Lent 2 ~ Take up your cross
I spent some of this past week in Yorkshire – God’s own county – in fact in Leeds. I’ve never been to Leeds before, so that was a nice little adventure, although I was in conclave preparing a new edition of the New English Hymnal. Part of the fun for me, is the train ride, although both going and coming had its difficulties. The upward train was packed, which made even reading difficult, and the homewards trip was marred by almost having a train crash. The train stopped suddenly near Grantham, and we were apologized to and then held waiting, with the only information given to us being that there was no information to give. The delay ended up being 75 minutes. Still we were pleased there had been no crash, rather a mere stopping, while the powers that be took stock of the situation, before authorizing a restart and an attempt to whizz back down to London.
And it is a bit like that as we arrive at today’s gospel passage. It is preceded by – and perhaps you remember – the account of the Transfiguration, which itself is a kind of pausing point in the gospel narrative of Jesus’ ministry and passion. The transfiguration of Jesus, appearing in glory with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, brings everything to a standstill, not quite as abruptly as a speeding train, but nevertheless it is a stationary moment. So stationary in fact that you may remember that Peter thinks it is a terminus, and suggests setting up booths for the prophets and Jesus, for he thinks this is it - that we have arrived.
But the transfiguration is no more of an arrival than a nice field in Lincolnshire is an arrival for a train going from Leeds to London! The mountain is a high point for sure, a great view – not unlike the great view from the Mount of Temptation I talked about last week, but nevertheless, we have to come down from the mountain, and so do Jesus, Peter and the disciples.
It must have been a bit strange, full of the frankly weird Transfiguration experience, Peter is still on some kind of high even though they have come down the mountain. He confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, and then he gets bolshy when Jesus predicts his death and resurrection – the point at which our Gospel reading today picks up the story. A bit like passengers on a stationary train, Peter gets impatient and cross when something beyond his control happens. We can relate to this – especially in a fast moving, frenetic world, which demands and expects speed and efficiency, especially in and around London.
Some people cannot cope with traffic jams, or delays, get wound up, worried, angry. Sometimes a delay can cause a genuine problem or inconvenience, but one of the key roots to the issue when folk cannot handle delays, jams or changes to plan is the lack of control that such experiences force us to respond to – or not. Nobody on a stationary train can do anything. And getting angry achieves more than nothing – indeed it is invariably counter-productive, tempers and blood pressures rise, and no-one gets happier – far from it. And even the calmest people can get fraught, upset, or angry when someone else’s frustrated anger turns on them. And this is what happens with Peter and Jesus.
Jesus has to tell them that he is going to die. Telling your loved ones that you are going to die is a hard thing indeed - emotionally draining, and it requires not only pastoral care, but emotional energy and courage. And you never know what reaction will follow. And often what one says in these situations is not fully or properly heard. And there is always that tendency to not want to believe it, to mishear, or to recast what they are being told in a positive light. This is natural, human, inevitable even.
If it’s any consolation to anyone, remember that Jesus had to do it too. Today’s gospel shows us that moment. Yet Jesus has good news - really good news – the good news – to go with it, but Peter, in typical impatient, pastorally damaged, impetuous manner, gets it wrong, loses control of the situation and blows up, causing Jesus, who is somewhat stressed too, to rebuke him. It is an emotionally charged event, in which we move from post-transfiguration euphoria to highly charged dialogue about life, death and the meaning of life. And that all boils down, then as now, to questions about discipleship. Questions about what it is and what it means, and what it involves, to be a true follower of Christ.
Discipleship involves suffering: If the Messiah must suffer, so must his followers. As soon as Peter expressed the disciples’ conviction that Jesus truly is the Christ, Jesus began to teach them about what must be, and what lies ahead. But this blunt, clear teaching upset the disciples. They didn’t want Jesus to die.
Jesus immediately applied what he had said about discipleship. He could see where his ministry would end. If Jesus was to stay true to his mission from his Father, there could be no other outcome. Through that death will come new resurrection life for Jesus and also new life for those who believe in him.But Jesus said that the way for disciples to experience that new life was through a self-denial like his own.
So he tells the twelve that if they wish to follow they must also deny self, take up their cross, and follow him. The cross was a vile disgusting thing that no good Jew would mention. It was cursed in the Old Testament and no Jew would have contemplated touching one, let alone taking one up and walking with it. It is only in the Christian faith that the cross is stripped of its Jewish curse, and becomes a symbol of hope, a symbol of God’s amazing love, a symbol to which we may cling.
So with this radical approach to salvation, Jesus calls for a new kind of discipleship that is a total change of direction. We can link it to the saying – ‘no one can serve two masters’. We cannot hold to the cross of Christ Jesus and still carry on with the old set of standards. We cannot serve God and the world. And in Lent it is surely right that we are reminded of, even presented with this choice once more.
After Easter I shall be taking the curates of the Diocese to Berlin, and while we are there we shall have a seminar in the house lived in by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered for his faith, seventy years ago – executed by the Nazis. He helped Jews and got involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler. A theologian of serious stature, he wrote several books and papers, but in one entitled The Cost of Discipleship he says that Christ calls us to take up our Cross, follow him and die. It’s what he did, ironically, prophetically, profoundly.
Could you do that? Whatever lies ahead for our world and nation - would you die for your faith? Or would you turn away, deny Christ and hide? In Libya only weeks ago 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded for their faith by Islamic State. Each one, as they prepared to die, called out ‘Jesus is Lord’. I hope none of us shall be called upon to make such a discipleship choice. But if I am, I pray that I shall have the courage to hold onto the faith which has been the keystone of the building of my life.
I said I went to Leeds to work on the new edition of the English Hymnal – what will be called the Revised English Hymnal. One of the weaknesses of almost all our hymn books is that there are very few hymns that focus on or commemorate those, like Dietrich Bonhoffer who died for their faith in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is often said that there were more martyrs in the twentieth century than in all the others put together. So in the absence of hymns on this subject, I have written one, which if you will permit me the experiment, I’d like to try out as the conclusion to this sermon. Maybe it’s useful to help us remember what modern martyrdom is and all those millions who endure it by taking up their crosses and following Christ unto death and beyond.
So before we proceed to the Creed, let us stand to sing the hymn on the piece of paper you were given as you came in. The tune will be familiar.
As we recall this holy day
the saints who walked the martyr's way,
we mourn those killed with gun or sword
by those who hate or curse the Lord.
Like Stephen stoned, successors all
proclaim by death their Christian call
to name their Saviour, Lord and King
of all the world and everything.
In any times of tyranny,
Christ's faithful people strive to see
that freedom, justice, will prevail
and truth and love shall never fail.
The cost of courage speaking out,
proclaiming truth, without a doubt,
is great and gracious, never cheap
but bold and brave, profoundly deep.
If bullets, chains or prison walls
Drown out the victims' desperate calls,
then Christ their Lord, he hears their cries
and saves for each the martyr's prize.
So finished now their earthly race,
they meet their Saviour face to face,
and ended is their tortured night
who dwell with all the saints in light.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 01/03/15