But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end.
“Keep your distance” says the sign on the back of the lorry in front. In the news some Politicians, we were told, were seeking to `distance` themselves from their disgraced colleague. And today we hear how Peter followed Jesus `at a distance`. Yes, Peter went as far as the courtyard of the high priest; after all they had a fire there and well, he was curious. Matthew tells us Peter wanted to see `how it would all end`. (Matthew 26.58)
However, even this was to prove too close for comfort. Peter would be challenged by a servant girl: “surely you are one of them….” she said. And his cover was blown. He had to retreat if he was to keep his distance. Despite his protestations of loyalty Peter had preferred, it seems, to be like the rest of them….a spectator of Christ.
We`re told a lot about bystanders and passers-by in the passion story. They seem to remind us of that constant temptation; the attempt to hedge ours bets with Christ and to seek out a more reasonable and distanced Discipleship. But Peter had felt the ground moving from under him. He had understood hadn`t he? In that stand up row with Jesus, this was what was really going on wasn`t it?. Jesus told them of his forthcoming execution but when Peter objected that there must be another way it wasn`t really Christ that Peter was worried about; it was himself. I get the sense that deep down Peter knew that such extremism would draw him in and prevent him from keeping that safe and distance.
It`s not that Christ hadn`t been upfront about all of this. He told them where it was all going. He made it as clear as day: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also”. (John 12.26) There could be no keeping your distance. Again, Mark tells us that he said all of this `quite openly` (Mark 8.32) and in Luke`s Gospel he taught them to count the cost. `Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?` (Luke 14.27-28). There`s No discipleship without the cross…… No wonder we prefer to keep our distance.
So I want to invite us today to reflect today on how categorical Christ is when he calls us to identify with him in his sufferings and what refusing to keep our distance might look like. Let`s wrestle with his apparent unreasonableness; with why, as far as he is concerned, this cross is so non-negotiable and part and parcel of the Christian life. But first it might be good to see if we can actually identify a little with Peter`s fear.
The comedian John Cleese once speculated that it`s the goal of the average Englishman to get to heaven without having embarrassed themselves in any way. In its simplest form it`s what we call, `not wanting to get involved`. It`s what`s going on when we decide to `keep our heads down` or play safe because we`re perhaps overly concerned with what other folk might think or say of us. In other words, it helps first if we`re honest about the evident tension we feel as Christ draws us in from our safe distance.
And secondly, let`s hear how uncompromising he is. There`s an old story about a Christian who apologises to another for having as it were caved in or compromised during a time of persecution. “What could I do?” said the man. “I have to live?”. “Do you?” said the other. In other words, I think we`re only really hearing Christ if we sense exactly how unreal, so other worldly, so preposterous it all is. But still Jesus insists: `Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit`. (John12.24) And he tells us that this is his way with us. He said “When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’” (John 12.32) The Christ on the cross draws us in.
Last week the Church recalled the life and ministry of the German Pastor Martin Bonhoeffer- who was executed by Hitler at Flossenberg Concentration camp just months before end of the Second World War. In his famous book `The Cost of Discipleship` Bonhoeffer writes, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die”. For Bonhoeffer, as I say, this became literally and physically true. But his point was that it is no less true for us; even though we may not face the same Nazi jackboot.
You see Christianity without a cross is not Christianity at all. It becomes a spectator sport. It`s confused. It`s more akin to therapy; self-seeking with candles and ritual, if you`re so inclined. It`s far easier to find ways of keeping a safe distance. It`s far easier to become part of a benign social and ethical movement; to piggy back on the back of that well-meaning but naïve notion that humanity is `every day and in every way getting better` than proclaim the judgement and death of the world`s pretensions.
Is it I wonder because we`re a bit timid and only too conscious of what Christ is asking that we tend not to mention the cross too much? Are we fearful that an apparent hair shirt religion complete with renunciation and death aren`t very good selling points? Far better we might think, to shape the message into something much more palatable…. Something we and any potential recruit might find more reasonable.
