Take up your cross - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Take up your cross

Matthew 16: 21–28

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21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Jesus said to his disciples: 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'

Back in 2003, I attended a conference in Riga, the capital of Latvia - a country with a heartrending and turbulent history that gained its independence from the Soviet Union as recently as 1991. And while I was there, I spent time with some Latvian Christians who, during the Soviet era, had been persecuted for their faith. One of them had lost his teaching job when he was seen leaving a church service; another had been jailed for twelve years for smuggling Bibles into the country.

During my stay I was invited to lead a Bible study in Riga's Lutheran Cathedral (with the help of an excellent translator) for members of its congregation. The text I was given happened to relate to the theme of what it means to hang on to one's faith in situations that appear hopeless. In our discussion afterwards, some of the older members present, who had lived through those terrible years and suffered greatly as a result, actually wept as they spoke about their experiences. It was both profoundly moving and extremely chastening to hear their stories, since I am one of those fortunate Christians who has always enjoyed the luxury of being able to exercise my own faith in safety and freedom.

And one of the insights that I gained during my time there gave me a whole new perspective on this morning's Gospel reading, in which Jesus speaks about the cost of discipleship - a text I had always struggled with, despite recognising its obvious truth and its undoubted importance. If I'm honest, I had always regarded the meaning of that text, in which Jesus speaks of the necessity of 'taking up one's cross', as being self-evident but somewhat depressing: after all, life can be challenging enough as it is, and yet here is Jesus promising to make it a whole lot worse and a heck of a lot more difficult by inviting us to choose to follow him.

And, incidentally, I had always wondered how this famous saying by Jesus squares with another very well-known passage from St Matthew's Gospel, in which Jesus seems to say the exact opposite, namely:

Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Strangely enough, it was during my stay in Riga that I suddenly began to understand how these two (apparently contradictory) texts come together. In our morning worship one day, a Latvian Lutheran pastor was reflecting on our Gospel text in the light of his own experience of discipleship. And he said something that had simply never occurred to me before, the gist of which was this: 'Most people these days assume that when Jesus speaks to his disciples about denying themselves, taking up their cross and following him, he is setting them a difficult challenge. What they fail to realise is that, in the ears of those who are already experiencing persecution, these same words do not sound like a challenge - but as an encouragement.

Which of course they do. Because if you are already carrying a cross, if you are already acutely aware of the cost of discipleship because you are having to live it, this same text brings courage and hope. And I was then reminded that, of course, the original readership, or audience, of St Matthew's Gospel were Jewish Christians, many of whom would themselves have known what it meant to have be rejected by their own community, and persecuted for their Christian faith, as a consequence of their decision to follow the Risen Christ.

Those whose journey of discipleship has cost them dear, whether this was two thousand years ago, or within our own living memory, can receive this text as a kind of encouragement - because they know that, however hard things have been for them, their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has walked that way before them, bearing his own cross. And yet, it is that same Lord who also offers them comfort and consolation when they felt that it all became too much: 'Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden.' Far from being contradictory, these two texts are in fact profoundly complementary, when seen from this perspective.

G.K, Chesterton once famously 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 true nature of that difficulty has sometimes been misunderstood.

Because properly understood, it is not the difficulty of striving to achieve moral or personal perfection; nor is it the difficulty that comes of consciously placing oneself in situations of personal challenge or danger (which is surely perverse, even though there have undoubtedly been Christians throughout history who have embraced that kind of masochism assuming that it must be a virtue in itself).

Rather, it is about the cost of learning to love, and learning how to surrender oneself to the love of God. Because it is the path of love, a path that will always require of its adherents that they open their hearts - entailing a vulnerability that opens us to pain as well as joy and love and grace - that is the only path that truly can lead to life in all its fullness.

I was baptised within the Anglican Church when I was five months old, and although I have explored other Christian traditions during my own journey of faith, it has always remained my spiritual home. But my faith has always been informed in significant ways by the insights and the practices of other Christian traditions. My prayer life has been profoundly shaped by the Ignatian tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. And my experience of working within an ecumenical theological college at an early stage of my ministry, led me to value and respect much about the life and spirituality of the Free Churches.

I remain in particular awe of one tradition within Methodism: that of their annual Covenant service. This is sometimes held at the start of the new year, or in the month of September (which of course is almost upon us now), and is an occasion upon which church members give thanks for all that God has done for them, and reaffirm their wholehearted commitment to God; a commitment that embraces every aspect of their lives, and the choices that they make.

At its heart is the Methodist Covenant Prayer. I hope that my dear brothers and sisters in the Methodist Church will forgive me (as a mere Anglican) for presuming to place this prayer before our own congregation (and I do so with all humility): but its words are so extraordinary and so powerful that, in case any of you have not come across this prayer before, I would like you to hear them. I wonder how many of us would be able to say the following words and mean them?

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

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