“[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. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’”
(Mark 8:34-35, NRSV)
The cross of Jesus Christ is central to the message of the gospel. There is no way to get to the resurrection without going through Jesus' death on a cross atop Golgotha. Our salvation is contingent on the resurrection that conquered the power of sin and death, once and for all. Therefore, the combination of Jesus' death by crucifixion and the subsequent raising of Jesus from the dead three days later is God's catalyst for the salvation we have in Jesus Christ.
At the time of the writing of Mark's gospel around 70 A.D., the people were well aware of Jesus' death and resurrection. For nearly 40 years, they kept the story of Jesus' self-giving love alive for subsequent generations. But there was a problem maintaining enthusiasm for the gospel because it didn't seem that things were any different four decades later than they were before Jesus died. The Romans still occupied Jerusalem and the surrounding territories. The temple lay in ruins after Jerusalem's siege, leaving no visible symbol of God's presence. Christians were persecuted regularly for believing in Jesus by both the Romans and the Jews. Many were struggling to keep their faith.
Mark observed how more and more people were abandoning their faith because of the lack of progress. Unfortunately, he also knew that things weren't likely to get better for a while. He needed to remind them of some of Jesus' most important teaching about discipleship in the face of adversity. After all, the persecution Jesus experienced was still going on, and the people needed to understand that their suffering was not in vain. So Mark reminds them of the power of the cross—once a symbol of shame used by the Romans for crucifixion, but now, a symbol of hope for the Christians representing salvation.
We often misunderstand what it means to "take up one's cross." From something as serious as a terminal illness to a simple hangnail, we refer to them as "my cross to bear." In both these examples, these are things that happen to us that we must endure. In reality, taking up one's cross is always a choice. Jesus could have avoided the cross if he chose to do so, but he decided to endure it on our behalf. To take up one's cross is to choose the path of suffering for something redemptive when we could choose to do otherwise.
Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." To follow Jesus is to take the path of self-denial and choose to suffer, or at least sacrifice, on behalf of others. This message is not a popular one in our culture that values individual freedoms over shared responsibility for others' well-being. To follow Jesus means we follow him as he goes to those who cannot do for themselves and as he does for them what only he can do. To be a Christ-follower means sacrificing our well-being or suffering in ways that will accomplish for others something more significant than could be achieved if we only did what was good for us. It's a hard path to follow, but there is no other path to following Jesus.