For most of the early church fathers and most Christians, "taking up a cross" meant being strung up on one too. And yet for most Christians in America taking up a cross is more like taking up cross-country skiing. In theory it can kill you, I guess, but you'd have to be a real doofus. Mostly, nobody cares. Now, I don't want to sound ungrateful. I'm relieved most days that being a Christian in America means that I'm generally considered irrelevant and harmless. I mean I could live in Pakistan where police opened fire on a Christian worship service. Or in China, where authorities recently overran a mountainside prayer meeting of elderly believers. Or in Indonesia, where three children's workers were detained for running a Christian camp. Or in Saudi Arabia, where two Indian Christian workers remain imprisoned on charges of sharing their faith. Or in Afghanistan where the ten Christian aid workers were murdered in 2010.

Ironically, whenever I read about persecuted Christians, it's always with a request to pray for their rescue or relief. Ironic since throughout church history, the church grows whenever it gets persecuted. And the church gets persecuted because it gets serious about following Jesus: publicly imitating his countercultural commandments to pursue peace and justice, fight for the poor, love enemies, speak truth, and refuse to worship the idols of prosperity. Jesus wasn't saying that you have to die to follow him; but rather, following him could get you killed.

As bad as that sounds, the alternative is worse. Verse 38: "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels." Most people conclude that Jesus was talking about hell here. Yet notice that Jesus says nothing about anybody going to hell here. He's not addressing unbelievers but his own disciples; believers who are embarrassed about what they believe. The picture is one of Jesus showing up with the angels and opening wide the door to heaven for you to enter. Overwhelmed by God's grace, Jesus leans over and whispers, "I am so ashamed of you." What a lousy way to spend eternity.

A more biblical picture is that of Peter again, this time talking to the resurrected Jesus on the beach, after all the suffering and dying Jesus said would happen was done. Jesus gets straight to the point: "Simon (reverting to Peter's pre-Rocky name), do you really love me?" Jesus asks it three times, obviously to match the three times Peter was ashamed of Jesus and denied him when Jesus needed him most. Peter replies, "Lord you know I love you," the third time with deep despair, no doubt recalling his own shameful behavior. Jesus responds, "feed my lambs." In other words, "show me."

Framed in this fashion, to "deny yourself" is not to deprive yourself, but to give yourself to God by giving yourself to others with love. Kierkegaard wrote that, "Love . . . is precisely recognizable by the fact that it finds something lovable in everyone and therefore is able to love everyone . . ." "We love because God first loved us," the Bible teaches. "God so loved us that he gave his only begotten Son." Because God gave everything to us who deserve nothing, he rightly demands that we give our all to him. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind." Do this and you effectively give all that you have to God. Yet Kierkegaard concluded that because God who demands everything from us needs nothing from us, everything you have freed up for God is now freed up for your neighbor! Loving God (who is easy to love) is what makes loving your neighbor (which was hard) possible because now you have so much love to give.

To love your neighbor is to love actual people in your life, not imaginary conceptualizations of how you believe or might wish these people should be. Such love is not childish infatuation, fond indulgence, or doting permissiveness. Instead real love earnestly fights against imperfections and overcomes faults as Christ has done in his love for us. "Christian love is not high, ethereal, heavenly love," Kierkegaard wrote, "but love descended from heaven to earth. It humbles itself, as did Christ, in order to love the people we see just as we see them." May we love like that.