And so often we end up looking too clever by half. I sense this is something of what Paul faced when he wrote to the Corinthians. It seems he drove himself to distraction trying to make things easier until he finally said `look enough is enough`. He wrote: `When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God`. (1 Corinthians 2.1-5)
Perhaps it finally dawned on him that the Cross; no matter how foolish, objectionable and absurd it might seem was indeed Christ`s way of `drawing all people to himself` and it was simply for him to tell the story and try live the way of the cross himself.
So this afternoon I want to invite us to be drawn in by the crucified Christ. I want us like Zacchaeus, (Luke 9.1) to come down from our safe perch; no longer attempting to follow Christ from a `safe distance` but to take a good look at that cross, the one he calls us to bear and then to obediently pick it up. All of which means, I would suggest, to allow our lives to be shaped by him.
And I invite us to look at what it means to die with him. Not just at how Christ died but `To what` Christ died. Paul rather graphically says “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3.2-3) Our clue is in the word `renunciation`. In other words we must look at the things Christ consciously renounced or let go of if we are to discover more of what it means for us to `take up` the cross and follow him. He said “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’” (John 12.32) The Christ on the cross draws us in.
Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
One of my favourite passages in Scripture records how two of Jesus disciples are questioned in court and we`re told: “it was perceived that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4.13). That simple phrase says so much about the significance of keeping company with him -rather than keeping him at a distance. Clearly something of Jesus had, so to speak, rubbed off on them. He had left his imprint. They had come to think and act in the Master`s name and by his Spirit.
Indeed it`s remarkable how similar to him some of them become. Saint Stephen`s death by stoning and his forgiveness of those who murdered him is recounted in a way which has tangible echoes of the crucifixion. As he dies he prays: ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ (Acts 7.59). Now, I want to suggest that we have two things going on here. Firstly, taking up the cross is a conscious act and secondly it`s continuous; it`s something to which we return every day.
Firstly, there is more going on here than Christ making an impression on these people. For their part there is desire; the conscious desire to be with and to be like Christ. Perhaps worryingly for us St. Paul put it like this. He told the Philippians: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3.10). The word I`ve used so far to describe taking up the cross is Renunciation- a letting go of something to which one has the right. Much as a King might renounce or abdicate the throne. And that`s the analogy to conjure with. It`s certainly something of what was going on in that encounter between Pilate and Jesus.
What`s at stake here is power. Jesus has the facility and the understanding to use power in the same way as Pilate but he renounces it in favour of a different way. Clearly, he accepts the right to be called a King but Jesus is defining that word in a manner Pilate simply couldn`t understand. He says, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here”.
Now, time and again some have taken Jesus`s words here as a sign that His concerns are entirely other-worldly but what he`s saying, I believe is that the `source` of his power is not from this world. He`s by no means naïve about how power works in this world but again, he chooses a different way of exercising it. He renounces the power, control and domination of the bully or the tyrant. What I think we`re invited to do is think again about the way in which we use power or shall we say, the tactics we employ to get what we want. I say this because so often it`s a matter of ways and means that is the problem.
For example, when it comes to Church growth, so often it`s easier to adopt and swallow uncritically the ways and means deployed by the world. The ways of Jesus are violated as we go along with whatever the culture decides is charismatic, successful, influential and more importantly what gathers a crowd or gets things done.
But the words `Kingdom of God` are there to define the way we live. As the Pastor Eugene Peterson put it, “We live in a world where Christ is King” (The Jesus Way. p8) which requires a completely different way of looking at people, things, the world and our place in it. And the call is to Repent; to come under new management. So taking up the cross is to consciously take up a different way of relating to those around us. It`s the refusal to control, manipulate or take the short cuts offered by the `end justifies the means` way of living.
But secondly, as Luke`s Gospel reminds us, it`s conscious decision to which we return each day. It`s often noted that when Luke records Christ`s injunction to take up the cross and follow he adds the word `daily`. Jesus says: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9.23)
Paul uses the language of death, resurrection and renewal. He says, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator”. (Colossians 3.1-10)
How easy it is to become like that grotesque character portrayed by the comedian Harry Enfield, who can only be described as `the neighbour from hell`. It`s the man who leans over the garden fence and comments sagely on what his neighbour is doing. His catchphrase was, “You don`t want to do it like that”.
