Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 12 Sunday 3 September 2017
Matthew 16.24. Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Within each of us here there is a Christ-life, a life waiting to be lived. As we settle down in life, any early intimations we all had of the divine life are overlaid by endless thoughts, patterns of behaviour, our self-image, our opinions on everything, and the self we show to one another. Yet you wouldn’t be here today if the Holy Spirit had not nudged you into thinking that maybe this self we show to the world is a false self, a bit of a show off, not the person I really want to be at all. Then we hear again One who says, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.
It’s always seemed to me a rather harsh demand. We don’t seek what causes pain. Very few of us are heroes. But perhaps I’ve got it wrong if I see carrying the cross as a sort of hard labour I need to undergo in order to be a real Christian. Christ’s words are an invitation. They are an invitation to be free at last, not carefree (because that will never happen in this world), but free of all the trappings of a false self, stripping away what doesn’t matter, so that we can make the inward journey that Jesus made. The cross is nothing less than real life, and to carry it is to give up all that separates us from life, from God, and from each other. Jesus died with nothing, not even the clothes on his back. As we try to get our lives back on track, we put to one side any idea that we are achieving something, being successful in the spiritual life; that was a daydream we all had once. It is better to stand before God and say, I can not carry this cross, what the world throws at me, it is more than I can bear. And the Christ-life within us will say: I shall carry this cross with you. Christ will never let you down. He cannot, because God is love.
I have been re-reading Pope John XXIII’s book Journal of a Soul, his spiritual autobiography. It’s a great book. The 80 years old Pope, on retreat, talks to Christ hanging on the cross. He says, I’m old now, coming to the end of my service, and yet you are still here with me, suffering and dying for me. How this works, I don’t know, but I do know that I still want to be with you, letting my heart beat with your heart. “Hold me closely,” he says, “and near to your heart, letting mine beat with yours.” And then John XXIII comes up with an image to express what this means. He says, I want to be bound to you (to Christ) for ever with a golden chain, a golden chain which has five lovely delicate links of pure gold. The first link is the justice which obliges me to find my God wherever I turn. God everywhere, God in beauty, God in squalor, God in everyone. We can do that, can’t we? The second link: the providence and goodness which will guide my feet. That is to say, deep gratitude for life itself. The third link: love for my neighbour, unwearying and most patient. The Christ-life within us recognises the Christ-life in others. The fourth link, says Pope John, is the sacrifice that must always be my lot, and that I will and must welcome at all times. The sacrifice you and I are to make is the sacrifice of our crucified lives, because those are the real lives we lead, when we can’t put things right any more, and we offer our lives to God to be cleansed and purified, for our God’s love is a consuming fire, which penetrates and transforms a life. And the fifth link in the golden chain is the glory that Jesus promises me in this life and in eternity. This is the Christ-life, the life with God, outside time, which you and I have known once and will again. So it turns out that the golden chain which binds the heart of Christ to the heart of his servant, John XXIII, is nothing more or less than human experience itself, the life that you and I lead now. Heart speaks to heart. The two hearts beat as one. You carry His cross, and He will carry yours. Follow me, he says.
If there’s one thing to remember today it is that this golden chain, our human experience of the Christ life, is made of beautiful links of pure gold, delicate and complete. Often, in our gloomier moments, we might do an inventory of our life, and we see loss and regret, a series of defeats in an incomplete and unreconciled life. That’s the view from the prison cell, as we pace back and forth. God doesn’t see that. God sees a life of beauty in you, pure gold, delicate and complete. There is joy in his sight of a complete yet wounded person; it is His own glory, the glory of the Cross, which he sees. The Christ life is bound to you with that golden chain of life itself. This is not the chain that imprisons, but is rather the “golden string” [William Blake] that leads us all to freedom. God is love, and love is forgiveness, forgiveness is what Christ brought us, and we are free, each one of us here free to deny our self, take up our cross and follow Him.