Saturday, February 24, 2018

Take up your cross

Take up your Cross

Mark 8: 31-end.

HEALTH WARNING…the first four paragraphs are a parody…to be read in a phoney American accent!

I have great pleasure in announcing that from today, we are changing our name.  From now on, we will be known as the "Havant Branch of the Church of the Blessings of the Almighty Saviour Jesus ".  Why is this? Well let me tell you, brothers and sisters. Last night, I had a vision! The Lord God Almighty spoke to me from the heavens. He said to me...

"Rector", he said, "Rector - I have good news for you! I want to shower you and your congregation with abundant blessings. (Praise the Lord!) I am going to make yours a church of millionaires! You are going to become so wealthy, so full of miracles, so full of powerful acts of God Almighty, that the whole of Havant will flock to your doors!

All your congregation has to do is to show that they trust me. They simply have to sign over the deeds to their houses to the church. Then I will know that they trust me. Then I will bless them with riches from heaven. Then they will become millionaires, and all their problems will disappear". (Praise the Lord!)

So, my brothers and sisters, our Treasurer, Brother Clive, will be standing by, at the ready, with forms for you to sign. Just sign over the deeds of your house to the church, and the Lord God Almighty, in the glorious name of Jesus, will give you your heart's desire! A-men, brothers and sisters. A-men!


It's a bit frightening to think that there really are churches like that in the world.  They feed on people's misery. They create an image of the world which is so pumped up with future hope, that gullible people really do believe that God is in the business of making them wealthy...but they are tricked into making their preachers wealthy instead.  Hmmm…perhaps I’m in the wrong branch of the church?!

According to today’s Gospel text, modern-day prosperity preachers are not the first people to have got the wrong end of the stick. This text comes at a pivotal point in Mark's gospel. Up until this chapter, which comes right in the middle of the gospel, Jesus' disciples have seen him doing all sorts of amazing things. He drives out evil spirits, heals and feeds the multitudes; he’s even walked on water, and been transfigured by shining light on the mountain-top, in the company of Elijah and Moses. But now, in this passage, the whole trajectory of Jesus' life and ministry pivots, towards Jerusalem, and to the incomprehensible scandal of the Cross.

Verse 31: "He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected...and be killed".(Mk 8:31). You can just imagine Peter's reaction can't you? He probably thinks that Jesus has gone nuts.  Perhaps the Messiah has been working too hard?  Perhaps he needs to go on Extended Ministerial Study Leave! So Peter rebukes Jesus. Matthew's gospel gives us the words that Mark doesn't record: "Never, Lord" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (Matt 16:22)

But Jesus is adamant. He tells Peter off with really startling words: "Get behind me, Satan!" Pretty stern stuff.  And then Jesus goes on, in verse 33: "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things". In other words, "You are thinking like a man, but by now you should be starting to think as God see things from God's perspective".

Anyone confronted with the idea of suffering might well react as Peter reacts. After all, God can heal, can't he? Jesus' many miracles are proof that God does not delight in suffering.  And yet, somehow, for reasons we might only be able to guess at, suffering enters into God's plan for humanity.  It's there. It was there for Jesus, who suffered on the cross.  It was there for the many whom Jesus encountered but did not heal.   Suffering, somehow, is part of the plan. Christians who are fixated on the Jesus of the miracles have missed out on the suffering Jesus of the Cross.

But that is precisely whom we are confronted with in this text. Jesus had to was part of the divine plan.  But Jesus says that suffering is part of the package for us too..."anyone who wants to follow me must deny himself, and take up his cross". (Mark 8:34

Let's notice that there are, in fact, two elements to Jesus stark statement: we are called first to 'deny self', and secondly, to 'take up our cross'. Let's look at those in turn.

First - what does it mean to 'deny self'?

To deny self, when you think about it, is actually about putting others first.  It's a way of living that always looks out for other people. It's a way of living which never asks "what's in it for me?" but rather "what's in it for my neighbours, and for the Kingdom of God?".  Think about this:  if Jesus had asked himself 'what's in it for me?' before embarking on his ministry, he would never have got beyond his baptism.  We too are called to live that live generously…

…And to live lightly upon the earth.  The son of man had nowhere to lay his head.  To deny self, is also about learning to let go of the things we shackle ourselves with – learning that true contentment is not found in great wealth, but in great relationships, with God and neighbour.  There’s a saying among a certain group of rich people which indicates something of the contemporary mindset about wealth:   “He who dies with the most toys, wins”. 

