What I said this Sunday – 2nd Sunday of Lent

Here’s my sermon from this morning.

Mark 8.31-end

How much are you prepared to suffer for what you believe in? And I mean suffer voluntarily? How much unnecessary suffering would you willingly take on because you thought the end result was worth it?

Would you, for example, be prepared to suffer as much as the Liverpudlian comedian John Bishop has over the past few days?

Well, John Bishop has been raising money for Sport Relief. He was sponsored to travel from Paris to London. And he did it in five days. Why so long? It was how he did it that was the problem. Because he cycled, ran and rowed his way. He has cycled 185 miles, run three marathon distances and rowed across the channel. He has battled exhaustion, severe aches and pains, sickness, sleep derivation and was in severe pain for the final stint. He has had his legs strapped up, and had regular ice treatments and massages, and in the final stages was diagnosed with shin splints – an injury caused by severe stress on the tibia. And he kept going. And on Friday he finally hobbled up the Mall into Trafalgar Square and up the steps of the National Gallery to go through the finish archway, to the strains of the Liverpool anthem “You’ll never walk alone.”

[Read more about John’s ordeal and amazing feat here]

He didn’t have to undergo any of that. He could have stayed at home, sitting in a nice comfy chair in front of the telly. But he didn’t. He has called it his “week of hell.” And what he did is, for me at least, is a level of suffering that I couldn’t even begin to contemplate. Why do it? Well, no one can quite know what was going through John Bishop’s mind when he agreed to run and ride and row from Paris to London. And I suspect that even he didn’t realise just quite how bad it would be. But having started, he carried on to the finish. He refused to give up in spite of the personal cost. And what did he achieve? What he achieved was that he has so far raised £1.6 million to pay for vaccinations for children in Africa. When he heard that total he said, “That’s just blown me away. That money’s going to change lives. It’s going to change the lives of people we don’t know.”

The end of the journey, the achievement, made the suffering worthwhile. And I want you to hold on to that picture through this sermon – John Bishop went through his “week of hell” because the end result made it all worthwhile.

Almost every Christian sanctuary has one – a cross. They are made of all kinds of material – burnished bronze or wood-hewn timbers, polished brass like ours at the high altar, or wrought iron. Some may be depicted in glorious stained glass or a simple and plain glass cross-shaped window. Some are devoid of any figure, reminding us that Christ is risen and the cross is now empty. Others depict the broken body of the one who died for our sins, and still others depict the Christ in majesty reigning from the cross which becomes not a symbol of torture but throne for a King.

Different traditions, different denominations, different congregations, may each through their own styles of worship and architecture display a cross in a different way. But wherever you find Christians you will find the cross. There may well be other symbols – a pulpit, altars with candles, Bibles – but the one symbol that is present right across the whole broad spectrum of Christianity is the cross. A symbol of torture, of extreme suffering, that has become a symbol of victory. A symbol that reminds us that at the end of the suffering there is an achievement that made the suffering worthwhile.

John Bishop was prepared to suffer because for him the end made the suffering worthwhile. Now, you, like me, may well not ever contemplate doing something like John Bishop’s “week of hell.” However – as this morning’s gospel reading makes manifestly clear – each and every one of us is called by Jesus to suffer. Each and every one of us is called to take up a cross and be prepared to accept the reality of what that symbol – a cross – means. For it means exactly what it meant for Jesus – a willingness to undergo extreme suffering because of what the end result would bring – resurrection.

Take up thy cross, the Saviour said,
if thou wouldst my disciple be,
deny thyself, the world forsake,
and humbly follow after me.

Familiar words from the old hymn, a hymn which will be sung here this morning after communion. Take up thy cross – take up your cross and follow me. Such familiar words. We’ve heard those words so many times in our Christian life. And how many of us have said, “Yes, Lord – tomorrow, maybe…” Perhaps because we can’t quite bring ourselves to that point of realising that the suffering that carrying a cross brings with it is worth it because the end result makes it all worthwhile – eternal life with Jesus.

Now, none of us I suspect is going to go out looking for ways to suffer for Jesus. And suffering, in the terms that Jesus is talking about here by using this picture of carrying a cross, can mean all kinds of things. And yet, says Jesus, you must accept it. Take up your cross if you would be my follower. We may find this a hard teaching but there is no getting away from it. If you would be my follower, says Jesus, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me on my way to the cross.

