A Sermon from Sherborne
Take up the Cross – the way to follow Jesus
The source of the river Jordan is one of the most beautiful and dramatic places on Earth. We know it as Caesarea Philippi: the place where Jesus asked his disciples about his identity.
The story that we heard just now comes halfway through Mark’s Gospel, the first one to be written. It is a pivotal point in the whole Gospel [Mark 8.27-38]. Jesus chooses a remote place, way up in the north of the country in a pagan area where the god Pan was worshipped. Even the name refers to the Roman Emperor, who was promoted among the people as being divine. So here they were: Jesus and his disciples in unfamiliar territory, taking stock of what had been achieved in Jesus’ ministry. What did people and his disciples think about him – who was he? Peter, as usual, was the first to speak, not knowing the implications of what he said. Peter proclaimed, ‘You are the Messiah.’
Now was the time for Jesus to explain to his disciples how his future ministry would unfold. His messiahship would not be one of military conquest and worldly success, as anticipated by the Jewish nation at the time. No, the messiahship of Jesus would be one of suffering and death. Peter would not accept such a view, which earned him the rebuke of Jesus calling him ‘Satan’. Jesus addressed his disciples, and ‘the crowd’ – everyone who had followed him to this remote, beautiful place. Not only would Jesus suffer, but everyone who followed him would also suffer. He said, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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, will save it.’
Today we are faced with the supreme Christian paradox. The way to happiness and true fulfilment is the way of pain and suffering. Indeed the only way to all that we would wish for in this life and beyond is the way we would wish to avoid. No one, unless they were in a state of mental ill health, would live a life of suffering, mental or physical, of their own choosing. In our hedonistic and self-centred society, anyone who promoted such a lifestyle would be branded as a mentally deranged person.
Saint Paul sees the distinction between people whose thinking is influenced only by the world, and worldly hopes and aspirations, who he describes as unspiritual, and those who are spiritual, whose lives are lived in the Spirit and whose hopes and aspirations are of a different order. He describes the unspiritual person as being incapable of understanding the way of the Cross – the way of suffering. For the unspiritual person, such a notion is extreme foolishness and to be discounted as mere folly. There is no wisdom in such a world view for the unspiritual person.
But the followers of Christ are constantly under the influence of the Holy Spirit of God, and to such people God’s wisdom is imparted. To the Christian, the way of the Cross is seen as being of paramount importance, because God’s Holy Spirit shows us through Jesus that it is the way to life and peace.
The paradox of the Cross, shown most movingly for many Christians in the Crucifix, is seen by us through the experience of Easter. Without the Easter story of Resurrection, the Cross would be a degradation of all we hold to be human, and indeed an embarrassment. Yet the Cross holds its secrets for us who believe, in that it is changed to a potent symbol of victory over death when bathed in the light of the Resurrection.
But for Jesus of Nazareth, the man who underwent suffering willingly for the sins of everyone who has lived, or who will ever live on this earth, the Cross, and the way of the Cross, still presents us with an enormous challenge.
We must take the way of the Cross seriously. It cuts across all that we experience in the secular world. Life in the Spirit is bound to be totally different than life in the world by the very nature of our human make-up. The truly natural person wants to ‘Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.’ In that statement there is no willing acceptance of suffering. The Christian way well eat, drink and be merry, but he or she knows that tomorrow, death will not bring annihilation but will offer continued existence in the world to come.
The Christian does, or should, accept suffering when it comes, because the person whom we follow did just that. Although the way of the Cross cuts across all that we experience in the secular world, we must take it up and change our otherwise hedonistic lives.
As Saint Paul says, it is all a matter of either being spiritual or unspiritual. There is a truth for us in this argument. Life for the unspiritual person is reasonably straightforward – perhaps. There are known criteria by which life can be lived. The pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of suffering are the mainstays by which life is lived. Pleasure is good – suffering is bad.
However, life for the spiritual person is seen in a different perspective. Once the Christian, through Baptism, becomes an adopted child of God and member of his family, the Church, life becomes, or should become, transformed. At once the lifespan of the Christian becomes enlarged to include life in Paradise and the possibility of life in Heaven. From this perspective life here on earth becomes a mere fleeting moment of total existence. The Christian becomes aware immediately, for should become so aware, that the quality of life lived here on earth has a direct effect on the quality of life experienced beyond the grave.
In this system of thought and belief, the question of suffering takes on new meaning and emphasis. The eating, drinking and merriment become part of a larger whole. The acceptance of suffering, and the paradox associated with it, come into sharp focus as being something important in the whole process of personal fulfilment.
Perhaps one of the most important questions concerning the suffering of Jesus is this: did Jesus know that his life was to be extended beyond the grave? The final cry from the Cross will always have its unanswered conclusion – at least for us in this life, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ [Mark 15.34]. We can only know that Jesus had profound faith in God, and that, after much suffering, he offered his life into the Father’s care.
If we follow the way of the Cross, we can only follow in the footsteps of our Lord. As we live our lives in these days after the Resurrection of Jesus, we believe that, in the end, all will be well. But we must never be complacent, and we, like Jesus, after living a life of suffering, must allow ourselves to ‘fall into the hands of our loving Heavenly Father.’