A Sermon from Sherborne
Take up thy cross, the Saviour said
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 18 February 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
On 6 December 1928 an American medical practitioner, Dr. Clarence Hemingway, spent the morning at his office, then entered his home in Oak Park, Illinois, for lunch. He burned personal papers in the basement furnace. Then he walked up the stairs to his second-floor bedroom and shot himself.
Dr Hemingway and his wife had six children. Three of them were also to commit suicide. Discovering that they all suffered from the genetic disease Hemochromatosis, which causes an inability to metabolise iron, producing both physical and mental deterioration, many scholars have concluded that this was the reason for the suicides, which have continued in subsequent generations. One of those three children was the writer Ernest Hemingway, who shot himself in 1961 at the age of 61.
I am not one of Hemingway’s greatest fans, but it is impossible to disagree that one of the best novels to come out of the Spanish Civil War is his. For Whom the Bell Tolls was published in 1941 and has never been out of print since, the fruit of his coverage of the war as a journalist. High in the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra, a guerrilla band is preparing to blow up a vital bridge, and Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer, has been sent to handle the dynamiting. The bridge is successfully blown, but as the group tries to escape they come under tank attack. A shell exploding close by causes him to be thrown from his horse, and then the wounded horse falls on him, kicking and breaking his leg. Rather than slow his friends down, Robert Jordan insists on being left behind to cover their retreat, and hold up the enemy for as long as he can, even though it means certain death for him. We join him as he looks down the green slope of the hillside to the road and the bridge:
“He felt empty and drained and exhausted from all of it and from them going and his mouth tasted of bile. Now, finally and at last, there was no problem. However all of it had been and however all of it would ever be now, for him, no longer was there any problem ….
“He looked down the hill slope again and he thought, I hate to leave it, is all. I hate to leave it very much and I hope I have done some good in it. I have tried to with what talent I had. ‘Have, you mean. All right, have.’
“I have fought for what I believed in for a year now. If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”
Robert Jordan chooses to make his stand, knowing very well the consequences, knowing the cost. And I can never read those final pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls without being reminded of another young man nearly 2,000 years ago who, for a much greater cause, made the same choice to take his stand, knowing the consequences, knowing the cost.
There are some Christians who will tell you that, because he was the Son of God, Jesus had complete foreknowledge of his fate, and of his ultimate victory in being raised from the dead. And it is certainly true that in the pages of the gospels we meet a man of utter integrity, complete obedience, supreme courage and sheer victory, who is never deflected nor defeated by whatever men might do to him. But what we never find in the New Testament is a man possessed by what Bishop John Robinson used to call “the static perfection of flawless porcelain”. Here is no Greek god descended from Mount Olympus, donning human form but safeguarded from the human emotions of fear, doubt and the temptation to avoid the path of suffering which was the inevitable consequence of being true to his calling. As John Robinson writes in his wonderful book The Human Face of God,
“there is every reason to suppose that any goodness Jesus had was won – and hard won – out of the struggle with evil within him and around. It is noteworthy that the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is the only New Testament document to refer to Jesus’ perfection, always uses of him the verb ‘perfected’, never the adjective ‘perfect’.”
It is Hebrews, too, which insists that Jesus has been “tempted in all points as we are” [4:15] and that “Son though he were, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered”, [5:8]. And it all began in the wilderness, before the start of his public ministry, as we heard in today’s Gospel a moment ago [Mark 1. 9-15].
In the wilderness Jesus came to understand all too clearly the consequences and the cost of following the Father’s call, of choosing the “strait gate and the narrow way”. That is why he constantly warned those who would follow him of the cost of their discipleship: “Would any of you think of building a tower without first sitting down and calculating the cost, to see whether he could afford to finish it?” [Luke 14:28]. “Or what king will march to battle against another king, without first sitting down to consider whether with ten thousand men he can face an enemy coming to meet him with twenty thousand?” [Luke 14:31]. As the old hymn puts it:
“Take up thy cross, the Saviour said,
If thou wouldst my disciple be;
Deny thyself, the world forsake,
And humbly follow after me.”
Many years ago I was to give a course of ten lectures in Bristol University’s Extra-Mural Department entitled “An Introduction to Theology”. It was a popular course, on a Tuesday afternoon, and registering all the students on the first Tuesday took a little time. I was just about to launch into the lecture itself when the door opened, and two ladies shuffled in apologetically. “Do you mind if we join your course?” they asked. “You see, 18th century porcelain is full”.
That put me in my place. That cut me down to size. Runner-up to 18th century porcelain. And it’s fair enough in the academic market place to make that kind of choice. But never imagine that your faith is some kind of optional extra, an extra-mural addition to an educated and cultivated life. You are here today, I hope, because you know – deep-down you know – that God in Christ has called you as his own, and now he longs to make you what he would have you be. And that has consequences. That has a cost. How could it be otherwise, seeing that you and your salvation were bought by Christ at so high a price? “Here I stand, I can do no other”, Martin Luther is alleged to have said to his inquisitors. Here I stand, in this pulpit, because after nearly forty years of priestly ministry I know that it is a parish priest Christ wants me to be, whatever the consequences, whatever the cost. And where do you stand, today, tomorrow, the day after? Whatever the consequences, whatever the cost? Who is on the Lord’s side? Who will stand up, stand up for him? Let it be you. Let it be you.
“Take up thy cross, let not its weight
Fill thy weak spirit with alarm;
His strength shall bear thy spirit up,
And brace thy heart, and nerve thine arm.”