How deep within us goes this desire to control; to have influence and to determine the lives of others. These days we bring up our young people to do exactly this. Their life is not worth anything unless they can, as we put it, `make a difference`. And it`s in our relationship with them where the call to bear the cross is most keenly felt.
For instance, I recall the look of disbelief on the face of a young mother when I felt compelled to tell her that her child was not actually her property but that she held that young life on trust. In her youthful naivety she was unaware of the painful consequences of failing to `let go` from the very beginning of parenthood. But perhaps Christ`s most moving example is the way in which as they crucified him he prayed, “Father forgive them”. As somebody once said, “Forgiveness is tantamount to becoming more mature….Forgiveness is the slowly dawning insight that we have no control over other people” (Peter van Breeman. Summoned at every Age. 2005 p75).
To bear the cross in this sense is to live with difference and to refuse the temptation to dominate or shape others or our environment to our liking. I am reminded of the preacher who, when speaking about the Book of Revelation tells us of Vision of the heavenly throne. “It is” he said, “occupied…but not by us”.
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,”
Not long after I was Confirmed the Vicar who taught me left the Ministry to take up a long standing ambition to become an Actor. Some while later he wrote a book about his experiences and in it he described how he came to choose the book`s title. A few days after the news of his decision had travelled around the town he went into the butcher`s shop only to be teased by the words: “Hello Vicar. I see you`re going to be `Working like the rest of us`”.
It`s just like when a politician says, “We`re all in this together” and hackles start to rise. What a touchy subject this is. We seem to regard it as so important that those who serve us have some understanding and empathy with how we live. For example we see how our current Prime Minister is especially plagued by this simply because of his background. Whether or not this is justified is simply beside the point.
But what a contrary people we are, because whilst on the one hand we insist that people sympathise with our struggles to `make ends meet` on the other we`ll only take our vulnerability so far. In other words, independence and self-sufficiency also have deep roots. It seems we live lives that are to some extent in tension: independence and vulnerability.
The other place this tension is vented- when we`re not complaining about our politicians- is when we have those nostalgic and misty-eyed conversations about the days when apparently we could all leave our back doors unlocked and go off to the shops without worrying. There`s much fond reminiscing about times when we were indeed all `in it together` and we pulled through because of our community spirit.
At its extreme, readers of certain newspapers are treated to a diet of what I call `twisted nostalgia`. That is to say they do the fond looking back but end up rather negatively bemoaning the current state of play. We become experts in identifying the apparent lack of community Spirit; the apparent absence of any teaching about service in schools and then when we get to our local group that`s struggling to get things done- we say “O it always falls on the same people”.
But unless we`re utterly cynical we have at least had sufficient experience to know that there are moments when something opened up. Something `better` happened. We realise that are made for community and when it happens it makes a lasting impression. But the point is that almost without fail, behind this experience was someone`s willingness to put others first: to bear a cross.
When I left school I was a keen sportsman. And I was really fortunate in having attended a school where the staff freely gave up their Saturday mornings to organise a full fixture list and coaches to take myself and others to play other schools at Rugby, Hockey, Cricket and the like. When I was privileged enough to go up to University I still wanted to play some of these games but it suddenly dawned on me that this simply wasn`t going to happen without someone being willing to do the running around and make the arrangements. Again, I think we all know this to be the case. Any communal gathering relies on this kind of goodwill; this kind of self-denial for the good of others. And Christ calls his Church to be especially adept at this. We recall his washing of the disciples` feet. He told them, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22.27).
However, it`s all well and good delivering a lecture about service or Community Spirit but exhortation doesn`t really wash does it? The Prime Minister`s well-intentioned scheme called the` Big Society` really didn`t take off for this very reason. No, what`s required is that we look more closely at that tension between independence and vulnerability.
It`s often jokingly said that men never ask for directions…. It`s a point that seems to represent everything we want to say about dogged independence and self-sufficiency. In some circles that`s a characteristic that`s elevated to the point of being a virtue. We reserve high praise for those who can manage, who can cope and who can get by on their own resources. Displays of weakness are taboo.
