Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me
Sermon for 2006 March 12, St Mary Magdalen, Sheet
Bible readings: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Mark 8:31-end
Hampshire is a seafaring county and even north of the Downs Petersfield has strong connections with the sea and with the navy. Which puts me at a disadvantage because I am quite a landlubber Ė I canít sail or windsurf, or even swim very well. But one thing I have enjoyed is piloting a narrowboat. Now narrowboats are built for canals but occasionally you have to take them onto the tidal reaches of the Thames, which is quite scary because the currents are very strong and narrowboats have a maximum speed of about 6 knots at the best of times. On one occasion I remember trying to cross the river and experiencing for real what I had learned in school maths lessons about vectors Ė anyone know about the triangle of velocities? Basically if I want to go in this direction I would have to set my eyes and my tiller firmly in that direction and as if by magic I would arrive where I wanted to go.
Well thereís no magic about Jesusí words in our Gospel reading. But they do have the same principle except even more extremely. Basically in order to meet your deepest needs you have to not just ignore them but face in the opposite direction. What are your deepest needs and desires? I would guess
- to be self-fulfilled,
- to have life in all its fullness
- perhaps even ultimately to be kings and queens. Certainly to have some sort of power Ė to be in control.
In our dreams, maybe! Those things are the stuff of dreams but we crave them at our peril. Jesus actually says that whoever wants to save his life will lose it! Instead, and this is the great theme of Lent that we use in our prayers throughout this season, we are to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus. Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him.
It is really hard to overestimate the impact of these words. There were three aspects about them which I must admit I had missed in the past, or anyway forgotten about:
- I had kind of imagined him saying these things to his closest disciples. He had been doing this, teaching his disciples about the suffering and death that was to come. But for this hardest of messages he waited until he had called the crowd to him. There was no way Jesus was going to sell some dream to the masses. Itís so stark and completely honest Ė to everyone present he says "if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.
- The second thing is that Jesus is not making some kind of personal plea. Itís interesting that he uses the third person: "He (or she) must deny himself (or herself), take up his (or her) cross and follow me". Itís almost stronger for being stated in such a factual, impersonal way. This is how it is.
- And the third thing is the mention of the cross. This is something we can easily get confused about. For us the cross is a heavily loaded symbol. Of course itís the cross of Jesus but it covers such a range of thoughts and feelings. Take up your cross Ė I always think of Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus to carry his cross, but thereís
- the cross we carry round Petersfield on Good Friday as a witness,
- the cross as a rallying standard for war,
- or just the phrase "we all have our cross to bear".
So itís hard to imagine the impact of this word on the crowd listening to Jesus who didnít have all this baggage. Itís the first mention of the cross in the Gospel and for them it had a single, much starker and plainer, meaning, it was an instrument of oppression, torture and death for traitors and criminals.
So these words of Jesus are almost unbelieveably harsh. Why did the Prince of Peace and the king of love offer such a very hard path to follow?
- Why deny ourselves instead of fulfil ourselves?
- Why take up a cross of death instead of live life to the full?
- Why even be a follower when we are destined for power and glory?
Itís a fair question to ask, and the answer is related to our navigation problem. The answer is because of the prevailing current of human attitudes, what Jesus calls "this adulterous and sinful generation". An adulterous generation we are Ė a recent survey shows that about half the adults in this country believe adultery to be OK in some circumstances. But by adultery here I believe Jesus means more, heís referring as the prophets often did to a people who had been unfaithful to God and and gone off with false gods of money, sex and power. This is why Jesus had to be so very radical. And itís just as relevant today.
The idea of denying ourselves really is against the current thinking.
- Identity is important especially as itís something people now try to steal from us.
- One of the greatest weapons used by torturers is to try to wipe away personality and a sense of self-worth.
- Low self-esteem is often seen as a real problem.
- And even what we are called is important, just as it was for Abram and Sarai in the Old Testament reading.
Yet here is Jesus saying we have to deny ourselves. Itís a drastic answer to a drastic problem.
And to take up our cross? Does this really mean to seek death? We may revere our Christian martyrs but in todayís language those who claim to be martyrs are the suicide bombers! This is surely so far away from what Jesus was saying? And yet Jesus himself, who lived life in all its fulness, who was surely one of the most life-affirming people in history, died an untimely death. By taking up our cross we declare ourselves to be willing to share in Christís humilation and suffering and death just as we share in his life.
Itís exhausting even thinking about these things. They are so hard. Let me be honest. I canít do them. I canít deny myself and take up a cross! Can you? Surely there are some words of encouragement we can find among all this? Some reassurance?
Well, there is. As we take these impossibly hard words into our hearts this Lent and ponder on them, let me leave you with three thoughts that might just help us to act.
- First is that the alternative is just rubbish. As Jesus said, what good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul (or his life). This sounds like even more harsh words and yet it can be curiously reassuring to be freed from an ambition that we know to be useless! One of the good things about the 21st century and scientific progress is that every year there seems to be more scientific basis for this attitude. Many studies have shown for example that beyond a fairly low basic minimum there really is no correlation between wealth and happiness.
- Second comes at the end of our reading in the form of a negative but in some ways straightforward principle: Donít be ashamed of Jesus and his words. Donít be ashamed. In that simple rule we have the seeds of being able to deny ourselves, to say that Christ matters more, and to take up our cross, to take pride in being disciples of the man who suffered and even seemed to fail.
- And third is what I find most reassuring of all and if you want you can go right back to the tidal reaches of the Thames to understand it. That is that what matters is not how fast we are going towards these difficult goals, nor how powerful our engine is. What matters most is that we are facing and moving in the right direction. We just need to follow Jesus. If we are not facing him now, turn round. Thatís the hard bit. After that all that matters is to go in the right direction. This means that small steps count.
- To achieve self-denial before lunch might be too hard, but what about smaller steps? How about thinking twice next time we are tempted to do something to save face, to say "I told you so". Or covering our backs? Even the little symbolic gestures we may be making to give something up in Lent do matter and they do help. If we are facing in the right direction, small steps count.
- To take up our cross before tea might be a tall order, but we can stand up for Jesus in many ways even if it might bring ridicule or even worse.
Finally, I want to say goodbye to the narrowboat picture. One thing wrong with it is the same with any travel picture and that is that you are either travelling or you have arrived. Thatís not how it is when we follow Jesus. Thereís a verse we missed that comes next: "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power". This is another difficult and enigmatic verse, but itís a good example of how Jesus mixes up present and future. Because although we are following and travelling in one sense, when we deny ouselves and take up our cross we are not doing it in a kind of quid pro quo deal for future glory. Just as in the eggs of a newborn baby girl, the elements of our future life are already here within us, small but perfectly formed. Provided we agree to the last two words of that saying of Jesus , which are the most important: deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.