The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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11am Holy Communion      28th February 2021
Second Sunday of Lent
Jan Rushton

Readings: Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Mark 8.31-38

 

Maybe appropriate for the second Sunday of Lent, Jesus’ saying that if we would be his followers, we too must take up our own cross, is one with which on many levels, I struggle.  It strikes me as paradoxical that Jesus died for me on the cross, yet, I too must carry my cross.  Bear the suffering that carrying a cross implies?  Recipe for the masochist?! Not a prospect which appeals to many, except that is, to the extreme adventurer climbing Everest, the arctic explorer walking to the Pole in winter, or the lonely figure rowing solo across the Atlantic!

 

But as you know, in the early Church there were many who did so aspire, Christians thrown to the lions in the Roman arena.  You can’t go far when visiting the churches of Rome - the beautiful churches of Rome, without coming face to face with the Counter Reformation, and depictions in art of the many brutal ways in which early Christians were martyred.

The Church was indeed almost literally, built on the blood of martyrs.  Jesus challenged corruption, oppression of the people by the ruling authorities - be they Jewish or Roman.  Given the multiple crucifixions Pilate carried out - after ten years he was eventually removed from his post in the year 36 because of his violence - given these crucifixions, it could but have been clear to Jesus that the road he had set out upon, would likely take him to a cross.

 

 

 

We also know, that Jesus cannot have intended this instruction to be understood literally since he believed that his own death would swiftly herald God’s transformation of the world, the arrival of the Kingdom, the Day of Judgement.  Event he fully anticipated happening in the lifetime of his followers.  An expectation still firmly held by the apostle Paul, and central in his teaching, twenty years after the crucifixion!

 

Then from our gospel this morning: was it essential for Jesus himself to die to inaugurate this promised Kingdom?  Peter thinks not. He takes Jesus aside to rebuke him!  A situation which prompts Jesus to make our astonishing statement to his disciples!

If you are set on saving your life, you will lose it.  But if you are willing to lose your life for the sake of the gospel - the Kingdom, then you will save it!  If we are perplexed by all this, so were Jesus’ disciples!  We read in the following chapter of Mark that they could not understand what he was saying - and began arguing amongst themselves as to which of them would be greatest in the coming Kingdom!

Again Jesus’ response:

if you want to be first, then choose to be last!

To be the greatest? Choose to be the servant!

 

Jesus’ disciples just could not get what he was on about.  Soon James and John will specifically ask to be placed at his right and left hand!  Not until after the resurrection will they begin to grasp his meaning.  So what does it mean when Jesus tells us that to follow him we too, must ‘take up our cross’? Something more profound, more subtle, than I, and Jesus’ disciples, have understood!

Life is continually facing us with choices. Some will be difficult.  In ways both big and small.  Not many of us may feel challenged to become an Alexei Navalny.

The Russian Orthodox Christian seriously putting his life on the line to challenge corruption in the political leadership of his country.  But we might choose to be a Marcus Rashford!  To step outside our comfort zone. To risk causing offence!  Step up and speak truth to power no matter the prevailing wind!  Choose to be actively seeking to love our neighbour - as ourselves.  This requires discipline of thought - and practice.

We will meet with resistance, both internal and external.  To be a follower of Christ will mean change.  Change which may be costly. Change in our perspectives.

The letting go of our security blankets - whatever sophisticated form they may take!

Life will present us with challenges - challenges which are our stepping stones to growth.  It is a vital lesson to learn, to hold the things that are precious to us, in open hands. To choose to trust God through joy and pain.  God commands Abram: Walk before me, be blameless.  And as sign of the Covenant between us, symbol of your faith in my promise take hold of your new names: Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham: which now means not simply Father, but Father of Nations.

And for Sarai, the shame of being childless is removed from her - in its place she is given royal status in a name which means Princess.  What is required of Abram to receive this promise?  Entrusting his life into the hands of the loving God who calls him: to change his whole outlook, leave behind a debilitating religion which included human sacrifice.  To literally, physically move home thousands of miles away.

As Abraham walked forward in faith into a future as then unknown, God’s promise is surely fulfilled!  As God invited Abraham so Jesus invites us to take courage and walk with him, walk with him into becoming the people God has made us.

What this means is unique for each of us, but asks of all of us deep, honest reflection and prayer - to embrace our daily cross.  Perhaps this is true for our Church too.  How might God be calling us to be shaping our communities now?  And not only, because following these turbulent times of pandemic, there is threat to the Church’s financial future.  It was already the case that fewer people, especially among the young, are attracted to coming to Church.  Parish churches have achieved great things for their neighbourhoods, built wonderful supportive communities, nurtured individuals!

So why is the Church losing her congregations?  Perhaps in part because the Church has done its work so well!  Both historically and today, achieved an extraordinary work in education!

Such that, in the twenty-first century, being offered a creed, and a set list of right answers to questions of life, the universe and everything!  just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore!  Our young people have been taught, understand and embrace equality of every variety, be that across ethnicity, gender, sexuality, different ability.

They think deeply, and have their own ideas about what matters in life.  They have a passion for the environment!  A passion the Church has scarcely embraced!

The under-forties do not share the difficulties church congregations are presumed to have in the recent - and certainly new and hopeful text: Living in Love and Faith, a programme for congregations exploring what God might have to say about same-sex relationships.  Rather, if pushed to think about the Church, younger generations are asking: ‘How does this antiquated institution still have relevance for me?’

 

Yet there is a deep spiritual hunger abroad in our land.

People of all ages are searching for more, for depth in their lives, and looking for a place, and a people, with whom they may journey:

air their issues; explore a variety of answers;

come - and go, as the spirit leads them.

Debate encouraged. No absolutes. Porous walls. Welcome assured.

They are seeking opportunity for experiencing the presence of God

in the many different practices that people have discovered can enable that: music, meditation, pilgrimage, yoga - our very own Rupert Sheldrake

has written a good book on the varieties of spirituality!

 

 

What new places is God calling our church to inhabit - in and for,

our contemporary world?

What might it mean for our Church to take up Jesus’ cross? Amen.

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