When I was a kid, long before there were electronic gadgets to amuse us, we had to amuse ourselves playing games together.  We played games outside.  Some games required us to use whatever we could had available to set up a game, such as someone’s shirt for first base for baseball game.  And sometimes we played games that required nothing but ourselves such as follow the leader.

          Following the leader was, of course, a simple game of choosing a leader, lining up behind that person, and then following closely behind the leader mimicking whatever the leader did.  If you did not do as the leader did, just once, then you were out of the game.  As the game progressed, someone who was a follower would complain, “I want to be the leader,” and the leadership would change. Eventually, we would tire of playing that game because the leader, whoever they were, did not improve the condition of those who followed, and the leader never had a destination in mind for the group.  We just followed the leader aimlessly around the yard.  The game stopped once the uselessness of the game became apparent. The words of the leader, “Follow me!” fell on deaf ears.

          Our Scripture today talks about responding to the call to Jesus’ “Follow me.”  There are about 20 such examples in the Gospels of Jesus saying, “Follow me.”  The gospel writer Luke recorded one of these moment this way.  Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? 26 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:23-26).

          The game of follow the leader and Jesus’ words to “Follow me,” sound similar but once uttered, the similarity between the two begins and ends.  Jesus’ call, “Follow me,” is not an aimless call as it is in the game follower the leader.  The words “Follow me,” from Jesus are tied to the goal of becoming Jesus’ disciple. Today, outside of church, we do not use the word disciple.  Today, no business ever posts a sign that says, “Apply now, disciples wanted.”  But the word disciple was very well-known in Jesus’ time.  In Jesus’ time, it was common for young Hebrew men to become followers or disciples of a particular rabbi.  The young men would devote themselves to living with the rabbi and learning what the rabbi knew and doing what the rabbi did.  So devoted were disciples to their rabbi that there are stories that the students, the followers, would imitate everything about the rabbi to include the rabbi’s manner of speech and his manner of walking.  Think of it this way, if the rabbi walked with a limp, so too did his disciples.  In the world of craftsmen and artisans, people became disciples of a master.  This was another form of discipleship, a call to imitate the leader or master.

          So when Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must follow me,” his words were not a radical thought on their own.  It was expected to become the disciple of a master, or a rabbi, required following.  But Jesus said to follow him with the goal of becoming his disciple would require the follower to first deny themselves and take up the cross every day.  What did Jesus’ mean “deny yourself” and “take up your cross?”  Let’s look at each of these phrases separately.

          What does it mean to “deny yourself?”  Denial of self is very different from self-denial. Self-denial is when we willingly take up give things up. Many Christians practice self-denial when they “give something up for Lent.”  This is self-denial.  When I was growing up every Lent we would offer to give up going to school but we never got any traction in doing so with my parents.  So self-denial is a giving up of things, practices, or pleasures of life. Denial of self, on the other hand, is when we take ourselves and what we want to accomplish in this world out of center stage and we place Christ and his gospel at the core of all we are and do. Denial of self was expressed by Jesus to God want he said, “Thy will be done,” and not “my will be done.”  So the first condition for becoming a disciple of Jesus required an emptying of oneself to make room for Jesus and what Jesus had to offer.

          Secondly, Jesus said to follow him, required people to “pick up their cross.”  What did Jesus mean “pick up their cross?”  Just moments prior to Jesus’ call, Jesus said, “22 ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed’” (Luke 9:22b).  Suffering, rejection, and death constituted the cross, the consequence of the gospel that the master, the leader, was willingly to endure for his beliefs and goals.  We like to say, “Choices have consequences.”  Well it is important for us to also understand that goals have consequences.  To pick up your cross daily to follow Jesus was another way of saying, “You must be willing to take upon yourself the consequences of becoming a disciple of Jesus.” Said another way, Jesus said, “Anyone who intends to come with me must let me lead. You can’t be in the driver’s seat—I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how” (Luke 9:23 MSG).