Nothing of course could be further from the truth.  “You fool”, says God in Jesus parable of the farmer with massive barns.  “This very night, your life will be required of you”.  You can’t take any of it with you.  Jesus says:  “Deny yourself.  Build up treasure that thieves cannot break in and steal.  Build up treasure for heaven”.

Secondly, what did Jesus mean by saying we have to take up our cross?

A while ago, I spent time with a parishioner in my previous parish who had become very frail – let’s call her Lucy.   Lucy had spent all her life serving others through the church. She had been at coffee mornings and fundraisers, and served on the PCC, and made endless cups of tea. She had truly denied herself for others.  And yet, Lucy now found herself frail, bed-bound, and unable to serve others anymore. She even had to rely on others to help her to the bathroom.

Lucy’s body was failing her.  But her mind was as sharp as a razor – and she was a thinker.  She said something very profound to me.  She said "perhaps God is teaching me that there was still a bit of pride in me.  I’m learning that I need to let others serve me for a change. Perhaps I'm learning that in the end, we all must rely on God, and on other people.  That none of us can exist in isolation."

I was intensely moved by what Lucy said.  After a life-time of Christian faith God was still teaching her something deep, something profound, about our need for each other, and for God.  There was, for Lucy at least, a purpose in her suffering.  She learned to gladly take up her cross, for what it would teach her and others.

Jesus own suffering clearly had purpose too. But I find it interesting that the Gospels themselves don't provide a definitive answer to why Jesus had to suffer. The task of interpretation is one that was left to later writers, like St Paul - and other great thinkers of the Church.  All that Mark says on the subject, in today's reading, is that Jesus taught his disciples "that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering" (Mark 8:31). The task of working out why is something that Jesus leaves to his Church. We continue to grapple with it...just as we grapple with the reasons for our own suffering, or the suffering of martyrs across the centuries, and even now in other lands.

We continue to grapple - but we also continue to trust...that denying self, and taking up our own cross - participating in our own suffering and the suffering of the world is an essential, central message that is right at the heart of the Gospel.

May you come to know the power of God that is often revealed in suffering. May you come to know the power of denying self, and taking up the cross that is offered to you.  May you come to know that God's power is so often revealed in and through weakness - our own weakness, as well as the weakness of those we encounter.

And it’s alright…you don’t have to sign over the deeds of your house to Brother Clive!


Saturday, February 3, 2018

John 1 - The Sacrifice of Light

John Chapter 1

I think I can guess what at least some of you are thinking this morning.  “Why on earth are we hearing that Christmas reading again?”  Others of you are probably thinking “He’s taken down the crib – at last – but he’s forgotten to take down the star!”

Well, you’d be wrong.  I haven’t forgotten, you see.  I’ve left the star up quite deliberately.  Because – I think - that poor old star needs a bit more prominence in the Christian story.  As for why we are being asked by the Lectionary writers to think about the Word becoming flesh again….well, let me try to explain.

Everyone loves a story.  Stories are powerful ways to communicate – which is precisely why Jesus used parables, and why we all love movies and books.  The Christmas Story that we’ve just worked our way through is one of the best.  It’s the perfect combination of rustic shepherds, visiting magicians, angels and animals….and there’s a baby in it, just to finish off the ‘Ah!’ factor.  At least, that’s all according to Luke and Matthew. 

But John, writing his Gospel some decades after Luke and Matthew, is not interested in shepherds and wise men.  Scholars tell us that John wrote his Gospel in his old age – after a lifetime of spreading the message of Jesus.  No doubt the stories about wise men and shepherds were already circulating widely.  John didn’t need to re-hash them.  So he goes deeper…much deeper than a typical Christmas congregation is ready to grasp.  Such congregations are usually too high on Christmas Spirit  (of one form or another) to want to do any meaningful theology.  Which is why, I think, the Lectionary writers give us one more bite at the cherry, at this moment in the year. 

After a lifetime of teaching and learning, John wants us to grasp the enormity of the Christmas event, the coming of Jesus, what scholars call the ‘Incarnation’.  ‘Incarnation’ describes the in-dwelling of God in human form.  The ‘Incarnation’ is that moment when God, who is Spirit, takes on human flesh.