And yet it is remarkable what can happen if someone is willing to admit their need or vulnerability. The realisation that someone else is challenged like we are leaves us feeling far less isolated doesn`t it? And their perhaps desperate straits can bring out of us all manner of compassion and resourcefulness. Their acceptance or perhaps openness about their situation can be a gift to us because we`re drawn out of ourselves to help. Now, I`m not talking here about something we might describe as a bit `touchy feely` or as they say, `wearing your heart on your sleeve`, I`m talking about a mature recognition of our interdependence.
Hanging from the cross Christ says, `I thirst`. Now, we could take this simply as a statement of physical reality, which is probably true. But with the eyes of faith we are, I believe given a window into what it might mean to take up the cross ourselves.
Firstly, I`m suggesting that taking up the cross involves the recognition that `I thirst`. I mean, facing the truth that I am not complete in myself is a psychologically healthy place to be; but renouncing my pretensions to self-sufficiency in openness to others is a Godly place to be. Accepting our vulnerability; renouncing the many securities and protections modern life affords may be thought foolhardy because I leave myself open to the Judases of this world but here I share the lot of those who are vulnerable and have no choice in the matter.
But importantly, I help others encounter their own need and the possibility of seeing behind their own pretensions. This isn`t rocket science, it`s the meekness Christ speaks of in the Beatitudes. It`s the preferring others before ourselves; whether opening the door for them, letting them through in busy traffic or offering to make the tea.
But secondly, again it boils down to a decision; a conscious act. Paul tells the Philippians “in humility regard others as better than yourselves”. But as we might expect he holds up Christ as the model:
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross”. (Philippians 2.4-8)
It might be thought naïve, foolhardy and unrealistic. But our faith and our experience of when something opened up; something `better` happened teach us that Christ is on to something. This is and never has been an easy message to sell to put it mildly. And in hedonistic and self-obsessed days such as these we might think we`re onto a loser.
But what if, individually and collectively we resolve that we will not keep our distance but instead go with Christ I wonder what might happen? Perhaps part of the challenge is to live lives that make people ask, “Why would you possibly want to do that? How can you be that caring? Or why would you put yourself to all that trouble?”
Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself.
It`s a familiar technique in the movie industry to tell stories by way of what they call a `flash-back`. That is, we see our character in their current setting and then we go back to see how they came to be in the predicament which is the central theme of the story.
So, I sometimes wonder how Christ would have felt if he had looked back over the events that had led him to this point… to this Cross. Even his enemies and the passers-by who derided him so much acknowledged the good that he had done. “He saved others….” they said. But instead of using this as an opportunity to praise or affirm him it`s cruelly turned to one of mockery. All that good; all that compassion, the healings, the signs of the Kingdom – it all counts for nothing. Because now…. He can`t or perhaps won`t dance to their tune.
The first Christians, with their own facility for `flash back` found echoes of Christ in the prophecy of Isaiah, who said: “We accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. (Isaiah 53.4) In other words, he was thought not to be the real thing but instead a charlatan and a fraud. And still the taunts went on. “Just come down from the cross, Jesus. That`s all we want. Show us that you`re still the real deal”.
So here on the cross it would seem that his reputation is shot. Everyone had deserted him and in the crowd-pleasing stakes he comes a poor second to a chap called Barabbas. And why not, we might imagine. Barabbas was at least a man of action. He`d stood up to the Romans…. He was at the heart of an insurrection… a regular hero. Set him free and we might get some more… some real leadership.
Entertainers in particular, often say that “You`re only as good as your last performance. This is because they know only too well how fickle and forgetful the crowd can be. The crowd thrive on the sensation that something`s happening.
And this is what we look for in our leaders as well. So many a leader colludes with this by offering signs of progress, movement; `things can only get better`. Being seen to be at the top of your game, a man or woman of the people, omni-competent and in charge, this is the thing. Years of faithful and steady work would count for nothing unless today there is a tangible sign that something, perhaps even `anything` is moving.
For example, I heard a teacher rather caustically remark that education is an ideal place for any Secretary of State to make their reputation because it`s a soft touch. Among all the Departments it`s the one where they can offer tangible signs of changing something…. anything.
