This passage occurs in the RCL, year A (most recently Aug 31, 2014).
Summary: Whatever one does, we shouldn't water down this passage. It is harsh. As I reflect on it this year, I am really struck by the tenses of the verbs, that "deny" and "pick up" are aorist or one-time events, yet follow is a present, or on-going event. This suggests to me, with a Lutheran understanding of Baptism and vocation, of a life-long cross that we inherit in our Baptisms, the cross of service to our neighbor. We are always following Jesus, discovering what this cross entails. It looks different, but it is always the same -- care of our neighbor. Lastly, I think the good news for me is actually found in the next story, the transfiguration. We get overwhelmed by the cross but then Jesus opens our eyes to his glory -- and we can carry on.
οπισω ("behind", 16:23,24) This word appears twice: Get behind me Satan and then if you want to come behind me. In life, we are never truly our own free agents, but either following the forces of evil or Christ. Hmm...too dramatic. Don't water down this passage.
απαρνησασθω ("deny", 16:24) and αρατω ("pick up", 16:24) What I have always struggled with here is that these verbs are in the aorist tense, which suggests a one-time event. Does this mean we should move toward a decision/one-time event understanding of faith? Keep reading...
ακουλουθειτω ("follow", 16:24) this is in the present tense. We are to pick up the cross one time, but then continue to follow Jesus are whole lives? Rather than understand this to mean that we make a one-time decision to follow Jesus, I argue we need to re-think what Jesus means by cross here. When I think of picking up my cross, I think of my baptism. The cross given to me in a my baptism confers on me the life orientation of living a disciple. In my life, this same cross -- living as a disciple -- unfolds in different ways, always through service to the neighbor. It is always the same cross- dying to myself and to the world, but it looks different -- patiently bearing the criticism of others, apologizing to my colleages when I am wrong, listening to my neighbor whine, potty training my daughter and so forth. In life, we don't get one particular cross, one challenge to bear, but the whole weight of our neighbor's needs is ever upon us.
To put it another way, the cross of life should weigh upon us so heavy that we call out to Jesus for mercy and forgiveness. And he then can carry the cross for us.
σταυρον ("cross" 16:24) Just a quick reminder that before we get to sentimental about cross, this was an ancient capital punishment device. We need to make the cross abstract to make sense of it (ie, we don't need to nail wood planks and walk around with them); but we need to not make it too abstract that we lose the challenge of it.