In Mark 8: 27-35, we read the story of Jesus asking the disciples who the people say He is. Some say He is John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and some say one of the prophets. Jesus asks them who they say He is. Peter responds, “You are the Christ.”
Then Jesus instructs them about his suffering and death on the cross and rising in three days. Peter rebukes him, but Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Then Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
I have heard it rationalized from this scripture that Jesus is saying we must suffer has He suffered, that we must allow ourselves to be “martyred” in His name and we will go to heaven. But another interpretation may be possible as well.
As human beings we tend to be egocentric, to think of ourselves first. Not Jesus.
Jesus didn’t die on the cross to simply suffer and die. He died on the cross to sacrifice Himself for all of us. And that may be key to this reading: Jesus is calling on us to stop that most human of all tendencies and deny ourselves on behalf of others.
All along Jesus has lived a life of poverty, a life of giving totally of Himself for others, a life of doing wondrous works to heal and feed and provide for others, and in the end, He gave up his life to save humanity. He is saying that as individuals we must be willing to follow in His example and take up that cross in his name.
Today’s second reading at Mass is from James 2: 14-18, who was known as the bishop of the Apostles. That reading is a calling to do good works, because “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
We must also consider that Jesus died on the cross and rose again to conquer death and bring us to eternal life. But I think this reading reaches beyond than that. In saying that the most important commandments are to love your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, Jesus is calling on us to believe in his life and his mission and follow in all of his footsteps, loving Him with all our hearts and loving our neighbor enough to care for him or her. All of our neighbors, even the ones we do not recognize.
To reach the heavenly kingdom, we must believe in Jesus as the Christ. To believe in the Christ means believing Jesus died on the cross for us, but it also means bearing our own cross, accepting that Jesus calls on us to love and care for one another. Giving up our focus on ourselves is a cross that is sometimes difficult to bear and “dying” on that cross is what this reading asks us to do. It’s What Jesus Would Do. It’s what Jesus did do.