Sermon for Trinity 15 Sunday 16 September 2012
“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
On Friday last we kept the Feast of Holy Cross Day, as St Andrew of Crete reflects, we looked towards and celebrated the Cross, which through our Lord Jesus drove away darkness and brought in the light. As whenever we celebrate the Cross, we recognise that on it and through it, both the fairest of all fair things and the costliest of all things occur. Even though it is a vile and disgraceful instrument of human hatred, it is, for what it achieves for all creation, a beautiful and transformed instrument revealing God’s love.
St Andrew writes “Had there been no cross, Christ could not have been crucified. Had there been no cross, life itself could not have been nailed to the tree. And if life had not been nailed to it, there would be no streams of immortality pouring from Christ’s side, blood and water for the worlds cleansing”. In the Cross is our hope and our salvation, and in the Cross if we look and all we can see is destruction, then we have to look again and believe that God never destroys without providing something better, without offering a new revelation of his love and purpose. So it has been throughout the history of Christ’s people, that following the death and resurrection, many followed suit and taking up the Cross, shared physically in “losing their life and finding their being” as Meister Eckhart writes. So the beauty of this terrible and torturous instrument of human defilement gives us the possibility of life. It’s not an easy image, it is so costly and so tremendous the blessing, that we should never become comfortable with it as an image of our faith, but also we should never banish it out of sight, for comforts sake.
Our Gospel today, in addressing the crowd and the disciples of Christ, also addresses us. If we want to be followers of Him, we are to take up our Cross and follow him who as of yet in our Gospel story has not physically succumbed to the holy wood yet. “Take up your cross and follow me” might throw us immediately into that imagery of sharing in physical and emotional suffering or in the trial of dragging that wood through the City with Simon of Cyrene, sharing in Our Lord’s life. Or, if it is our disposition, we imagine ourselves one on the left and the other on the right or our Lord, tortuously sharing in the physical pain of the Cross and perhaps an overriding sadness for the plight of Christ’s religion in our modern world.
But we read this part of scripture in light of all that we have received, in the centuries of meditations upon the cross. We receive this part of scripture, mindful that for us, the Crucifixion has happened. So we immediately on the whole, see the inspired goal of some in the early church to want to share ad imitate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus “literally”.
Our Gospel mentions Peter, the one who will eventually be crucified upside down, as one who cannot see or imagine the reality of our Lord’s Passion. Peter sees Jesus as the triumphant Messiah, not the tortured one. So he denies our Lord and our Lord snaps back.
So we, being “post-Easter” people might only be able to receive and contemplate the cost of discipleship in relationship to our taking up the cross of the passion ourselves. And reflect immediately as post-Easter people on a teaching which leads us to expect or even want suffering for the community of faith. But! it seems from the Greek text that the subtlety of the word Stauros most probably intended to mean originally not the Cross of Christ, but the cross which was the sign of ownership, perhaps the cross with which cattle were branded. “The Lord is my Shepherd”, “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture”
So the Shepherd of the Sheep reveals, less that we should expect to suffer, (though he must know that to speak the truth leads to some suffering) but more than this, that we should take up, we should glory in our identity as his followers. So take up your cross, take up God’s seal which is upon you. Show forth in your lives, God’s sign. To deny yourselves is to surrender your self-assertion before God and surrender your independence which directs itself against God and we are to become recognisably his. This seems quite an intelligible and authentic saying of the earthly Jesus. But one which of course, after Good Friday, is bound to acquire a new meaning, a saying which rather grandly and presumptuously assumes our cross, is like his.
Suffering for the Christian has enormous redemptive significance in light of Christ’s Passion but as Richard Holloway writes, “Christians who face suffering must not expect any automatic remission of pain. Rather, we must seek to understand by what means the suffering itself may be transfigured into a redemptive energy. We will find that Christ is present in the suffering, but that he does not always rescue us from it. Something more miraculous can happen. The suffering itself can be transcended, and become the vehicle of some new grace.” So we can take up the cross, and suffer for him, if that suffering reveals something of God’s Grace. But what is better perhaps first, is to take up the cross which makes us recognisably his, for us to make visible that baptismal sign.
Perhaps the glory of the Gospel is that it leads us to be a community of faith who recognise suffering as part of our earthly and temporal experience, but it is not fulfilment of God’s promise towards us. Jesus knew the profound effect a few good people could have on society as a whole. If we are to follow him, we are to share in his hope for creation. And as part of that small number we are to reveal in the community of faith and wider, that good effect of our Lords life. The good news, and not believe that we are only ever doomed to suffer with heavy hearts for that is perhaps misplaced piety. For he suffered that we might have life, that we might be glorious, that there might be a paradigm shift in how we are as part of creation, that we might have life abundantly; Life and truth in all its riches, in all its abundance, that we might be transformed.
Of course, we cannot fail our brothers and sisters suffering, and we cannot ignore our own suffering, but we are to be revealed to the world as children of God, not looking to be martyred because the world cannot be convinced by our vocation. Not looking to be martyred because we don’t get our own selfish way, but if you have to be martyred, doing it for the truth revealed in Christ, not in ourselves. ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves (let us loose ourselves in his identity) and take up their cross (allow ourselves to be recognisably his) and follow me.” Follow him.
I have said before, outside of these fine clothes, how am in known as a Christian? So how are you known as a follower of Christ? A question you and I need to answer privately. For we have the mark not of the beast, but of The Shepherd. People often say that pets look like their owners, that curates begin to look like their Vicars… but when do we begin to look like Christ? “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Sermon preached by Fr John Pritchard