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

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:

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?

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.

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.

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.