Vicar's Sermon - 1st March 2015
Mark 8.31- 38.
Have you been watching ‘Wolf Hall’? No doubt you have heard of it even if you didn’t manage to see it on the TV. This week’s episode was the last in the series and, from the beginning we knew where it would take us. Henry VIIIth’s eye has wandered from Anne Boleyn to Miss Jane Seymour. Ann, despite bearing Henry a child has not managed to give him the son he desperately craves. Unbeknownst to the couple they have actually produced one of the greatest monarchs the country has ever known but Elizabeth, at this point in the story is just a child with curly red hair. No. Henry must have a male heir and so Ann is dispensable. For the whole of the last episode we watched a woman who was heading towards her death. Slowly the realisation dawns on her that though she bears the title of Queen the title does not protect her. She has grown up through a turbulent period of history: the series as already shown us the deaths of Cardinal Wolsey, and Sir Thomas More. As these men lost the King’s favour those associated with them distanced themselves from their courts until they were alone. So, too with Ann Boleyn. We were shown her at table but then – like the ‘stripping of the altars’ on Maundy Thursday – all was removed from before her as Thomas Cromwell approached. She was taken to the Tower. We saw her descend the tower on the day of her execution. We saw her mount the scaffold still looking, still hoping for some reprieve. The director intercut scenes showing Cromwell, earlier in the day, discussing the manner of her execution with the French executioner: a sword , not an axe. No block. She knelt, was blindfolded and then darkness fell. There was an inevitability about her fall from power and her death. The crowds gathered to witness her execution and then went home for something to eat. Throughout there was a sense of threat – it was terrifying to watch.
‘Everyone loves a winner’ but who wants to be associated with someone ‘falling from grace’, someone going down on the wheel of fortune? There are very few who will stand by someone once the tide of public opinion has turned, it is far easier to stay silent, to say nothing even if a friend or colleague has been badly treated.
‘If anyone would follow me they should deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me ‘ says Jesus: an invitation to join this particular ‘dead man walking’ that makes for a very difficult RSVP. Why would anyone follow him if it means giving up life itself?
In Roman times crosses were the ultimate symbol of disgrace, humiliation and pain – it is unusual of Jesus to ask for volunteers to carry them. The people of Jesus time knew that the cross represented the victory of Roman Power and justice over individuals and nations. It was a cruel way to die. The uprights of the crosses stood outside the city walls waiting for their victims. Those sentenced to death would carry the cross bar across their shoulders, their hands tied to it. This ‘progress’ to the place of execution would then give way to the nailing of the criminal to the cross (through the wrists so that the flesh didn’t tear) before the poor soul was hoisted up to have their feet nailed to the upright. Are you sure you want to volunteer for this? To make the process last longer the Romans added to the cross a support for the victim. They could then alternate between having their breathed squeezed from them as they hung between heaven and earth and gaining some relief by pushing against the nail in their feet to get some purchase on this support. Death could take three days, bodies were left for the dogs, the place of the skull (Golgotha) was to all intents and purposes the City dump – it was a picture of hell. ‘Cursed is any man who hangs on a tree’ says the Old Testament. Are you still willing to be counted in for this treatment?
When Jesus says these words he does so away from Jerusalem, long before others have finalised their plot to kill him. He knows full well that he is on a collision course with those in power. He knows that this might lead to his death – how many of the prophets after all died in their beds...had he not already witnessed John the Baptist’s arrest? But his invitation to us to ‘take up our cross’ isn’t just a statement that recognises a political reality or possibility. It is more than this...an invitation to a way of life, a counter intuitive invitation to lose our lives in order to gain them. The cross is to be taken up long before the wood bites into your back.
Jesus knew his scriptures. There is much within them that looks towards the triumph of God and His purposes, that sees this coming about through some great victory (military or otherwise) some great ‘act of God’. But, tucked away in the Old Testament there are ‘difficult passages’ that speak of undeserved suffering being used by God. In the Psalms, in the great ‘Servant’ songs of the prophet Isaiah and in the book of the Prophet Daniel we read of God’s people being crushed, despised, rejected. In these passages faithfulness to God is met by violence and death. You know some of these passages: ‘he was wounded for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole’. ‘He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth’. ‘He was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. (Isaiah 53). Psalm 44, a psalm quoted by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, describes Israel’s confusion as the nation’s faithfulness does not lead to prosperity but results in brokenness and despair ‘you made us turn back from the foe and our enemies have taken spoil for themselves. You have made us like sheep for the slaughter and have scattered us among the nations. You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them’. ‘We are being killed all day long and accounted as sheep for the slaughter’. (Ps 44.10ff)
Jesus identifies with this tradition of faith, this particular insight that the purposes of God are to be fulfilled through redemptive suffering. It is not, as some Christians have argued and still argue, that suffering of itself is good. No. It is not that all suffering is redemptive – my cough and cold are just that, my cough and cold. No. Rather it is that some suffering, willingly endured, voluntarily borne can draw the sting of the brokenness and sin that plagues us as human beings.
Christians aren’t fools. Far from it. In a world that at times seems to be becoming ever more brutish and brutal, a Christian understanding of what it means to be human makes ever more sense. Those who cannot commit to the existence of God have such a rose tinted view of humanity: if only we all could ‘get on’ wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place. ...well yes, but have you not noticed that we have not managed this, ever! There is something within us as human beings that divides us from ourselves and the ideals we have, something within us that divides us from one another (that pushes us apart, that tends to destructive behaviour), there is something within us that separates us from God and neighbour, that refuses to acknowledge Him or serve Him. That something we call ‘Sin’ and it is a heavy burden to carry.
We might rail against human sinfulness, we might revel in pointing it out in others (a skill we have honed down many years) but in the end the only way to deal with it is to bear its consequences, to carry it and for it to be forgiven . ‘If anyone would come after me they should take up their cross and follow me.’ That is the invitation in this verse, to become part of the solution to the brokenness of humanity – to bear the burden of its sinfulness and to be the means by which something of God’s grace and forgiveness is released into the world. What will this mean?
Perhaps there is no better place to start than by trying to live out the Beatitudes, Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the poor in spirit – seeking to live a life that recognises our need of God and points others to Him. Blessed are those who mourn – being prepared to face the sadness of the world, its waste and despair full on rather than to sugar coat everything, to live in a dream world that takes no responsibility for others. Blessed are the meek – can we have a right opinion of ourselves, not pushing our own agenda but offering our gifts faithfully and gently. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness – might we be known as those who know where true value in life lies, being prepared to work for it, to support, to build up, to strive for that which is right and good, just and true. Blessed are the merciful- might we be known as those in whom people see grace, freedom and joy . Blessed are the pure in heart – can we learn to live as those who have an unclouded vision of God, living lives that are authentic and real. Blessed are the peacemakers. Can we stand in that awkward place between those who are at odds to work for reconciliation? Finally, might we bear the cost of all this as those ‘blessed for being persecuted for righteousness sake’? For there is a cost involved in following Jesus. Nothing about this way of life is easy. It is a struggle to choose Jesus’ way, a struggle to share in carrying His cross but a privilege to walk with Him this Royal Road that leads to the death of our Selves and our recreation as those fit to inherit the kingdom of God, a kingdom that comes on earth as God’s grace, forgiveness and mercy flow from our ‘cross shaped’ lives.