"Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?"
As Jesus speaks to His disciples, there is an unmistakable reality that they may (and in fact did) face the physical death that following Jesus may lead to. Whatever "following Jesus" means, the prerequisites for it are to "Deny yourself" and "Take up your cross". As this is before the crucifixion, what it would mean to the disciples is to lay aside your own desires for what you want in comfort and success and join the death march. The cost of discipleship is no mere nodding of a head to Jesus, it is a commitment that pervades every area of our life due to its worth. This is why Jesus immediately follows the statement up with "whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." There is no living that is valuable if it is not lived (or lost) for Christ's sake.
So, after seeing the prerequisites, what does it mean when Jesus says, "Follow Me"?
Denying self-will. Replacing those self-desires with those which God has for us. Conducting our faith and our life by His order and direction, rather than ours.
If this means even losing our very lives, so be it. We have a Christ who has given us hope beyond the grave.
Some verses that help remind:
"Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me."
"Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple."
Does this mean selling everything and living in a hole somewhere? No.
It means learning from Jesus (the root meaning of "disciple") and holding everything, even your own life, with and open hand. Proclaiming the gospel may cost you your family, your reputation, your children, your spouse, your comfort, or your life. Is it worth it?
The answer, is "yes, it is worth it". Because what value is having the entire world, yet losing your soul?
Following Christ sounds hard only if we are valuing ourselves above Him. In reality, living selfishly is the hardest life that there is as you will find yourself wrestling against God. Christ even promised how wonderful it is to follow Him in contrast to the difficulty life is against Him in Matthew 11:27-30
"All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”