Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Trinity: “Take up your cross” preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey on Sunday, 3 September 2023 by the Reverend Robert Green (Romans Ch 12: v 9 – end; Matthew Ch 16: v 21 – end)
Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” is very familiar to us, but the sequel “Alice through the Looking Glass” is a little different in that the reader is required to think inside out. The author created a mirror-image world. In order to get somewhere there was no point walking towards it, as you would find yourself further away. You had to move in the opposite direction. Everything was in a mirror image, and it required a mental effort to imagine all the activities of life working as if in a mirror. If you have ever tried to cut your own hair looking in a mirror you will know what I mean!
In the Gospel last week Peter made his great confession of who Jesus is, and now the disciples have to begin to think in an inside out way. Initially this seems impossible, after all if Jesus is the Messiah, it is obvious they need to sit down and plan a strategy to get rid of the kings and priests, the so-called leaders of Israel. That means a march on Jerusalem, picking up supporters on the way, choose your moment, say your prayers, take over the Temple, and install Jesus as King. That is how God’s Kingdom will come, or so they thought. Jesus’ version of this is through the looking glass way; Yes, they would be going to Jerusalem, Yes, God’s Kingdom is coming, Yes, Jesus will be exulted as King, but the way this will happen is the exact opposite of what the Disciples have in mind. Jesus tells them that he will suffer and be killed. He will confront the rulers and authorities, and they will appear to win the battle by his crucifixion, but then He will be raised from the dead.
Peter nor the Disciples can figure out what he meant by this. Jesus seems to be talking nonsense, and Peter, not for the first time, blunders in with his protest; “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you”. The ‘rock’ on which the Church will be built has suddenly become shifting sand. It is not a good beginning, and Peter is strongly rebuked by Jesus. It is a dire warning to all who acknowledge God’s Call upon their life. God thinks differently, what we might call inside out, which actually is the right way round.
This is further demonstrated by Jesus spelling out God’s Call on those who would follow him. A Call to follow Jesus is like a great bell that has rung down the centuries. Imagine the great tenor bell of the Abbey ringing out through the town as it has done for hundreds of years with this call to “Take up your cross and follow Him”, and there are no half measures here. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” If you are going to learn to swim, at some point your feet have to leave the bottom of the pool, or you will never learn how to do it. It requires total submission to the water, and this is equally true about our Christian life. Last week we sang that great hymn ‘All for Jesus’ which spelt out very clearly our total commitment to Him.
In the Reading we heard from the Epistle to the Romans, St Paul spells out this upside-down thinking in practical terms. He begins with some fairly obvious exhortations about basic morality: “hate what is evil, cling to what is good”, but it does not stop there. We must abandon our normal ways of doing good, our careful calculation of moral balances, of rights rewarded and wrongs paid back. Christians are to be generous, self-giving, overflowing with love, meeting other people where they are, and always with blessing and peace; no cursing, no pride, no vengeance, but with quiet confidence that because the victory has been won on the Cross in the end all wrongs will be put right.
Following Jesus does involve total commitment. It is an all or nothing matter, and this may involve huge sacrifices. We know that practically all of the disciples gave their lives for their faith in Jesus, and all down the centuries men and women have had to surrender everything as they sought to follow Jesus. In the last century there were more Christian martyrs than any previous century in the history of the Church. One of those was Fr. Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish priest who in 1941 was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz. Whilst there one of the prisoners managed to escape, and as a punishment 10 Jews were selected for solitary confinement and ultimate starvation. One of the men cried out in desperation; ”My wife, my children”, whereupon Fr Kolbe took his place, and was confined with the other nine. After a fortnight some were still alive, including Fr. Kolbe, and they were given a lethal injection. He died on 14th August 1941, and was cremated the following day, the Feast of the Assumption. He has since been canonised by the Roman Catholic Church, and at his Canonisation in 1982, the person whose place he had taken in the camp was present at St. Peter’s, Rome.
So as each of us takes up our cross as followers of Jesus whatever the future may hold, be it success or failure, health or sickness, approval or ridicule may we remain faithful to Christ to the end of our lives.