That`s it isn`t ? It`s reputation that is at stake here. “Come on Christ. Give us a sign!”. “Come down from the cross and we`ll believe”. But Christ will not let go of his cross; the cross on which is nailed his reputation. You see this is where he renounces their good opinion of him, their judgement of him as one who fails to meet their expectations and of not being up to the mark. This is the crucifying place.
You see, Jesus drew his identity, his sense of who he was from his Baptism, where he heard that declaration of the Father`s love. He heard it again of the Mount of Transfiguration where he was talking with Moses and Elijah about what he would do in Jerusalem. What we need to remember is that Jesus had come to this point because of his faithfulness to that vision…. and he wasn`t going to let go of it now for little more than a crowd pleasing stunt.
It seems to me that required reading for every adolescent should be these words of Jesus, “Woe to you when all speak well of you” (Luke 6.26). These are, if you will, the real facts of life. Not just because it`s good sense and will save you endless fretting as you grow up. Not just because it might breed some character and self-determination as recommended by Rudyard Kipling in his poem `If`.
On the contrary it teaches you how little reputation actually matters. It reminds you how fickle and partial are the judgements of the world. How blinkered and often lacking in imagination are both our critics and those who would praise us. What I`m saying is that to bear the cross, as Christ shows us includes the refusal, in all humility to justify yourself.
This is where, as they say, the rubber hits the road isn`t it? Time and again we`re party to conversations; or maybe you over hear the animated tones of someone saying something along the lines of, “Well, so I told them……” And what follows is a putting of their side of the story in all its technicolour glory. Somehow we find it difficult don`t we to just live with the misunderstanding? We have to snap back. We have to put our side of the story… just for the record. But how would it be if we didn`t?
That flashback from the Prophet Isaiah tells us:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53.8)
It`s silence of Christ that is so eloquent. It`s the refusal to do the self-justifying thing that illustrates so graphically what it means to bear the cross. Of course at the heart of it all is fear. But this is where the daily decision of faith is applied. It`s what someone has called “the sustained decision to take God as the God of my life”. It`s a sort of shift in ones centre of gravity.
The writer of Psalm 53 said: “In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me? (Psalm 53.4)
Rooting us in the language of the cross, St. Paul tells us how to regard ourselves: He says “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory”. In other words…there will be a vindication in his good time.
St. Peter, who knew a thing or two about this, put it this way: “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly”. (1 Peter 2.20-23)
At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’’
I`m very fond of Franco Zeffirelli`s 1970`s TV series `Jesus of Nazereth`. The script, to me is a wonderful combination of both the scripture text and elaboration which brings out its meaning. A key example of this comes during the crucifixion scene where the bystanders hear Jesus crying out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
“No, he`s not calling Elijah”, says one of them. “He`s quoting the scriptures. Even on the cross, he`s quoting the scriptures”.
Now this was, I think, the first time I had heard an explanation of this incident. What this character had in mind of course is that these words are from one of the psalms. Jesus was reciting Psalm 22, which begins:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest”. (Psalm 22.1-2)
My sense is that there`s a great deal to be gained from this particular insight; not least the reliance which Jesus had on the Scriptures. We come to appreciate the way in which, we believe, he was familiar with them from his youth and it`s clearly significant that on the cross he turns to them yet again.
I was going to say that here in these words, he found what we might call solace. That may be fair but on reflection it doesn`t seem, really to do it justice. You see my impression is that the psalms, especially have a way of `working` if that’s the correct expression, not so much because of the feelings they generate but because they help us articulate, give voice and offer to God what we might otherwise struggle to express.
And as they are words which are given to us by the wider faith community, they have a way of joining our prayers with others who have and are walking the same path. The path, the way in which Jesus was treading that day is of course, is the way of the cross; the way under our consideration today. Since this is also the way we are called to tread, what does Christ`s cry of dereliction, as it is sometimes called, have to teach us?
