One of the many strange things that happens to you when you are ordained is that people tend to hold you responsible for all sorts of things that are clearly the responsibility of God alone. They expect, for example, that you'll be able to fix good weather for weddings...to which my stock reply is “Actually, I'm in Sales – not management”.
It's fair to say that some parts of the job can, on a bad day, feel rather like working in sales or PR for a brand that has almost nothing to recommend it – particularly when you find yourself confronted with readings like those we've heard this evening.
They certainly aren't the stuff of an easy win. In fact, I think I'll change the subject without more ado!
2 weeks into Lent now. How's it going for you?
Are you resolute in your disdain for chocolate, biscuits and alcohol or are you exhausted by the sheer weight of virtuous projects you've taken on.
It's odd, the way the idea of “giving things up for Lent” seems to have survived in our emphatically post Christian society. I guess for many it's really just another chance to have a go at those self improvement resolutions that foundered in the dull days after Christmas...another chance to prove ourselves by triumphing over self-created obstacles but if that's so, then I think we've gone a bit off course.
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Take up your cross
That's sounds, somehow, a whole lot more serious than stepping away from the chocolate. Let's look more closely and try to discover what this Scripture might mean for us.
First of all, a bit of context. Today's passage occurs just after the account of an amazing experience. Jesus took his 3 closest friends on a mountain walk – and as they reached the top the disciples saw, for a few moments, the truth of the man they were following. Before their eyes, Jesus was transfigured – not changed but revealed in all the shining light of his divine nature. It was wonderful – something to treasure (so much so that Peter wanted to build a memorial on the spot), a confirmation that they were on the right track after all, that everything was going to be alright – and BETTER than alright.
To Peter this looked like the start of something big – a PR breakthrough...
...so small wonder he was more than disappointed when instead of building on the triumph Jesus immediately began to talk about suffering, rejection and worse. What?!
Clearly that couldn't be right. Everyone knew that God's Messiah would be a triumphant leader, setting all to rights in a blaze of glory.Indeed, his very triumph would be confirmation that he was indeed God's chosen.
Suffering and death were signs of failure.
A crucified Messiah was simply a contradiction in terms.
But even as Peter tries to silence Jesus, to curb his depressing pronouncements, Jesus tells him that he's got it wrong.
Death IS actually what it's all about...
Death of the self
I can't think of a message less calculated to win friends and influence people but Jesus just doesn't seem to care.
In fact it looks very much as if he's set on putting most of us off before we even start.
Certainly he's determined that we should understand what we are getting into. If you've been baptised, you will have had the cross traced on your forehead – an invisible reminder of the shape your life should take from then on.
You bear a cross.
So do I.
A constant reminder that Discipleship is absolutely Not for the faint-hearted.
“Let them deny themselves”
Words that are anathema in our age of self fulfillment and individualism – but you know, I really don't think it's all about chocolate – and I think we cheat if we use that kind of choice to divert attention from the huge demand of the gospel.
Jesus is saying, quite simply, that we need to learn that we cannot exist as the centre of our own universe...that a world that runs on the principle of self fulfilment for all is very quickly going to become a place of conflict and unhappiness...that a little ego goes a very long way.
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
Last week I saw “Oppenheimer” - a very powerful drama about the man responsible for developing the atomic bomb. As the plot developed we saw him repeatedly making choices that seemed to stem from his own pride, choices that divorced him step by step from his own humanity. The success of the project became all important. While at first there was talk of the deterrent power of the bomb, of the way that it would cut war short and so save countless lives, soon it became clear that it was now an end in itself. It was a chilling experience, watching scientific brilliance dedicated ever more deeply to a cataclysmic cause – and as we emerged, the big question in our group was “How do you live with yourself afterwards”.
It seemed to me that we had been watching the experience of someone losing their own soul right enough – and losing it as a result of a determination to hold on to the ego and all that went with it.
That's really what's going on at the centre of everything...and where we should focus if we're serious about engaging with Lent.
It's a struggle of life and death as our human tendency to “me first” contends with the incredible power of self-giving love that is God's very essence.
Really not just chocolate.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it.
Thankfully, Jesus doesn't simply talk enigmatically. - he models in his own person this upside down way of being, and invites us to live it too.
In fact, this whole passage is deeply prophetic – looking ahead to the way in which Jesus, losing his own life on the cross, gains it and in so doing transforms our life, our death and our future.
There are no guarantees of a pain free life. Indeed if we are serious about setting aside our egos then we can surely expect to find ourselves feeling and carrying some of the grief of the world ourselves...
But we are offered the help that we need in order to bear it.
Jesus steps in and carries it all....the sadness, disappointment, anger, doubt, and denial....all the weight of broken humanity.
But we can choose to carry it too...to learn to be Christ-like by sharing in his suffering even as we hope to share in his glory.
We will all have our own unique burdens – made out of the stuff of our own lives and experience...
Of failure and loneliness, a difficult relationship, a sick relative, things we might well prefer to jettison, but find ourselves carrying day by day. Your cross will be quite unlike mine, - it might look more manageable – or less...That doesn't matter, because your cross belongs to you. No exchange programme possible.
I can't carry your cross...but Jesus can and does bear it with you.
His invites us on this arduous road of discipleship because he knows that the way of the cross leads through pain and suffering to the new life of Easter.
It's into this that we are baptised...sharing Christ's death so that we might also share his resurrection.
Peter could not believe that the route to the Kingdom lay through the death of his Master ...but we can look at the cross with the perfect, 20/20 vision of hindsight...
We KNOW that, however painful, however difficult the here and now – Easter is coming.
For now we are still in the midst of Lent, still havering over chocolate, still not sure what will happen in our own unfinished stories, unsure if it will all come out right one day,
But, despite the PR disasters, there is good news for us here this evening.
You see, whether our lives end
in outward success or failure, acclaim or ignominy, whether we achieve our
goals or feel that we have never really amounted to anything in the world's
eyes, we are just as precious to God, Today, in mid-Lent, in mid-term, let’s not hurry on to the happy ending of Easter. Let’s take the time to realise that just where we are – even struggle and uncertainty, God is with us and God loves us, and he will bring Easter when the time is ripe. .