NB: I preached this sermon on 12 March 2006 and it has topical references
which may need updating or explaining.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
For the Christians who first heard and read these words, the cross would have meant something terrible. Crucifixion was a common punishment for criminals and it was brutally cruel. To be told that in following Jesus you had to take up your cross would strike a chill in your heart because crucifixion was a very real danger.
For us today these words don’t have the same sort of impact, we are not in danger of persecution and execution because of our faith.
So is there a way that the words can be meaningful for us today?
Cost of discipleship
For those first Christians facing death on the cross could be the dreadful cost of being a disciple of Jesus and perhaps it’s in that phrase “cost of discipleship” that we can understand a little more about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
I’ve heard discipleship being described as “trying to think and live from God’s point of view” which is perhaps something of what Jesus meant when he said Peter was setting his mind on human, not divine, things.
Two stories from this week:
This week I’ve come across two stories that show the cost of trying to think and live from God’s point of view while struggling with overwhelming feelings of rage and grief.
The first is Emily’s story. Anyone who watches Coronation Street will know what’s happening. Emily is an elderly lady, a devout Christian who regularly attends church. A newcomer, Ed, starts coming to church and makes friends with Emily and other residents of Coronation Street.
Once he’s settled in he tells Emily that he’s the man who shot and killed her husband during an armed robbery twenty-eight years ago. He became a Christian in prison and has returned to ask for forgiveness. He had wanted Emily to get to know him as the man he is now rather than remember him as the man he was all those years ago.
We see Emily’s anguish and pain as she struggles with her emotions and what she believes her faith demands of her. Her grief about her husband’s death becomes fresh and raw again. And because she can’t forgive and feels extreme anger against Ed she questions her faith and is unable to attend church.
She is experiencing the cost of discipleship – the cost of trying to find a way of thinking and living from God’s point of view while struggling with very human and very understandable emotions about Ed, about the loss of her husband and what might have been.
Revd Julie Nicholson
The second story is a very real one – that of Julie Nicholson, a parish priest in Bristol.
Her 24 year old daughter, Jenny, was killed in the London bombings on the 7th July last year (2005).
Julie has found it impossible to continue with her ministry in the parish because, she says, she cannot speak words of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness when she is burning with anger and rage, unable to forgive those responsible for her daughter’s death.
Here are two women whose lives have been torn apart by a senseless, violent murder of someone they love.
Julie Nicholson’s story has been written about, talked about, discussed on radio and she herself has given interviews. No-one I have heard has ever murmured so much as one word of criticism or judgment. No-one is saying she “should” be able to forgive or that she’s a hypocrite for not doing so or that she should no longer be a priest at all. No-one has said that.
Everyone has acknowledged the reality of her struggle and have admired her courage, her honesty and her integrity.
Most of us won’t experience the loss of a loved one through violent murder but we all have to forgive someone for something at some time. When that happens we, too, will need that sort of support, encouragement and prayer. Because learning to forgive, learning to love our neighbour as we would like to be loved, learning to live in the way Jesus did are lifelong tasks and are not easy.
But if we take Jesus’ words seriously then we are called to take up that cross, that learning to think and to live from God’s point of view which is not an easy option. It’s tough, it’s costly and we need God’s healing grace and the encouragement and support of one another in the struggle.
The good news is that God doesn’t stand over us threatening us with punishment if we fail. God watches over us, cares for us, understands the turmoil of our emotions and delights in even our smallest efforts to see things from his point of view.
I pray that we also may watch over each other, care for each and delight in sharing our experiences of discipleship. Amen