None of us wants to suffer, of course, and so taking up that cross can feel like a hard thing to do. Sometimes we can have no idea where Jesus leads – or where he calls us to follow. But that is the nature of the calling that Jesus gives us. The only thing we can know is that Jesus went to a cross and that he wants each of us to bear a cross as well and follow where he leads.

I had no idea when I joined the Church Army where it would lead. I had no ideas that in 1990 it would lead me to take charge of a church in Peckham. And had I known what being in Peckham would entail I suspect I wouldn’t have gone there. Had I known that six years later, by the time we left, we would have called the police out on average once every three months because of a crime against us as a family, I’d have said , “No thanks.” Had I known that we would have suffered three burglaries, one arson attack which left the house, fortunately in one piece, but uninhabitable for a while, I’d have said “That’s not something I can put my children through.” Had I known that through all our time there we would have had visitors demanding money several times a week – many of them aggressively or with threats – I’d have looked for a different post.

Do I look back in hindsight and think, well, difficult though it was, it was a wonderful thing to be doing the Lord’s work there? To be honest? – not in the slightest! It was unbelievably stressful and how we lasted six years I don’t know. Why did Jesus lead us there? To this day I don’t really know the answer to that. But that’s not how it works, is it? Jesus doesn’t say, “Follow me and I’ll make sure we only take the picturesque route!” All I know is that for some reason my decision to follow Jesus in June 1976 resulted in Jesus leading me and my family to Peckham in 1990.

For we don’t get to pick and choose where Jesus leads. For most of you, of course, it is unlikely to mean anything quite as drastic as going to live and work in the centre of Peckham. But there will inevitably be the times, if you accept his challenge today to pick up that cross, when you wonder where Jesus is leading you and why he is leading you there. For we don’t get to pick and choose the nice bits of Christian life. The only choice we get is whether to pick up that cross and follow him. We make that decision that we are prepared to accept the suffering that carrying a cross may bring with it, and where he then leads us is his decision. And after that it’s up to him. And it’s worth doing because the end result is so worthwhile.

Now, there are two very clear lessons that we need to learn from what Jesus says about this kind of life – a life where suffering is accepted because of where it leads – a life where suffering comes because it is demanded by Jesus.

The first we see in the first part of the reading. Jesus has begun to explain to his disciples that he must undergo great suffering, he must be rejected by the Jewish leaders, he must die before rising again after three days. Peter can’t take this. He can’t see that the end makes the suffering worthwhile – that the resurrection can only be achieved because of the cross. And, to be honest, you can kind of see Peter’s point of view at this stage in Jesus’ ministry. Peter has no way of knowing what lies ahead or what is in Jesus’ mind. However, Jesus’ response is as instant as it is clear – he rebukes Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” It is not for Peter to question Jesus, it is not for Peter to tell him he is wrong. Jesus has no intention of listening to Peter’s point of view. Today someone would complain that Jesus wasn’t a very good listener. Perhaps Peter even went off grumbling, “He never listens to anyone else, he never does what anyone else wants!” It is never for any of us to question where Jesus leads – only to take up our cross and follow him.

And the second lesson is this. When we take up that cross to follow Jesus, we take up our own cross. The problem with all this taking up crosses and carrying them is that we can be very good in the church at picking up a cross and then giving it to someone else to carry. We can be very good at piling stuff on other people. We all know what needs to be done but we expect someone else to do it, and when it’s not done it’s their fault not ours. The message that Jesus has this morning is that it is not up to anyone else to carry your cross for you. Look at the reading – even Jesus isn’t going to be carrying it for you – he’s carrying his own. It is not up to anyone else to do what you want or what you tell them to so that your Christian journey can be easier. It is not up to you to be telling someone else how they should carry their own cross and where. Jesus will do that. If you want to be my follower, he says, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. What that will mean for each of us will be different for each of us. And it’s never going to be easy – if it were, it wouldn’t be a cross.

Jesus never said “Take up your comfy chair and follow me.” No, “Take up your cross,” he said.

But each of us must decide for ourselves that we want that cross as a part of our lives. This Lent Bishop Christopher has issued his call to mission: Faith Hope Love. As part of that call each of us is asked to make a response – perhaps for you a part of that response might be, “Yes, Lord, I want to take up my cross and follow you. I don’t know what that will mean for me. But I know that you will show me how.”

I spoke earlier about the cross being the Christian symbol that was to be seen in almost every Christian sanctuary, every Christian place of worship, a universal. The cross must also be seen in every Christian life, be inscribed upon every Christian heart, for whatever suffering the cross may bring with it, the end is truly worthwhile.