First we must understand that Jesus is speaking directly to his students. Those who are following him - confirmed by his saying:
"Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me."As their teacher and the representative of God, Jesus is teaching his students that the passageway to the kingdom of God comes by following God's representative and dedicating ones life to the teachings of God's representative.
This might be compared to how a foreign government might treat the ambassador of a country. If the foreign government people treat the ambassador of the country poorly, or disrespect him, then the president of the country will take offense. If they treat him well, they will please the president of the other country.
In the same way, Jesus is stating that devoting ones life to following the teachings of the representative of God paves the way to re-establishing the student's relationship with the Supreme Being.
Jesus is not saying that ones love for him excludes the Supreme Being. Neither is he saying that he is the Supreme Being. This is confirmed in another statement Jesus made:
“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:22)
So what is the link? The link is that Jesus is also doing the will of the Supreme Being:
"For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of Him who sent me." (John 6:38)
This means that if Jesus is doing the will of the Supreme Being, then those who follow Jesus' instructions will also be doing the will of the Supreme Being.
This is a very personal relationship. This is altogether missed by ecclesiastical institutions who are focused upon their various hierarchies and sectarianism. In their fervor they are missing the intimate loving relationship between Jesus and the Supreme Being. This is communicated throughout the four Gospels, including texts such as:
"By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but Him who sent me." (John 5:30)
“Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what You will.” (Mark 14:36)
This means that as Jesus is asking his students to put their love upon him, he is seeing himself as not the beloved, but the representative of the beloved - the person doing the will of the ultimate beloved - the Supreme Being.
This is confirmed by Jesus' most important instruction:
" 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matt. 22:37-38)
But did Jesus really say "take up their cross and follow me"? Is he recommending that all his students walk around with crosses as though they are heading to their crucifixion?
Don't be ridiculous. The cross that Jesus was forced to drag to his persecution was so heavy he could not lift it. He had to drag it. And certainly Jesus is not recommending his students all drag crosses around.
The Greek word being translated to "cross" is σταυρός (stauros). While it can be construed as a "cross" through interpretation, the strict definition of the word is "an upright "stake", esp. a pointed one, used as such in fences or palisades" according to the lexicon.
Jesus is referring to "stakes" that are typically put in grape vineyards. These are put in to hold up the grapes. Other types of stakes will hold up trees or fences.
And the phrase "take up" is being translated from the Greek word λαμβάνω (lambanō) which means, "to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing in order to use it;" "to take up a thing to be carried;" "to take upon one's self."
Jesus is using a metaphorical phrase that is still in use today:
"to pull up stakes"
When one speaks of "pulling up stakes" they are metaphorically referring to leaving their current place or abode and leaving. They are not talking about literally "pulling up stakes." This phrase originated in ancient times when landowners who moved from their land would take the stakes that held up their trees and fences with them to the next place. They were leaving behind their home and going to a new one.
And Jesus is using this phrase to indicate that he wants his students to metaphorically leave their old consciousness - that consciousness whereby they are the most important person in their life - and follow him. Jesus wants them to redirect their love and their devotion towards the Supreme Being - expressed by putting their love and devotion upon His representative.
The last phrase of Jesus' statement confirms this:
"Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”Jesus is stating that should his students "pull up stakes" on their old consciousness - they will find a renewed life in following Jesus. By denying their consciousness they they are the most important person in the universe, they will find fulfillment in their devotion.
This is because this is our true nature. Underneath these temporary physical bodies we are the children - the loving servants - of the Supreme Being. When we return to that nature by devoting ourselves to the Supreme Being and His representative, we find fulfillment.
(For a translation of Jesus' statements from the Book of Matthew without institutional sectarian influence, see the Gospels of Jesus - translated from the original Greek texts.)