          Now admittedly, thus far Jesus’ call does not sound very inviting because to follow him sounded like it would be a different sort of discipleship.  To follow Jesus would not be like following a rabbi or working under a master craftsman or artisan.  Jesus was promising consequences for following him and becoming his disciple. Let’s face it, generally in life, we want to avoid anything that sounds like a consequences almost no matter how trivial those consequences might be.  I think of myself driving to a destination that I have been to before. I will still put that destination into the GPS not because I need the directions but because I want to be alerted to traffic slowdowns and be offered alternative routes to avoid the consequence of sitting in traffic for a few minutes.  We seek to avoid consequences and yet Jesus’ call invited his disciples to willingly accept the consequences of following him.  Why would they want to follow Jesus?

Jesus answered the question of why follow him this way. “24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.  25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:24-25).  Jesus’ explanation for wanting to be his disciple dealt with the most consequential matter for every human being, that is saving their life. All humans ever born or who will be born, share a natural, instinctive, inborn desire to live.  No one must be taught to want to live.  From birth, we know we want to live and keep our life going. From the first moment of birth, we already know to cry out for the breath to fill our lungs and we cry out for food to fill our stomachs.  And that deep seated desire to live never changes.  So when Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save their life,” he was saying that the consequence of becoming his disciple was to save their life and thus Jesus was speaking to everyone because everyone wants to save their life.

Everyone who heard Jesus words was listening intently, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it.”  What was Jesus saying here?  Simply, “If you want to be the master of your life, if you want to live with the attitude ‘No one is the boss of me!’, if you want to be the center of your own life, because you believe you know how best to live, then you will eventually lose the very life you hold so dear.”  Jesus added, “25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:25)  Jesus was saying even if you are so successful at being your own person such that you somehow acquired the entire world, would all that be worth your life?

Satan made an offer of the whole world to Jesus when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness.  Satan took “Jesus to a very high mountain and showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” Satan said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to Satan, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matthew 4:8-10).  Jesus understood he could gain the whole world but at the cost of life in who God intended him to be.

“But” Jesus said.  There is always a but.  Jesus said, “But whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24). In context, “But whoever loses their life by denying themselves, becoming my disciple, and accepting the consequences of living a life in and through Me, will save their life.”  The true consequence of following Jesus became clear.  The consequence of following Jesus is not temporary hardship but life itself.

The Apostle Paul put it this way, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11).  Paul, in denying himself, came into the belief that things of this world are just that they are things.  And at some point the things of this world become rubbish.  But to know Jesus, to follow him into life with God is everything and that never changes.

Jesus finished his thought about the consequences of following him or not following him this way, “26 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26).  To those who seek to save their own life, meaning they deny the person, the need, the knowledge of Christ, they will receive exactly what they ask for when they stand before God.  They will be on their own and their life with God will be lost.  The converse is true as well and Jesus said so in Luke 12, verse 8 when he said, ““I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God” (Luke 12:8).  To be a disciple of Jesus, to follow Jesus as leader now is decision to be with God forever.

I started today reminiscing a bit about a kid’s game called follow the leader.  Like all kids’ games, there are no real and lasting consequences to playing it or not playing it.  There are no real consequences of winning the game or not winning the game.  Playing follow the leader is a game of following the person in front of you.  A person who may make silly motions with their body and has no destination in mind. But the words of Jesus about following him as leader have a serious tone to them and long-lasting and rewarding consequences.  Jesus challenged his listeners to save their lives by giving their lives to Him for safekeeping.  Who does not want to save their life?

When we accept Jesus’ call there are some consequences we must accept in our decision.  When we save our lives through Jesus, we must be willing to have others see that we are Christians, not just on Sunday, but every day and in every way. When we acknowledge Jesus, we can no longer remain silent about things which are morally wrong.  We must reject culture’s non-Christian values and views. We must not blend into society or be silent about our relationship with God.  We must not be ashamed of following Jesus even if that means being rejected by family, friends, co-workers, and strangers.  Afterall, to follow Jesus means that our life has been saved.  Let us be saved and live an abundant life of joy of being saved.  Amen and Amen.