It came as quite a shock to many that recently released letters and papers describe the great struggles which Mother Teresa had in her faith. Indeed it seems that for much of the latter part of her life she experienced a distinct sense of the absence, rather than the presence of God. Consequently, many have rather unkindly been keen to jump onto a bandwagon which labels her as a fraud and even an atheist.
Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that in our enthusiasm to `sell` the Christian faith to our adolescent world we have inadvertently marketed the faith as discernibly authentic in so far as we feel it to be so. This relatively modern phenomenon measures just about everything`s value by its emotional impact and consequently brings on a sense of crisis or at the very least doesn`t quite know what to do when the requisite feelings don`t actually materialise. And when you couple this with a dismissal of the word `tradition` which is interpreted as `lacking in authenticity` (another of today`s buzz words) you have a faith which is entirely lacking in perspective.
So what effectively happens is that our faith and Jesus himself become separated from any Jewish roots and the sweep of the Biblical story. So we don`t really bother too much with the Old Testament and on top of this we don`t much bother either with the history of the early Church and the rich heritage of prayer and reflection carried out by those we call the Church Fathers. In short everything becomes Western European and nothing of any consequence happened before the 17th century and the Reformation.
Now, I`m wittering on about this because a faith formed like this would also join in pouring scorn on Mother Teresa. She and anyone else who experiences this kind of darkness – and that`s how it often seems – are all too easily accused of doing something wrong or being wilfully deficient in their faith. But this is nonsense…. Damaging nonsense.
Because our heritage of faith; numerous Christian writers down the generations encourage us to ask much more careful and measured questions about what`s going on when, like Christ we make the words of that psalm our own….. This experience of God`s apparent absence is far more common than we realise. In other words, our heritage it seems to me, teaches us that it is pretty fatuous to diminish Christ`s cry of dereliction to simply a matter of: “I don`t feel God close to me anymore”. There`s something more going on here.
Now, there are actually lots of directions we could take in exploring what these words are about. I mean, some point to the fact that Psalm 22, although it begins with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…” actually turns into a song of triumph and confidence in God”. Others note that these words remind us that Christ, as fully human, entered deeply into the worst that humanity can experience. But our task today is to reflect on how these words help us understand what it means for us to `take up the cross` in obedience to Christ.
As someone who is professionally religious and who talks about God rather lot- perhaps too much; I was taught at an early age to try to watch my language because arrogance, intolerance and a mean spirit are always crouching at the door. But whilst being absolutely clear that God has made himself fully known in the person of Christ, I think it helps to realise that somewhere along the line my misunderstanding of this revelation has to die. And if I am honest I am constantly misunderstanding it. The Jesuit Peter Faber once said: “The measure of men`s minds can be a grotesque narrowing of the love of God and of the response that men are invited to make to it (A. Ecclestone `Yes to God`. P3)
What I`m saying is that MY God- the one I can get hold of in my mind-will by definition always forsake me because this God will never be big enough. Realising this is absolutely vital on the way of faith.
I`m always joking with young couples preparing for married that it will take at least twenty-five years for them to begin to work out who they have married. This is largely because of sundry illusions and assumptions they have made which over time will need to be shed; by which time they might be ready to actually look and listen at who it is before them. So when Jesus cries “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…” I`m hearing him enter into something we all need to experience. Taking up the cross means being willing to shed our assumptions and expectations of God … our half-baked, inadequate and yes, sometimes mean spirited pictures of him, so as to allow him to reveal himself as he really is. That process begins and continues at the foot of the cross.
Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Having said this, he breathed his last’
We began our reflection today by noting how St. Peter succumbed to the temptation of following Jesus `at a distance`. He warmed himself at the courtyard fire and became- and I don`t mean it unkindly- a spectator in faith.
I speculated that part of the reason for his animated insistence that Jesus should not go the way of the cross was his concern for himself. He knew that he would be caught up in it all. This, it seems to me, is the other meaning in those words of Christ: “When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’” (John 12.32) The Christ on the cross draws us in.
And I`ve invited us to gaze at the cross today , to look more closely to see if we can discern in HIS experience something of what it might mean for us not to remain at a distance but to obediently take up this cross ourselves. I`ve suggested that the response to Christ`s call is a conscious one; a `daily` yes to Christ. Bearing the cross is not to be seen as the stoic enduring of life`s `slings and arrows`.
