Sermon preached at the Church of All Saints, Blackheath
at Parish Mass on Lent 2
(March 1st, 2015)
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
Some of us have probably been enjoying ‘Wolf Hall’, the story of how Thomas Cromwell’s navigated the corridors of power in the Tudor court to become Henry VIII's chief minister.
Fifty years ago Paul Schofield starred as S. Thomas More in another account of that turbulent period. Amongst all the memorable lines he uttered, one always stood out for me. It was during More’s trial and his old protégé Richard Rich, now Attorney- General for Wales, was testifying against him. More spotted the gold chain of that office, which he had gained by devious means, and uttered the haunting observation: “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?”
Now I apologise to any Welsh people here at that slight on the Principality, especially on this day, but the gospel reading we've just heard concerns the call to live with integrity. And for us Christians in particular it concerns the cost of discipleship: how we let go of our old self so that Jesus’ identity gradually shapes our own.
DISCIPLESHIP AND THE PASSION OF CHRIST
Jesus’ observation that anyone who wants to follow Him will need to take up their cross is the first mention in Mark’s gospel of that terrible symbol of Roman execution. So Jesus has to teach His disciples that the Son of Man must undergo suffering and death, a prediction that clearly shocked Peter and the others who may have been in danger of believing that following Jesus would lead to one success after another. That’s understandable; few of us would want to join a group that courted failure but Jesus clearly needs to point them beyond this superficial approach to discipleship. So He makes it plain that following Him will involve self-denial and taking up ‘the cross’.
This stark choice is one that we all need reminding of from time to time. Being a Christian mustn’t be equated with success. There is a cost to discipleship, a cost that will often involve choices in the way we act. Sometimes it will be stark, as it is for many Christians in the Middle East right now. But each day we are faced with choices about how to act in hundreds of different ways.
Of course, we know that we shouldn’t do anything that is evil, but there are so many subtle choices we are faced with and the question is, which ones will keep us on the path to life? Sometimes the choice is clear, but at other times it isn’t. What we are called to do is to seek to have the eye of our heart fixed on the Lord. To practice the discipline of desiring to be moulded in His image and likeness so that our desires are, gradually, at one with His.
This is what lies behind Jesus’ call to disciples that they should ‘deny themselves’. Now that phrase, or others like ‘self-denial’, are meant to alert us to the way in which the ‘self’ – the overblown-self – needs to be kept in check else it may get out of control.
At the beginning of Lent, when ash was smeared on our foreheads, it was accompanied with the words: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”. So often it is that dominating-self which controls our lives. Of course, it’s important to have a healthy sense of ‘self’ for once we do then we don’t have to engage in that constant need to dominate others – to always be right, for example. What it doesn’t mean is to adopt an attitude that is abusive towards our-self. That would be quite wrong. Before ever we can begin on a healthy self-denial we have to have a healthy sense of self which comes, for us, from knowing that we are God’s beloved children.
And lying behind the movement towards denying ourselves must be faithful to the gospel – to that call to live out of the goodness of God.
LIFE THROUGH LAW OR GRACE
S. Paul, in that extract we heard from his letter to the Romans, teaches us that this way of discipleship which leads to fullness of life, cannot be determined by any law but only by living in the grace – the mercy – of God. God’s promise of eternal life (and that isn’t just about some future paradise but something that is lived now) does not depend on slavishly following a religious code – Paul was no fundamentalist – but by living through faith in God. ‘Thy will be done.’
And how do we know when we are doing God’s will? By seeking to make Him the centre of our lives. One of the simplest and most profound means of doing this was devised by Ignatius Loyola. It’s a practice he called the Examen which many Christians are turning to in their desire to live out the gospel. It’s an exercise of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God's presence and discern how we can ‘flow’ into His desire – His will – for us. Ignatius recommended that we should constantly reflect on the movements that are directing our lives: not how I can be good, but on the way I have responded to those movements as I seek to freely give myself to God.
One of the simplest ways of practicing this exercise is by placing your hand on your heart and asking the Lord to bring to your heart the moment today for which you are most grateful. When were you most able to give and receive love today? Then ask yourself what was said and done in the moment that made it so special and breathe in the gratitude you feel. Next ask God to bring to your heart the moment today for which you are least grateful. When were you least able to give and receive love? Ask yourself what was said and done in that moment that made it so difficult. Then, finally, take deep breaths and let God’s love fill you just as you are.
This daily prayerful exercise is designed to consciously re-direct the heart towards giving itself to God’s gracious call to life so that we can give ourselves to living out of the will of God with greater freedom.
TAKING UP THE CROSS
Of course, living out of His will means letting go of ours which, in turn, means that we are learning to take up our cross and follow Christ. To lose, or let go of, our life to be open to the life He offers us. The Examen can help us reflect on that process and so can seeking to be constantly present to God by letting go of the self.
There are many practices to aid this desire which work with inkling the heart towards God. From the practice of the Jesus Prayer – that constant repetition in the heart of the phrase: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner” – to just being present to our breathing or to a sacred word: “Jesus” or “Abba” or “Maranatha” for example. In all of this we are not responding to a demand of God but, rather, an invitation into eternal life – or life in all its fullness. God does not demand that we discipline ourselves in order to achieve some state of higher moral existence; but He does, graciously, invite us to share in His life by letting go of our over- bearing ego-self and letting His life become ours.
Satan – or the force of evil – is constantly at work in the world seeking someone to devour. Thankfully we don’t face the stark choice of denying Christ or being crucified for our faith. But we are called to deny ourselves. As Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, once said in a sermon: “I have now concentrated all my prayers into one, and that one prayer is this, that I may die to self, and live wholly to Him.”
Today we have a chance of reflecting on a set of readings that have this in common: that we are called into a new relationship with God. One not based on keeping a set of rules but of learning to freely give myself into a relationship with Him so that His life becomes my life.
Perhaps that’s what Lent is all about.