A Sermon from Sherborne

The Challenge of Discipleship

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist preached in Sherborne Abbey on Sunday February 25 2018 by The Reverend Jane Craw.


Today’s Gospel [Mark 8.31-end] is one of those passages with which we are all familiar. Pared down, I think we are left with three main points: discipleship, what it means to take up our cross daily and finally how can we face up to this challenge honestly?

Last Tuesday at our Deanery Synod we were encouraged to think about the word ‘discipleship’. First we were asked to admit what we felt when we heard this word. A few participants offered their thoughts.   I kept my initial reaction to myself. Oh dear! Are we going to be given a programme which will lead us into a series of steps which will convince us we are now fully-fledged disciples of Christ? I was much relieved by what followed and it certainly confirmed that discipleship is not a course but a journey, a life-time of discovery.

So what is a disciple? Let’s look at the Greek. The word disciple is derived from the word ‘mathetes’ which means a pupil or an apprentice to a master craftsman.   No apprentice can learn his or her craft without watching or being with his teacher. I can remember my early days when I was training to be a teacher. Part of that training involved observations, simply watching someone who had been in the profession for a long time doing the job. In my first teaching practice I had to attend lessons of a very different discipline from my own. I chose metalwork, certainly not my forte. I went to the workshop of a short, bespectacled man dressed in a tidy, only just fitting overall and watched a master craftsman at work. I do not mean that he produced beautiful pieces of furniture or the like but what he did was amazing. He had skills which encouraged and enabled some of the least able students into becoming respecters of their tools and dedicated workers. He was firm, clear in his instructions and demonstrated the task they were to do with attention to detail.   He gave undivided attention to each pupil in that class.

I learned much by spending time with Walter, the metal-work teacher. He inspired by his approach, inclusivity and dedication. No book could have ever taught me these life-skills.

How does this help our approach to discipleship? By following our Lord Jesus, the Teacher we put ourselves into a relationship of trust and look to him to teach us how to live our lives in a manner that seeks to emulate the Master. In fact, he simply asks us to ‘follow him’, to walk in his foot-steps. So far, so good – discipleship seems to be acceptable and with a disciplined rule of life, prayer and finding time to be with our Lord all should be well. We are on the road to becoming his faithful disciples.

But, and it is a big ‘but’, today’s Gospel adds another dimension and one that is far from easy to digest. Discipleship, taking up our cross, may cost us all we have and are. After all what did the cross symbolise? It is a symbol of death and suffering. For some Christians it means persecution and even for those of us who are not persecuted in such fashion our job is still to remain faithful to Christ. However, for those like Oscar Romero, the cross does demand our all. In 1977 he became Archbishop of San Salvador. But a few weeks after his enthronement, his friend Fr Rutilio Grande was shot and killed, along with two companions. The following Sunday, Romero allowed only one Mass in the whole diocese – at the Cathedral – where he spoke out against the murders. As the violence in El Salvador continued, Romero continued to speak out. Every Sunday his preaching was broadcast by radio. The whole country listened. Romero’s life was often threatened.

In his sermon on 23 March 1980, Romero ordered the army to stop killing people: “In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I beg you, I implore you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression!” The next day, a shot killed Romero as he said Mass. His death was ordered by the military powers. However, his death was not in vain. On 15 March 2009, the new president of El Salvador announced that his government would be inspired by Romero and they would put the most vulnerable people first.

But what does it mean to deny ourselves? Paula Gooder is particularly helpful here and in her Lent book entitled Let Me Go There she writes:

Denying ourselves requires us to dissociate from our nature that places ourselves and our concerns at the centre of our world . . . Following Jesus requires us to go against the grain of human nature and to put someone else (Jesus) at the centre of our world.

The call to take up our cross is not a triumphalist cry to ‘death and glory’ but instead to separate ourselves from the ‘cult of me’, from that ever present adage of ‘you’re worth it’ which screams from our television sets and firmly fixes us in the centre of our world. We struggle to embrace this area of our discipleship, just as much as the disciples who walked with Jesus.

The second part of Jesus’ statement requiring us to ‘lose our lives’ is not so much a statement to trip us up but instead to give us life. It is to save us from ourselves. Think of Dr Faustus who sold his soul to the devil as he aimed for fame and glory and desired to have the whole world at his fingertips. In his quest, he lost himself in the process. The aim for an easy life, for glittering prizes, promotions and the like can lure us away from following our Lord Jesus Christ. Our goals become supremely important and absorb all our energies. Jesus wants to lead us to a very different road of self discovery, to embrace instead a life of love and compassion, putting the interest of others before our own. It is somewhat of a riddle, a bit like that magical door in children’s stories. It is when you stop looking for that door of true life and true fulfilment that you find it. To lose our lives is counter-intuitive but the only way to fully find our life is to accept the way of the cross. May I finish with the challenging words of a hymn:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

That were an offering far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine

Demands my soul, my life, my all. Amen.

The Reverend Jane Craw, Team Vicar 25/02/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne