St Bride's: Sermons

Take up your cross...

Mark 8: 31-38

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31 And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

32 And he spake that saying openly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him.

33 But when he had turned about and looked on his disciples, he rebuked Peter, saying, Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.

34 And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

35 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.

36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

37 Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

38 Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

Take up your cross...
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About twelve years ago I attended an international conference, which took me to a country I had never previously visited, and to my shame had known very little about prior to that trip.  The conference was held in Riga, the capital of Latvia. 

During some free time in the conference programme, I went off to explore the city by myself, and I chanced upon the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia - which charts the chilling story of the place and its people, between the years 1940 and 1991.

During those fifty one years, Latvia was occupied three times: first by the Soviet Union; then by the Nazis, who drove out the Soviets; and finally again by the Soviets, when Nazi Germany was defeated at the end of the Second World War.  Each wave of occupation took a heavy toll on the Latvians, including the country's Jewish population, which was wiped out.  By the end of that fifty one years of occupation, Latvia had lost a third of its population: hundreds of thousands had perished as a result of political murder or genocide; others had been deported to Gulags or had fled the country as refugees.  The scale and the extent of the bloodshed and the brutality was hard to take in.  But its consequences were still readily apparent in some of the people I met, and the stories they told.

During the final period of occupation, which ended when Latvia gained its independence in 1991, religious expression of any kind was effectively banned.  During the 1960s many Latvian churches were appropriated by the state; the Lutheran Cathedral in the centre of Riga was taken over and used as a concert hall.  Christians lived under constant intimidation and threat of persecution.  I encountered a man who had lost his teaching job when he was seen leaving an act of worship; and another who had served a long jail sentence for distributing Bibles.

One morning I was invited to lead a Bible Study in the Cathedral for members of its Lutheran congregation - which, given that I speak no Latvian, and none of them spoke any English, was quite an experience.  (Thankfully I had the assistance of an excellent translator.)  The particular passage of scripture that we looked at together touched on what it means to hang on to one's faith in situations that really do seem hopeless - which elicited some remarkable stories and testimonies from the people there.  But the thing that continues to haunt me most about that experience is that during our Bible study some of the older members of the group, who had survived so many of the horrors of previous decades, cried as they spoke.  They of course knew so much more than I did about what is sometimes called 'the cost of discipleship.'

So why am I telling you this particular story this morning?  Because during that visit to Latvia I learned something that completely changed my understanding of today's gospel reading - and indeed, suddenly started to make sense of something that I had always found slightly puzzling about this particular passage.  It was all to do with the saying that I chose as our opening sentence today: Jesus's charge to the disciples that: 'If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.'

You see, I had always assumed that the meaning of that saying was self-evident, if somewhat daunting: Jesus is warning those who would follow him, that true discipleship will always represent a huge personal challenge; it is a profoundly costly business - to the extent that it requires us to deny ourselves and carry a cross.  But, having said that, how does that fit with another of the famous Gospel sayings of Jesus that is equally striking, but seems to say exactly the opposite?  This is from Matthew chapter 11:

'Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.'   (Matthew 11:28-30)

At the risk of stating the glaringly obvious, both sayings use the language of burdens in relation to discipleship, but they appear to be saying completely contradictory things about the nature of those burdens.  Which left me rather curious.

And it was during my stay in Riga, that I suddenly began to understand how the two things come together.   It was at another Bible Study session, this time based on today's gospel reading, that I heard a Latvian Lutheran pastor reflecting on this passage in the light of his own experience.  And he said something that had simply never occurred to me before.  The essence of what he said was this: 'Most people these days assume that when Jesus speaks to his disciples about denying themselves, taking up the cross and following him, he is setting them a difficult challenge.  What they don't realise is that in the ears of those who are already experiencing savage persecution, these words do not come across as a challenge - rather they are an encouragement.  And, of course, it was for Christians, many of whom were experiencing persecution, that the Gospels were written.

In Riga I had been able to spend time with Christians who had endured appalling persecution for their faith; but at the same time, it was that same faith that had enabled them to endure.  The call to take up the cross was their encouragement; it gave them the strength to continue when life was impossibly challenging, knowing that their Lord had walked that path before them.  And yet, at the same time, when they found themselves deeply weary and heavy laden with the burden of it all, they turned to the Lord who gave them rest.

G.K. Chesterton once said, 'The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried'.  But it seems to me that the nature of that difficulty has sometimes been misunderstood.  Because it is not so much the difficulty of striving to achieve moral or personal perfection; nor is it the difficulty that comes of consciously placing oneself in situations of challenge or even danger.  Rather it is about the cost of learning to love, and the risk of surrendering ourselves to the love of God.  Because that is a path characterized by vulnerability and sometimes great pain; but it is also the path that leads us to life.    Amen

 

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