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2014 Trinity 11 - Take up your cross

Trinity 11. 31 August 2014   ‘Take up your cross’.

Just before I went away on holiday, I went to the barbers to get my hair cut. I went in after evening prayer, still wearing my clerical shirt and dog collar.

The young lady who cut my hair was very friendly and started chatting. Noticing my dog collar she asked, ‘So are you a vicar then?’ I explained that I was a curate, a sort of trainee vicar if you like.

She was interested about the rules that we have live by – she seemed to think that we weren’t allowed to do various things, like drinking alcohol. I quickly put her right on that one!

I was explaining to her that rather than ‘rules’ as such, all Christians tried to live by certain values.

This seemed to trigger something in her mind, maybe a memory from a school assembly or something – I don’t know - but she suddenly said, “I couldn’t do that because I would really struggle with the whole thing about loving your neighbour. I hate my neighbour. Is that a really bad thing to say?!”

Well it was very honest if nothing else! But it did make me think about just how hard it is to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ.

It can be very hard to love one’s neighbour. In the case of the young lady who cut my hair, she was probably referring literally to her next door neighbour, but as we all know from the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus extends ‘neighbour’ to mean much more than just who we physically live near to.

Discipleship can be very difficult.

I use the term ‘discipleship’ rather than ‘being a Christian’, because for many people, myself included until relatively recently, being a Christian means simply someone who believes in Jesus Christ.

Being a Christian tells someone what you believe; being a disciple shows someone what that belief actually means.

The word ‘disciple’ is translated from the Greek word ‘mathetes’ meaning a pupil or an apprentice. Our English word ‘disciple’ comes from the Latin word ‘discipulus’ meaning a learner.

We are all disciples of Jesus Christ, and as such we are all pupils or learners.

But it doesn’t stop there.

It isn’t enough just to be a learner or a pupil.

There is no point in learning from the teacher if we don’t then put into practice what we are taught.

No lesson that has ever been taught in any school or university has ever been taught simply for the purpose of learning itself. Learning is nothing if we are not changed by that learning, if we do not understand or act or behave differently because of it.

As we come to church, week by week, month by month, and listen to the scriptures being read, to the teaching that they contain, to the sermons that are preached, and yet we are not challenged to see things differently;

if we do not in some small way think differently; if we don’t allow our perspectives to shift, if we don’t act in some way on what we have learned, then are we truly doing what we are called to do as disciples, as pupils, as learners of Jesus Christ?

Being a Christian tells someone what you believe; being a disciple shows someone what that belief actually means.

And we will get it wrong. Just look at Peter.

By the time of our gospel reading today, Peter and the other disciples have been following Jesus for many weeks and months; they have sat at his feet and listened as he taught them; they have witnessed his extraordinary powers at close quarters.

Peter himself has just declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God – he has recognised and understood who Jesus really is, and has received Jesus’ blessing for his faith, asserting that he will be the rock on whom Jesus will build his entire church.

Surely the pinnacle of achievement for Peter as a disciple.

But within the space of a few sentences, no more than 2 or three verses in Matthew’s gospel, Peter goes from hero to zero.

No sooner is he praised and blessed by Jesus, than Peter is on the receiving end of a sharp and painful rebuke from Jesus.

As Jesus foretells his death and the manner of his suffering to come, Peter takes Jesus aside and insists that such a painful death, such suffering must never happen to him.

He simply won’t allow his teacher, the one who he has recognised as the messiah, to suffer and die in this way.

But Jesus knows what must come.

He understands God’s plan, and knows that the only way for him to bring about the salvation that he has come to give, is for him to suffer, and to be hung on a cross to die.

The impetuous Peter, out of his love for Jesus, refuses to accept that it has to be this way, and in doing so, stands in the way of God’s plan for salvation.

As a result, he receives that shocking rebuke from Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Even Jesus’ closest disciples got it wrong.

‘Satan’ literally means ‘Adversary’, someone who is acting against the will of God.

In referring to Peter as Satan, Jesus is using dramatic language to try and get Peter to understand that in trying to protect Jesus, he is standing in the way of God himself.

But as well as referring to Peter as Satan, there is also a clear instruction in Jesus’ rebuke.

“Get behind me, Satan.”

He is saying to Peter, “your place is behind me, not in front of me. It is your place to follow me in the way I choose, not to try to lead me in the way you would like to go.”

It is all too tempting sometimes to try to control Jesus in our lives.

It’s all too easy to ignore Jesus’ teachings when it suits us, when the call to love our neighbour as ourselves is too hard.

But we cannot follow Jesus if we put ourselves in front of him. We cannot be disciples of Jesus unless we constantly seek to learn from him and to follow him.

Having reminded Peter in no uncertain terms of his place to follow Jesus from behind, he then reminds all his disciples, including you and me, what we must do to follow him; what it really means to get behind Jesus and to follow his lead.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Here we have a clear 3 point plan of what is required of us if we want to follow Jesus Christ:

1: We are to deny ourselves.

To deny ourselves is not to give up chocolate for lent, or to resist the temptation of buying another nice pair of shoes or the latest gadget.

That’s not what Jesus meant.

Instead, it means to say no to self, and yes to God.

It means to put God at the centre of our lives and not ourselves.

2: We are to take up our cross.

Being a disciple and following Jesus is costly.

To our 21st century ears, the call to take up our cross is heard just as some flowery metaphor. To first century ears, though, it would have been heard in the context of the pain, the suffering, the harshness of the favoured means of torture and execution of the day.

Jesus pulls no punches here. He is warning us that we too, as his disciples, must share in the suffering and sacrifice that he must endure.

The Christian life is a life of sacrificial service. Not great moments of sacrifice like Jesus did, but to live daily a life in constant awareness of the demands of God and the needs of others.

3: We are to follow Jesus.

To follow Jesus means a constant obedience to him in how we think, in what we say, and in our actions.

It doesn’t just mean random acts of kindness. It doesn’t just mean doing our bit to help.

Good though those things are in themselves, they are not enough.

To follow Jesus means to leave behind our old ways; to leave behind our old understandings; to leave behind our old perspectives, and to follow instead the new life in Jesus Christ.

1: We are to deny ourselves;

2: We are to take up our cross;

and 3: We are to follow Jesus.

Jesus knew that what he was asking was not easy. He knew that his disciples would stumble and make mistakes.

Despite Peter’s impetuous nature and his tendency to get it wrong, Jesus chose him to form the rock on which his church would be built.

Despite our own weaknesses; despite our own inability to live up to the demands of true discipleship, Jesus still works in and through us.

And it is the Eucharist which sustains as we seek to live and grow as his disciples.

In the Eucharist we meet the risen Lord Jesus, and it is in his strength and in his power that we are able to strive to be his disciples.

At the end of this service we will say the words of thanksgiving for being fed with the body and blood of his Son Jesus Christ. We then go on to pray these words:

Through him we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. Send us out in the power of your Spirit, to live and work to your praise and glory.”

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, may we truly offer you our souls and our bodies as a living sacrifice, as we seek to deny ourselves and take up our cross; and may we go from here as true disciples to follow you; to live and to work to your praise and glory. Amen.