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Deny Yourself, Take up the Cross and Follow Me

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Augustine’s Sermon 96 is dated 416 or 417 by Edmund Hill, OP (Sermons III/4 in The works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, New City). Internal evidence suggests that it was preached after the Ascension but before Pentecost. It is a sample sermon where Augustine goes through a passage phrase by phrase. I already said in one of the articles here that the Fathers of the Church repeated lines from the Gospel reading during their sermon in order to impress the reading on the memory of the faithful. Exhortations to be like ruminants had its place at a period in history when the only time that the faithful came into contact with the Scriptures was during the Mass. Here, Augustine explains Mark 8:34 phrase by phrase and in doing so recalls other bible passages that the faithful have heard in other Masses. Another point of interest in this sermon is how Augustine weaves in other themes that he has explained in his sermons using the bible passage being explained.

Outline of the Sermon

Below is the outline of Sermon 96. Click on the image below to see a mindmap of the sermon.

Click this for a bigger look

  1. Whoever … must deny himself
    1. Seems harsh. But nothing is harsh when commanded by Him who helps us do what he commands
    2. Love of self vs. Denying oneself
      1. Man’s first ruin was caused by love of self; to love oneself is to do one’s will (2 Tim. 3:2)
      2. Those who love themselves go outside of themselves
        • When a person’s love reaches outside of himself, he begins to disintegrate in dissipation
        • The opposite of this is to return to oneself (Luke 15:17-18). In returning to the Father, the prodigal son denies himself
        • The one who denies himself relies on the words of Jeremiah 17:5
  2. follow me
    1. Follow him where? to Heaven!
    2. But to go to the heights, one must go along the way of humility (Illustration: Mark 10:37-38)
  3. Take up your cross
    1. The phrase looks like an exhortation to martyrdom
    2. The world that is bad and the world that is good
      1. the world is bad because of the people in it (Jn. 1:10)
        • God made man good (Eccl. 7:30) but the whole world was made bad because of the one who first sinned
      2. Christ came and by his grace made “the good” — another world — the people who put God above all else
    3. The world that persecutes and another that suffers persecution
      1. Which is the world that persecutes? 1 John 2:15-17
      2. Which is the world that is persecuted? John 3:17. This holy world, the good one reconciled, now saved in hope (Rom. 8:24), the Church
  4. The whole Church is addressed in Mark 8:34
    1. The whole Church — the virgins, the widows, the married — they are all called
    2. Do not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife (Gen. 19:26)
    3. Rather the Church must move forward as is written in Phil. 3:13-14

Summary of the Sermon

Augustine explains the words “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself, take up the cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34) phrase by phrase. He reminds his listeners however that whatever is hard or harsh in the commands of the Lord are made light by charity. The witness of those who love shows that they are willing to undergo self-denial for the one they love however good or bad this may be. So he says “Why be surprised if those who love Christ should deny themselves by following him?” The opposite of denying oneself is the love of self which is the cause of man’s ruin. To love oneself is to do one’s wll (2 Tim. 3:2). Here, Augustine identifies the love of self with exteriority, i.e. love reaching outside of oneself. An allussion is made to the prodigal son who goes outside of himself, away from where the Father is, to dissipate oneself. The exact opposite of exteriority is interiority — “and he went inside himself” — which makes it possible for the prodigal to return to the Father. The prodigal son, says Augustine, denies himself when he returns to the Father. The “Father” of course is God which is the goal of Augustinian interiority. The use of the passage from Jeremiah 17:5 is also enlightening as to the meaning of Augustine:

What does denying himself mean? He musn’t rely on himself, must realize he is merely human, and pay attention to the prophetic dictum, “Cursed be everyone who places his hope in man (Jer. 17:5)”. He must disengage himself from himself but not in a downward direction. Let him disengage himself from himself in order to stick to God. Whatever good there is in him, let him attribute it to the one who made him; whatever about him is bad, he has made himself. God did not make what is bad about him. Let him jettison everything of his own doing, seeing that he has been his own undoing.

Next Augustine explains the words “follow me”. But follow the Lord where? The answer is “heaven.” Augustine reminds his listeners that they have just celebrated the glorification of Christ, his ascent into heaven and it is there that He wants his disciples to follow. And Augustine reminds them too that the way to it is the way of humility. Here he refers to the passage in Mark about the ambition of James and John and the Lord’s invitation to them to drain the “cup of humility. (see Mark 10:37-38)” Finally, Augustine turns to the phrase “take up your cross”

What does “take up his cross” mean? Let him bear with whatever is troublesome; let him follow me like that. You see, when he begins to follow me in his manner of life and by keeping my commands, he will find many people speaking against him, many telling him to stop, many trying to dissuade him — and among them apparent companions of Christ. They were walking with Christ, those people who tried to stop the blind men crying out. So whether its threats or enticements, or any kind of attempts to stop you, if you want to follow him, turn them into your cross; endure it, carry it, don’t collapse under it.

What follows is an explanation of how there are two worlds, one good and another bad, one that persecutes and another that is persecuted. Perhaps there were still Manichaean-influenced people in his flock, so Augustine explains “world” as referring to the “people” who either put God above all things (the good world) and the other which does not recognize Him ( cf. John 1:10, the bad one). God made man good (Eccl. 7:30) but the whole world was made bad because of the one who first sinned. But Christ came and by his grace made “the good”, that world which is mentioned in John 3:17, the world which believed in the Son and and will not be judged but will have Life. The bad world corresponds to the world that persecutes; the good world corresponds to the world that is persecuted. Augustine associates 1 Jn. 2:15-17 to the bad/persecuting world:

“Do not love the world and the things in the world. Whoever loves the world, the charity of the Father is not in him. Because all the things in the world are the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the ambition of the world, which is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world passes, and its lust; but whoever accomplishes the will of God abides for ever, just as God also abides forever.”

The other world which is persecuted is associated by Augustine to 2 Cor. 15:19, the world which God in Christ was reconciling to Himself. To this world Christ has said “If the world hates you, remember it has hated me first” (John 15:18.). And this world reconciled to God is the Church.

The world condemned persecutes; the world reconciled suffers persecution. The world condemned: whatever is outside and apart from the Church; the world reconciled: the Church. For the Son of Man — he says — did not come to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17).

In the end, Augustine tells his flock that the call to deny oneself, take up the cross and follow Christ is for the whole Church made up of virgins, widows and married. They are to obey the call according to their station in life. What matters is that they should not be like Lot’s wife who looked back and stopped in her tracks. Here another theme of Augustine, that of moving on and not stopping. For this theme, he employs Phil. 3:13-14

Forgetting what lies behind, stretching out to what lies ahead, let us follow … toward the palm of God’s calling in Christ.

Familiar Augustinian Themes

Love and the Commandments. Augustine’s understanding of grace is evident here. Christ commands but he gives what he commands. Hence, whatever seems to be difficult or harsh in the commandments is made light by Christ himself.

Interiority and Exteriority. One of the unique themes of Augustine’s theology of the spiritual life is that of interiority. In this sermon, it comes out associated with the example of the prodigal son in Luke 15 and is linked to his explanation on “deny oneself.” To love oneself is to go outside of oneself; to deny oneself is to return to oneself and therefore to God in whom alone one can be at home.

Do not stop, move on. Finally, the Augustinian theme of ongoing renewal is stressed in the use of the passage from Philippians 3:13-14. The idea is that the spiritual life is like mountain climbing. When one stops, one slides down. Thus one must continuously go upwards and never stop until the goal is reached.

The Mixed Church. There is alluded to the “mixed Church” idea of Augustine in his mention of those who prevent one from following Christ. He says that sometimes even those who are seen to be companions of Christ are the ones preventing others from following him. Here he is alluding — not to the Marcan passage about Bartimaeus — but to the Matthaean parallel of the two blind men in Matthew 20:29-34.


Sermon 96 may not be one of the important sermons of Augustine, but it does show us how an expert teaches the faithful on the basis of Scriptures. Personally, I find the way Augustine explains Scriptures through the themes he develops in his other writings. The use of Phil. 3:13-14 especially in the exhortation to follow Christ is something quite unique. Not even our modern translations make that association. The explanation of “follow me” within the theme of ongoing conversion is worth meditating on.

Originally posted 2009-12-09 01:02:19. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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