Terms and conditions! Don’t you just love reading the terms and conditions?
As we all know a feature of Saturday night television is the reality competition. At the moment we have The Voice. And if you’re not into singing, there’s always Dancing on Ice – though how much longer that will last is anyone’s guess, as they keep losing contestants to injury and positive Covid tests – five celebrities have dropped out so far. No Britain’s Got Talent to look forward to this year, but as always we can look forward to Strictly in the autumn!
And a major part of such shows is the public getting the chance to phone in and vote for their favourite competitors. And those who watch such shows will know that along with the opportunity to phone in, you have to be made aware of the terms and conditions.
And so, every week when it’s phoning in time, we have to be told: calls to the 11-digit number cost this much if you’re phoning from a BT landline but other networks may vary, and it will cost you more if phoning from a mobile. So if you’re phoning from a mobile call the 7-digit number which will cost you that much. You must ensure you have the bill payer’s permission, and if you are under 12 you must have the permission of your parent or guardian. Don’t phone yet as voting isn’t open and your vote won’t count but you may still be charged, and don’t phone in if you’re watching on catch-up – and so on.
Terms and Conditions – we must all have been told what the terms and conditions are beforehand and so the law requires that they are read out live on air. It’s not enough to leave it to the individual to find out what the terms and conditions are on their own if they want to. Everyone has to know.
And for many things they can be pretty complicated. Look up the terms and conditions for using your iPhone! Pages and pages. I can’t believe anyone has every actually read them, they are so long. And yet before your phone will actually work you have to indicate that you’ve read them! It’s the same with lots of things these days. Book a holiday, or a flight, things I know a lot of people are looking forward to be able to do again – and there they are, the terms and conditions.
People must know what’s what before they do something – so we have terms and conditions. We find them everywhere these days. Even in our gospel reading. Because today we hear how Jesus tells, not just the disciples, but the whole crowd who are going around with him what the terms and conditions are. We see how at the beginning of today’s gospel he is talking just to the disciples – those already following him – but then he calls the crowd along with the disciples and tells everyone the terms and conditions. He wants to make sure that everyone knows and understands what they are letting themselves in for. He doesn’t want anyone under any illusions.
And at one level the terms and conditions Jesus sets are far simpler to understand than those we are subjected to on reality television shows – they’re very short. Jesus makes it easy for us to understand. And yet, on another level they are far more difficult to adhere to than those from a reality show phone-in.
So what are Jesus’ terms and conditions? If any want to become my followers he says – and here come the terms and conditions – let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Simple! There are just three:
- One – deny yourself.
- Two – take up your cross.
- Three – follow me.
And note how Jesus puts it: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. They all go together! It’s not a case of deciding to follow Jesus, and then at some point in the future deciding that you’re ready to make a start on the two difficult bits of self-denial and carrying a cross. Jesus wants you to know the terms and conditions before you follow him. They may be brief, but they’re pretty serious stuff.
And it’s those words about denying yourself and taking up your cross – that I want us to particularly focus on this morning. If you’ve been going to church for a long time you’ll have heard them before. We hear them every year, and especially during Lent. If you’re new, like the crowd gathered around Jesus in our gospel reading, then Jesus wants you to know the score before you go any further.
So he gives us the terms and conditions. But what exactly does he mean by them?
Well – let’s start with what Jesus most definitely does not mean.
He does not mean that we may have to put up with minor inconveniences as Christians. He does not mean, for example, denying ourselves chocolate or wine during Lent. That’s not what Jesus means by self-denial – a minor inconvenience of going without some pleasure or other.
We sometimes hear people use the phrase it’s a cross I have to bear when talking about an illness, or a difficult relationship, or some other personal difficulty. Those things can be hard to deal with, and are rightly times when we look to Jesus for strength and support. But that’s not what Jesus meant either.
What Jesus meant is very difficult for us to grasp. And yet what he meant would have been abundantly clear to those who heard him say it the first time, because they saw it regularly inflicted by the Romans. Take up your cross meant only one thing – be prepared to be crucified, to willingly face death. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. You must, he is saying, be ready to give everything up, be prepared to submit yourself to a painful and degrading punishment, and then follow me wherever I lead. And that’s where the terms and conditions that go with following Jesus get scary – how many of us want to do that. Take up your cross says Jesus. For the cross is at the heart of our faith and take it up we must.
Now, none of us I suspect is going to go out actively 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, may mean all kinds of things. Yet at the heart of it is the sense of being prepared to give our whole life for Jesus. And we may find this a hard teaching but there is no getting away from it. If you would be my follower, says Jesus, these are the terms and conditions – you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.
Like having the terms and conditions read out to us before we phone in on our favourite Saturday night shows, Jesus makes sure that before we embark on life with him that we know what to expect and what we must do.
No picking and choosing how we live as Christians – Jesus didn’t give a choice – the terms and conditions that he gives in our gospel reading are very clear. We don’t get to pick and choose where Jesus leads or how we should be expected to live as Christians. And there’s no point in saying further down the road that we didn’t sign up for the kind of things he goes on to teach – about how to live with one another, how to share, how to put others first.
The only choice we get is whether to deny ourselves and pick up that cross and follow him – or not. We sign up to the terms and conditions, we make the 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. Because after that it’s up to him. And it’s worth doing because the end result is so worthwhile.
So, says Jesus, Take up your cross! Now, I’m not going to pretend that this is easy. It’s not. I don’t find it easy! I don’t suppose any of you do either. But Jesus enables us to do it if we will trust in him. And what it will mean when we accept the terms and conditions will inevitably be different for each of us. And it’s never going to be easy – if it were, it wouldn’t be a cross. Jesus’ terms and conditions aren’t “Take up your comfy chair and follow me.”
No, “Deny yourself and take up your cross,” he says.
“And follow me!”
And he might not say so in our gospel reading, but the message of the whole of the New Testament is: “And I’ll be with you every step of the way!”