If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8: 34).
The theme of “The Suffering Servant” of God that is presented to us this 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) and Jesus’ condition for discipleship reminds me of the book by Morgan Scott Peck, an American psychiatrist titled The Road Less Travelled. Not because I agree with the entire content of the work but mostly because the invitation of Jesus in the Gospel today is, for me, an invitation to the road less travelled. Christians know that the way of Jesus is the Way of the Cross. We also know that He has invited all of us, who really want to be His followers to walk the same way. But how many Christians love to travel by that way – The Way of the Cross?
As I reflect further on, my mind goes out to Christians in different parts of the world who are persecuted: in North Korea, Syria, China, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria and so many others. The World Watch List (WWL, 11/01/201) reported that “Approximately 215 million Christians experience high, very high, or extreme persecution” in at least 50 countries for various reasons mostly Islamic extremism and ethnic nationalism. As it is, many Christians are challenged to respond to this invitation of Jesus either willingly or forcefully. But among these suffering followers of Jesus, one person stands out pointedly, Leah Sharibu. We recall Leah, the 15 year Nigerian girl, who was kidnapped with 110 others from her school in the northern Nigerian town of Dapchi by Boko Haram insurgents on February 19, 2018. About a month after, her mates were released. Leah was not released because she made a choice not to renounce her faith as a Christian. Leah has freely and decidedly chosen to walk the road less travelled – the way that Jesus is calling us all to walk if we are to be His disciples in deed. The story of Leah is the story of a peculiar heroic response to the call of Jesus as presented to us today. I wonder how many of us in Leah’s situation would have made this choice, would you?
Jesus Christ clearly gives us the condition for discipleship when He says: “If anyone wants to be a follower of Mine, let him renounce himself take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8: 34). You would have noticed that whereas Jesus was speaking only to His disciples in the first parts of the Gospel, but on this issue of self-renunciation and the cross, “He called the people and His disciples” (Mark 8: 34). The reason for this action is because the call to denial of oneself and taking up the cross is a call to all, to “anyone who wants to be My disciple.” It is a call to all Christians, both great and small, young and old, rich or poor, from every nation, tongue and race. It is a universal call. This is more than an invitation to faith in Him, it is an invitation to discipleship. It is possible to believe in Christ and not be a disciple. A believer is one who professes an adherence to a particular way of teaching, a disciple is one who lives out that which he believes and professes. Put differently, to be a believer could be theoretical, notional or intellectual level whereas to be a disciple cannot but be practical and experiential. Strictly speaking, the Christian life is supposed to be a life of discipleship. This is the challenge that the Second Reading from James (2: 14-18) presents to us. Faith is dead without expression in practical good deeds. A concealed faith is as good as useless and dead. A Christian must witness to his/her faith in one way or the other.
To pick up the cross of Jesus, we have to deny our comfort, pleasures and conveniences. It may not sound pleasant to say that Christianity is not free. It has a price. And that price is self-renunciation. For just as our Saviour, Who was God but emptied Himself of His Godly sovereignty and grandeur in order to save us, so we are called to empty ourselves of all human inclinations in order to be saved. What does it cost us to be Christians? Of what have we denied ourselves? What prices have we paid? There is a beautiful story narrated in the last chapter of Second Samuel about King David as he went to Araunah the Jebusite, to buy a threshing floor in order build an altar and offer sacrifice to the Lord. When the king presented his request, Araunah decided to offer the floor and all that were needed for the offering free to his king. But David responded: “No, I will pay you for all these, for I will not offer to the Lord, my God a sacrifice that costs me nothing.” (24: 18-24). Let this story challenge us today.
It is insightful to note that it is only after Jesus has told His disciples of His suffering rejection, death and rising that He calls others to pick up their cross. Our cross is therefore an act of imitation of the Master, not simply a recommendation or a law. It is the Master’s example that the servants or His “friends” are to follow. The idea of “The Christ”, “the Anointed One” “The Messiah” suffering and being rejected was not germane to the mind of any Jew of the time of Jesus. The Messiah for them was to be the king, the conqueror, who would dethrone the Roman authority and liberate the people from their domination. Peter’s remonstration against the idea can be understood from this point of view. However, Jesus saw it deeper than that. He saw him as “Satan” meaning an “adversary”; one who would dissuade or in fact tempt Him to go against the plan of the Father. Jesus knew ab initio that “It was the will of the Father that the Messiah should suffer and die … and by His suffering justify many” (Isaiah 53: 10-11). The divine principles are different from those of men. For in deed; “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways” says the Lord (Isaiah 55: 8). Jesus knew He was the one Isaiah spoke about in the First Reading (Isaiah 50: 5-9) of today as “The Suffering Servant of God” who would freely accept to suffer, without any resistance but trusting God as His Vindicator.
My dear friends, the Readings of today challenge us so many ways. Like Peter we may know Jesus as The Christ without understanding His ways. One can believe in Jesus without accepting the idea of suffering as part of the package. But no one can be a disciple of Jesus without taking up the cross on his journey – “In cruce salus (In the cross is salvation). We are called to stand “behind” Jesus in order to learn from Him and be able to follow Him in self-denial and loving acceptance of the cross. Like Jesus, we have a reason for being in this world, but we have to be watchful so that the Ancient Serpent may not dissuade us from fulfilling our purposes. Know that Satan can come under any guise, even in the form of our best friend, like Peter to Jesus. We are called here to remain focused on the Lord, who is our Creator and Vindicator.