Take up your Cross

Trinity 15 Colwall

Isaiah 50.4-9a;     James 3.1-12;     Mark 8.27-38

To hear the sermon as you read:

When we lived in Swindon we had a link with a town in Germany, Salzgitter, and I was fortunate enough to go on one of the exchanges and stay with the Lutheran pastor there. The day before returning a few of us visited an iron ore mine, the deepest, they said, in Europe. Above the shaft was a statue of St Catherine, their patron saint, and the miners coming to the surface wished those about to descend a safe return – it had a religious flavour to it, like a prayer. Just after getting back home I described this and spoke of the dangers involved at an assembly in our junior high school. Later that day I had a phone call from one of local health visitors. She said, “Oh, I am so relieved to hear your voice. I just heard you’d been killed in a mining accident in Germany.”

In the parish we had some tall blocks of flats, and very sadly a young single mother accidentally dropped her baby from a balcony on the ninth floor. I took the baby’s funeral. Neighbours began to suggest that it hadn’t been an accident, and shortly afterwards the mother, having heard these rumours, committed suicide – I won’t say how – and I took her funeral as well.

St James was right, wasn’t he? The tongue, small as it is, can start a terrible, destructive blaze. Christians, trying to love their neighbours, therefore should avoid gossip and rumour and damaging innuendo; and also, of course, shouldn’t necessarily believe what the papers write about people, who’ve been accused but not found guilty of horrible crimes.

Jesus himself suffered from false accusations. He’s a glutton and a drunkard, they said. He can only heal people because he’s in league with the devil. He breaks the Sabbath laws ... and so on. As it said in Isaiah – and it could have been Jesus speaking: “I gave my back to those who struck me. I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”

He knew he had it coming to him. It was clear that if he continued along the path he was taking, it was bound to lead to suffering and hate-filled, murderous rejection by the religious leaders of the day, the very people who were supposed to be on God’s side. And similar troubles, he said, could also be in store for any who became his followers.

The account of what happened at Caesarea Philippi comes plumb in the middle of St Mark’s Gospel, deliberately so, I think, as it marks a turning point in Jesus’ ministry life. Before is a sort of gathering together, a setting up for what was to follow. After is heading to Jerusalem and Calvary.

I’ve always been impressed by the way that until this point Jesus had not said who he was, even to those who were his dearest friends. Right at the end of his life, at his trials before Caiaphas and Pilate, he admitted, if only obliquely, to being Son of God and King of the Jews. And on the Sunday before, Palm Sunday, he acted in a way, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, that proclaimed him to be the Messiah, the Christ. But to begin with, he remained silent about his identity.

Partly, no doubt, it was because he didn’t want people to have the wrong expectations of him. A political and military messiah is what most people would have wished for, especially at that time of Roman occupation, but that of course was very far from what Jesus had in mind. But in the main, I think, he was silent because he wanted those he’d chosen to be his closest companions and afterwards his ambassadors, to come to their own conclusion about him. He wanted them to make up their own minds from their observation of his personality, his lifestyle, the way he dealt with others, and the relationship he seemed to have with God.

Simon and Andrew, James and John, all twelve of them, must have had endless discussion about this mysterious leader of theirs, this man they’d left everything to follow. But it was only now, here at Caesarea Philippi after they’d been with him 18 months or so, that their opinion was finalized and expressed.

“What are people saying about me?” Jesus asked them, “Who do they say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other great prophets.” “But you,” he said, “who do you say I am?” And Peter spoke for them all, “You are the Messiah.”

How gratified he must have been with that answer. But immediately he had to emphasize that he would not be the Messiah of popular expectation. He was destined to suffer and even to die. At this, Peter remonstrated with him, rebuked him even, the gospel says. So Jesus had to underline it in a most unambiguous fashion: “Get behind me, Satan,” he said. To back away from his mission at that juncture must have been very tempting – a satanic temptation.

But of course we know that he resisted that and resolutely, courageously pressed ahead. And on that line he had something to say, not only to his disciples, but also to the crowd he’d then called to gather round him – and also to us today: “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Let’s each of us put it in the first person: “If I want to be a follower of Jesus, I must deny myself and take up my cross and follow him.” It’s radical and it’s difficult. It is not about little bits of self-denial – chocolate, cream cakes, booze or other self-indulgencies. It’s about a renunciation of self – that’s the word some versions use – renouncing ourselves. He wants us to give up everything in our lives that could be called selfish. He wants us to stop being self-centred and to become God-and-other-people-centred. He calls us not to be self-assertive, not to push ourselves forward, not to promote ourselves. But isn’t that entirely contrary to what today’s world calls us to do if we want to succeed in the world? Yes, it is, and that’s why this is so very difficult. Meekness is seen as weakness. Jesus’ contemporaries found it difficult too. After this, the gospel tells us, many of them left him. They’d been attracted by his teaching and his personality, but this was asking too much.

One worrying question in my mind is: Is this anti-evolutionary – survival of the fittest and all that? Survival of the most pushy – the queue-jumpers? Also, if everyone embraced denying self, would that hinder progress? At first thought it might seem so, but really it would mean that people would only invent things and promote improvements in the first place for the benefit of others.

Now self-renunciation does not preclude modest self-indulgence. I expect we’re all in favour of at least a bit of indulgence, as, I think, Jesus himself was. He clearly enjoyed dining out at people’s houses and he spoke about celebratory banquets. He showed that we’re meant to enjoy life and God’s provision of good things. And that can easily go along with refraining from self-promotion.

Perhaps it’s self-indulgent on my part to tell a story which some of you will have heard before. A little girl was given a teddy bear which had distinctly odd eyes, and she named it Gladly. “Why?” they asked her. “Because of the hymn,” she said, “Gladly, my little cross I’d bear.”

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Quite often in everyday language people talk about some unavoidable suffering or disability or burden put upon them as the cross they’ve been called upon to bear. But this taking up the cross that Jesus was talking about isn’t something that happens to us, but something we have to choose to do ourselves, even if rather reluctantly. To take it up we have to stoop down and lift it onto our shoulder, just like Jesus had to do.

For him it meant giving up his job, leaving home and his mother and brothers and sisters; it meant being misunderstood by those closest to him, as well as those who opposed him; it meant having enemies; it meant physical suffering; it meant literally taking up a cross and dying upon it. Thank God, it also meant a glorious vindication on Easter morning. But there is no Christianity without a cross.

Well, what does taking up our cross mean for us? We are not all required to resign our jobs and start a new and different life. Though that does happen to some: those who transfer to fulltime ministry or missionary work or looking after refugees or some other humanitarian work. But this taking up a cross is the positive other-side-of-the-coin from the negative denying ourselves. It might mean taking up on our shoulders burdens of caring for others, who need caring for, or burdens of responsibility in societies or in society as a whole. It might mean giving not only time and energy, but also generous sums of money. And day by day – in St Luke’s Gospel it actually says take up your cross day after day – so, day by day it means letting the influence of the cross of Jesus, with its message of sacrificial love, penetrate our lives – our work, our leisure, our family life and all our personal relationships.

This could all sound rather gloomy and martyr-like – keep a bridle on your tongue, deny yourself, take up your cross. But it’s about being a follower of Jesus, and his life was very far from being dreary or insipid. At times of course he was sad and solemn and stern and very serious, but generally, I think, we ought to picture him as cheerful – be of good cheer was one of his favourite exhortations. He enjoyed God’s world and God’s children; he was, I’m sure, a real pleasure to be with. Being his follower means being like him and doing as he did.  And that involves putting myself last and taking upon my shoulders a practical care