/brother/son/coworker/etc only gets me so far as the next time whoever it is opposes me.
I have only found satisfaction in the denial that Jesus preaches. It wasn’t until I took up Lenten observance that I saw the first glimmers of hope that whatever hole it is in me that food, strong drink, television, and video games couldn’t fill could be overcome, or stoppered up, or provided with something that would actually and completely satisfy rather than just frustrate my soul with its pale imitation of what was previously denied to it. Because I am like Peter – I place more emphasis on the things of man and therefore I miss the things of God. I believe that I am getting better, but if so it isn’t because of anything that I do, but the Spirit which fills what my self-denial leaves behind.
I encourage all of you to use this Lent as a training ground. Last week, our vicar alluded to “fasts” of things that Christians shouldn’t be doing to begin with; I want to expand on that and encourage you that if there are things in your life that meet that charge, Lent is the perfect time to start working against them. Don’t put them off as a fast to be taken up again at the end of Lent, but certainly use the season of self-denial to begin to train yourself that the goodness of Our God is greater than whatever momentary pleasure or benefit you are confronted with. Even if Easter comes and you still occasionally find yourself doing whatever it is that you identify as needing to permanently give up, the fact that the Spirit has illuminated the thing, and has moved you to better behavior is victory on its own. With continued prayer and fasting, you will be delivered from the thing you struggle against.
I also ask for and encourage your prayers for our brothers and sisters around the world, who face persecution and martyrdom daily. There are many organizations who spread their stories and work to provide at least some measure of material relief. One that I personally have investigated and commend to you is Voice of the Martyrs. In remembering the persecuted Church, remember also to pray for your own continued and increasing faith and trust in the Lord so that in the day of trial you would “endure to the end.”
Grace and peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.