The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s055g14   Sunday 22   31/8/2014

‘let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’.   Matthew 16.24

I was interested to read an assessment of modern secular society recently by David Tacey:  ‘We live in a period of history in which public opinion is privileging spirituality above religion, and where the latter is regarded with a good deal of suspicion. ..  Spirituality once referred to the living core of religion, and those who wanted to take religion a step further than common experience were said to be spiritual.   Now those who are “not very religious” are claiming to be spiritual.’  (1)   Suddenly ‘spirituality’ is becoming common and democratised.   Indeed spirituality has become universal.

As I said a couple of weeks ago: ‘What would someone whose spirituality is entirely achieved surfing be interested in such an organisation (like the church)?! (2)

And again Stewart Andrews writes an opinion piece in our local press describing the book: ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams as ‘a modern day bible’. (3)

And I suspect that there would be many a good Anglican who also finds spiritual enrichment in surfing, tramping, motorcycling, nature, art, sexual intimacy, really the list is endless.   The trouble is that the church defines legitimate christian spirituality in extremely narrow terms.   ‘Christianity’ and religion have monopolised and straight-jacketed spirituality, and any divergent expression is discouraged.  And I wonder if it is precisely this that we have to discard when we ‘deny’ ourselves.

And in some ways, much of our history has been defined in the past by the low level of literacy and the power of words.   The book and the liturgy have been given in order to provide a context for spirituality.   ‘Ordinary’ people learned to read and write using the bible and prayer book.   The stress on orthodoxy is perhaps understandable when seen in this light.   The important thing was to proclaim God as God and humans as lesser.   But now words have lost their fascination as literacy becomes general.   Emotions and spirituality have resurfaced as the important things in life.

Modern humans will not accept anything second-hand.   Indeed seen in these terms I suspect humans have never accepted second-hand things and especially theology.   As I ended last week’s sermon with a comment about the belated Anglican Covenant, I found the article by Diarmaid MacCulloch which stated: ‘Try and lay down the law in that delicate, nuanced thing that is religious belief, and you end up damaging or hurting a great many people.’  (4)

The difficulty with religion straightjacketing and monopolising religion is that it defines the subjects for conversation.   To be ‘religious’ we only speak about the words of scripture or the Cross of Jesus.   We don’t speak about the weather, the football - or more relevantly how the other might find their spiritual sustenance.   This means ‘conversations’ are essentially one-sided with the main agenda to proclaim, endorse and impose orthodoxy - rather than being interested in the other as they are.   But as J. A. H. Futtermann of the Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua says: ‘You are not your beliefs.   Ultimately, it is you that God loves .. rather than merely your beliefs.’  (5)

So denying oneself is not the private devotional journey of a spiritual aspirant, but the affirming of others in community and society; and surely if undertaken on a corporate level by the church, this actually has the prospect of making a real difference in society.

I have often reflected that my home country of Australia was invaded by the British, good Church of England magistrates quoting ‘Thou shalt not steal’ to the poor and destitute, desperately trying to provide for themselves and their families, and sending them half-way around the world to steal a country for the Crown.   It is easy to criticise offenders and criticise the government for not dealing with things like child-poverty, but if we, as church, are unwilling to let go of some of our presumed superiority, we cannot expect society to be ever much changed.   And when politicians and the general public see the church clutching onto spiritual privilege and criticising those who clutch on to their wealth, they rightly may wonder who is able to cast the first stone; (6) who has the log in their own eye .. (7)

We are to deny ourselves and follow Christ, and this means following Christ into society, not away from it - to associate with the tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners in society - those for whom the daily grind of providing for themselves and those they love precludes imitating our devotional life.   We are to follow Christ into society where people find affirmation and inclusion in the occupations, their community service, in exercising their artistic talents, in their questioning and exploration.

St Paul’s estimation of what he had to let go of, is explicit, and let us be clear, what he gave up was his sense of his religious superiority, so powerful that he believed himself to be called to persecute people who dared to believe differently: ‘More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.   For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish’.  (8)

When we follow Christ into community, affirming and including others into our oikoumene, we will find that whatever we have to give up will be rubbish because of all the sacredness around us - in people.  So the words Jesus said: ‘For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?’ are for me best translated as: what will it profit us if everyone becomes a committed, tithing, straight Anglican of my particular variety?   If the world looses its diversity we loose one of our most precious possessions - why on earth would we think and act otherwise? 

I am constantly amazed to realise how ordinary Anglicans believe in so very different terms to others.   As Robin Williams quipped: ‘No matter what you believe, there's bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.’ (9)

When we concentrate on what is affirming and inclusive in our own lives rather than parroting the second-hand ancient and mouldy sunday school myths, we will find so many others who have also rejoiced to find the freedom that St Paul promises not just to committed, tithing, straight Anglicans of my particular variety, but: ‘the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’  (10)

And as long as we, as Church, continue to not deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus into life, we continue to deny freedom to the whole of creation, as well as ourselves.

6.  John 8.7
7.  Matthew 7.3
8.  Philippians 3.8
10.  Romans 8.21