There are two words which John especially plays with, in his poetic Gospel introduction.  The first is ‘Word’, and the second is ‘Light’.  Let me see if we can’t break them down a little.
‘Word’ is the English translation of ‘Logos’ – a Greek word from where we get the word ‘logic’.  John is saying that the incomprehensible being we call God is many things – spirit, love, a creative force that binds the universe together.  But God is also mind.  God has thoughts.  He – or indeed she - has desires and intentions for the world that has been created.  God’s thoughts, God’s logic, God’s reason – these are the ‘Logos’ – the ‘Word’.  “In the beginning was the Word” – the Logos – “and the Word was with God and the Word was God”.  It’s one of those great big thoughts that we human beings struggle to get our tiny brains around – that God can be thought of as having different aspects, but each of them is also fully God’.  So, God’s reason, his Word, can be part of God as well being completely God.  “The word was with God and “was God”.

And, John is saying, that ‘Word’ is the aspect of God which became human and dwelt among us.  Again – incomprehensible, isn’t it?  How can an aspect of God become human, while not dividing God up into different people?  If God is on earth, in the form of Jesus, how can he also be still in heaven?  And how come Jesus (God the Son on earth) prays to God the Father in heaven?  Is he talking to himself?  It’s enough to make your brain explode!  And that’s ok.  We are limited, created beings.  We cannot ever begin to grasp the reality of God – and anyone who tells you that they have understood God is a fool.

So, confronted with the sheer enormity of what he’s trying to say, John chooses a different picture.  He uses a metaphor.  He has stated the truth as clearly as he can grasp it, by talking about the ‘Word’ dwelling among us.  But now he chooses a different tack, and begins to talk about ‘Light’.

Ah!  That’s better.  ‘Light’ we can understand.  We know about Light.  We see its effects.  We know that even a tiny spark of light cannot be extinguished by the darkness.  We know that if this church was completely darkened, save for one candle, all our attention would be focused on that single solitary light.

“In Jesus”, says John, “was life, and that life was the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.

And that, ultimately, is the message of Christmas, and the good news of the Gospel.  Darkness is all around us.  The darkness of war, and famine, and poverty, and homelessness and selfishness and consumerism and racism and fear of the stranger and all hatred and rebellion against the reason and logic of God.  “But the light shines in the darkness”.

In Jesus, through his teaching, his life, and yes even by his death, life is offered to the world.  Jesus’ whole life is offered to us, by John and the other Gospel writers, as The narrow Way to life.  His way of living – generously, lovingly, wisely, sacrificially is offered to us as an example of what God’s logic and reason look like.  Generosity, Love, Wisdom and Sacrifice.  These are signposts for us.  Generosity, Love, Wisdom and Sacrifice.  Lights in the darkness.  Clues to how we too should live, if we truly want to find life.  And clues about how we can choose to live if we truly want to shine God’s love into the lives of those around us.

Last week, at the end of our service, we lit candles and held them aloft, promising to be lights to the world.  Three times, in response to challenges from David at the Font, the whole congregation said “Let us shine with the Light of your Love”.   So let me ask you…how’s it going?  Where have you shined God’s light of love this week, the first week since you made that commitment?

Generosity.  What new generosity have you shown this week?  Who has been touched, or had their life transformed by your gift.  Did you remember to bring a gift for the foodbank to church this morning?  Well done, if you did.  Has the suffering of one Syrian refugee been relieved by your generosity this week.  Thank you.  Or perhaps you gave a gift to help pay for the costs of keeping this church shining as a light in its community, such as the repair to the West Door.  Thank you, if you did.

Love.  Who has experienced your love this week?  Who has woken up this morning feeling lighter, less burdened, more deeply regarded because of the Love you have shown them.  Well, I bless you for showing that Love.

Wisdom.  How have you grown in wisdom this week?  Which passages of the Bible that you have undoubtedly been reading have struck you with new insight?  What wise decisions have you made about the lifestyle you lead, or the consumer-choices you’ve made?

And finally, sacrifice.  Sacrifice is more than simple generosity.  To sacrifice is to give until it hurts.  Sacrifice is what Jesus made on the cross.  Sacrifice is the change of mind which knows that nothing I own belongs to me…but everything is God’s. Sacrifice is the act of giving up everything, all possessions, all rights, all privileges for the greater, deeper, mind-blowing privilege of shining God’s light into God’s world.  It’s about putting everyone else first, holding nothing back…but being poured out completely for the good of the world. 

Stars make that kind of sacrifice.  In order to continue shining their light into the heavens, a star must continue to sacrifice itself, constantly.  To shine, for a star, is to burn up its resources in the service of the Universe.  Eventually, after all the hydrogen in a star is burned up, the Star will die.  It will give itself completely to its task.

That’s why I’ve left the star hanging there for one more week.  We have Christmas in our memories, and the promises of Candlemass in our hearts. May we also be reminded that we too, like Jesus, are called to give ourselves completely to the task of shining God’s light into our world.