There is, I`ve pointed out an underlying theme of `renunciation` going on here in the Passion story. We noted how Christ encounters Pilate and there is a lengthy discussion about power and sovereignty and that Christ re-defines kingship and invites us to have our lives shaped by the ways of his kingdom. This involves the renouncing of the power games of the world; standing on our rights and the desire for control over others.
We heard Christ`s cry from the Cross “I thirst”. We came to see `taking up the cross` as something which will shape our attitude and actions towards others. We looked at the humility and vulnerability of Christ which St. Paul places before us as an example. And we noted what a challenge this can be in times where self-sufficiency and Invulnerability are prized. But maybe this is our calling in these times…. Taking up the cross means to be that vulnerable… that open…. `Blessed are the meek` said Jesus. (Matthew 5.5)
Those who passed by the Cross acknowledged the impact that Jesus had been having: “He saved others” they said. What they were unable to accept was his inability or unwillingness to get down from the cross. So I invited us look closely at Christ as it were `holding onto` that cross; the cross on which his reputation was in tatters.
But it wasn`t that Christ, as we might put it, “Didn`t give a hoot what they thought”… as we might describe some local likely lad. No, we see how Christ holds true to his vocation and identity; the things given to him at his Baptism. It was the Father`s will and Jesus` faithfulness to that which mattered. He lived out his teaching, “Woe to you when all speak well of you” (Luke 6.26).
So, from the cross Jesus teaches us the perils of self-justification. His silence challenges us each time we feel the need to self assertively put our point across so as to keep our reputation, good name or self-image intact. Taking up the cross means renouncing or denying ourselves these things which the world prizes so highly and entrusting ourselves as Christ did, “to the one who judges justly”. (1 Peter 2.-23)
And then I invited us to see taking up the cross as a renunciation, a letting go of our own carefully crafted spirituality and life of prayer. What I mean by that is that such things are usually a sign that we`ve put the real God in a box somewhere and he`s desperate to get out. It`s usually through suffering of some sort that he gets his moment. Christ`s cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is capable of several helpful interpretations not least an invitation to use the Psalms as an aid to prayer.
But I asked us to see Christ entering into not just the pain and dereliction which so many experience across the world but signalling what someone has called the `necessary suffering` (Richard Rohr) of allowing the God WE have made to forsake us. To allow our idol; the God WE have constructed to prove himself inadequate….so that the real God, whom we see in Christ might be fully known and worshipped.
The root of these reflections, for me has been a growing realisation that we don`t really talk about the cross that much. In one sense it`s understandable. Let`s be honest, it`s horrible. And when Christ invites us to go a similar way of suffering and is so non-negotiable about it this is hard to comprehend.
Whatever it means, this `taking up the cross“ we don`t want it ourselves and we `sure as eggs` can`t conceive of this as a particularly strong selling point just when we`re wanting to get the numbers up. So we pour our efforts into almost anything we can find which will sugar-coat the faith and mitigate the embarrassment we feel. We`ll offer a successful` religion; with attendant enlivening, aesthetic and engaging experiences which we believe, is infinitely preferable. That`s why all around us we see our brothers and sisters concocting the latest religious brands designed to deliver.
Well, we can play this game if we wish. God is gracious enough to let us live with our illusions (for a while) but always we are drawn back to the cross. This is where Jesus is and he calls us to be here with him. At the heart of it… it whether we will allow ourselves to be shaped by the values of the Kingdom; whether we will allow the Master`s imprint to become part of us.
Taking up the cross and renouncing control, self-sufficiency, reputation and my image of myself as a good religious person are, again far from being strong selling points. But it`s in the nature of sin that the tempter whispers in our ear that God is out to destroy us; this means death!
Well, yes but God is actually in the business of re-making us; restoring us. It does indeed look and smell like death but taking up the cross categorically means coming under new management and renouncing our claim to self-determination. Hence the final words from the cross: “Into your hands I commend my Spirit”- that`s (perhaps) what it means to go the way of the cross.
Thanks be to God