s099g26^97 Somerton Park 25/2/97 Lent 2

"If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me." Mark 8.34

I wonder why we look at these words of Jesus today as bad news, as something we have to do for God. I certainly have always thought of them as bad news. But on reflection I suspect that actually they are meant to be good news.

I ask you to think of what parts of our lives that we might like to renounce. I guess I would like to do away with the remembrance of past failures ( - as if God wanted me to berate myself eternally for them - I can't find where God ever asked this of someone in the Bible.) I guess I would like to renounce my propensity to worry over small things ( - I know where Jesus tells me that this really isn't necessary.) I guess I would like to renounce my anxieties over the future ( - neither life nor death....will be able to separate us...) In fact when I really start thinking about it I guess I would really like to surrender my whole life over to God for I know that my life would be much safer in his hands anyway.

Isn't it strange that I certainly have always found this word of Jesus about renouncing oneself as having to renounce the good things of ones life, the joy, the successes, the good things; and taken it to mean I don't pray enough, I don't read the bible enough, I don't give enough money, I am not committed enough, that I should be now prepared to die for Jesus. This is how I've been brought up, how I've interpreted endless sermons on this particular passage of the bible. How often have you been given the impression that you have not come up to scratch by the preacher of the day?

Let me give a particular illustration. I was once talking to a relation of mine; they had just had their baby baptised at the local Anglican Church. She had been to church before, but she had got the distinct impression that because she was not able to be in church each and every Sunday, and be involved in each and every activity of the parish through out the week (neither of which I personally found very surprising considering she had a young baby) then she was considered a second class Christian. I don't think this impression was gained from the clergyman involved, but she felt "on the outer" because of her inability to be as totally committed as others.

In fact it is one of the most frequent stumbling blocks for those who see themselves as on the fringe of the church, because they simply do not know how committed they will be asked to be, and whether they will be able to live up to that commitment asked or sometimes even demanded. I have never been told how a Christian can actually say "No!"

I therefore want to point out that the words Jesus says make it quite clear that we should take up our crosses. He doesn't ask us to take up his cross, or God's cross or anyone else's cross. We are not called then to die for Jesus, for God or for the local parish community, as if it were something demanded of us to be a real Christian. God doesn't keep count, and measure his success by the number of people he has cowed into submission.

What then does taking up our crosses involve? Surely the interpretation of the passage depends on this. I take it to mean that we follow Jesus as we really are, with our faults and failings, our successes and joys; not pretending to him or to others that we are any better or worse than we really are. As we take up our crosses, our failings are forgiven and our successes are rejoiced over. We need not berate ourselves if we can't forget our failings or successes though. Remembering the failings leads us to deal with other's failings gently; remembering one's successes leads us out of despair into the joy of the kingdom and the goodness of God.

Is this easy to do or is it hard? I think that actually it really is easier to be what we really are. The effort taken in pretending to God or to others that we are any different is exhausting; particularly if we think in terms of trying to fool God.

These words of Jesus then are not a standard to attain before being accepted by him. No, in fact, I take these words as a way of evangelisation; as a most positive expression of the good news that God accepts us, cross and all; indeed calls us, cross and all. "Let him...follow me". There is support in the context for this view; for Jesus was telling his disciples that he would suffer and be killed and that this was the way that he would bring about the kingdom. But St Peter had different ideas. He wanted Jesus to lead the new movement, be famous, accepted and revered. He wanted Jesus to make the world a better place by forcing others to do the right thing. He wanted Jesus to be something he was not. To put on a charade, to pretend to be better... But this was not God's way, for God's way is to show the extent of his love for mankind, and that requires no one particularly special.

Finally I want to say some words about martyrdom, about giving up one's life for God. Very few of us are called to do this; and Jesus used quite different language when talking about this, and is was used in much more private circumstances than on the open road. They were at the last supper, and the words were not used to coerce his followers to actively seek martyrdom, far from it. No, James and John wanted great things for themselves, and his words were one's of warning: "Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?" It was the brothers themselves who replied: "We can."

So when Jesus talks about us giving up our lives for God, he talks of a cup and a baptism, not a cross, and his words on this subject are very rare indeed, and never initiated by him but by others.

Jesus and God then are not about coercing us to do things. On the contrary, they are about loving us, caring for us and helping us. Similarly the church, as the body of Christ, needs to come across, as loving, caring and helping - not trying to coerce.


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