Trinity 15: Take up your cross
Mark 8. 27-38
In today’s Gospel Jesus conducts a sort of survey. He asks his disciples: Who do people say that I am? They give Him different responses—John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.
He then makes it personal: Who do you say that I am?And Peter replies on behalf of the disciples: You are the Christ. It’s the right answer. But did you notice how it’s not enough for Jesus? He tells Peter and the other disciples that what it means for him to be the Christ is to be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. And when Peter protests, Jesus makes it even more personal: Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
It is not enough to give the correct answer with our lips;
that answer must be lived out in our lives, in our concrete choices.
To say truthfully that Jesus is the Christ it is not enough to have the right words. We must also embody that truth in our lives. As the letter to James tells us, faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. True faith in Jesus is a love for God and a love for our neighbour that impels us into action; otherwise, our faith is simply a fantasy.
As Dostoyevsky wrote, “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”
Love in action is the cross. Love in action calls us to give ourselves completely.
But who can do this? Christ calls me to give up everything for him. I am willing and able to do that? Speaking for myself, I’ve got to say, “probably not.” I know that I have failed so many times. I know that there are things that still hold me back.
So what can I say to you about the call of this great love?
Well, I can say that we can help each other follow Jesus here by starting small and taking it one step at a time.
My school had a roll-call of fine cricketers including Colin Cowdrey who captained Kent and England. I remember what I was taught when I first learnt to play: When you’re batting at the crease don’t think about winning the match, don’t think about the score, don’t think about your own total or about whether you’re going to get a 50 or a century. Think about the next ball. If you play the match one ball at a time like that then perhaps eventually you’ll look up and see that you’ve won.
Following Jesus and the way of the cross begins with small steps. Later, we’ll look up and discover where he’s led us.
A vision experienced by one of the saints suggests a place to begin.
This saint had a very happy childhood –full of love and security. All her tears and smiles were noticed and honoured and often photographed.
But as she grew up it didn’t take her long to notice that wasn’t true for most of the people she met. Their smiles and tears went mostly unnoticed and were not honoured.
Then, in her own words: “One Sunday, looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the blood flowing from one of his divine hands. I felt a pang of great sorrow when thinking this blood was falling on the ground without anyone hurrying to gather it up. I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross and to receive its dew…oh, I don’t want this precious blood to be lost. I shall spend my life gathering it up for the good of souls…to live from love is to dry your face.”
To begin to follow Jesus is to notice and honour the unnoticed tears falling from the suffering faces of others. Prayer and care.
But still, taking up a cross to follow Jesus is a path that nobody wants to take. Our shoulders are just too weak for the terrible weight of the cross. We cannot choose the cross.
So perhaps Providence sometimes helps us. Providence helps us to enter more deeply into the mystery of the cross. Providence helps us to follow Christ.
And then we can discover, as another saint wrote, that, “a person who drags the cross [of their particular suffering] along with ill will feels its weight, however small it is, but the person who embraces it, however great it is, does not feel it.”
Imagine the scene, then. A couple are sitting in the waiting room outside a doctor’s office in a London hospital. They’re waiting for test results for their unborn child.
The doctor calls them into the office. He doesn’t waste any time. He tells them he has bad news: “The test shows that your baby has a one in five chance of having Down’s syndrome.”
The doctor tells them that he can arrange for more tests. He also tells them that he can also arrange for the mother to have an abortion so that she can try again. He tells her that that is the choice of ninety per cent of woman whose unborn babies are diagnosed with Down’s syndrome and that it’s her legal right up until birth. So she can avoid the suffering of having a child with a disability. She can avoid suffering.
But at the mention of “suffering” the mother’s face brightens, as if the doctor were finally making sense.
“Suffering?” she said quietly. “We appreciate your concern, but we’re Christians. God suffered for us, and we will try to suffer for the baby, if we must.”
Months later, the doctor watched the couple leave the hospital from the window of his office. They walked slowly, carrying a small bundle. It seemed a heavy burden to the doctor, a weight on their shoulders, something they would have to drag down the front steps of the hospital, on that cold, grey winter morning.
“It will be too much for them,” the doctor thought.
“I could have helped them to understand.”
But as they left, he noticed a curious look on their faces; they looked as if the burden were not too heavy at all, as if it were a privilege and a sign. They seemed borne up, as if on another’s shoulders, being carried toward some high place the doctor would not be going, following a way he did not understand.
The Rev'd Dr James Lawson, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 12/09/2021