Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Bearing the Cross
March 4, 2012, 7:36 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday March 5th, 2012

“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The second of our Sunday morning Lent sermons is entitled, “Seeking: bearing the cross.” Our general theme is “seeking”- “seek and ye shall find,”- but what are we seeking? Or indeed, whom are we seeking?

At the most general level, I suppose, we are all looking for some meaning or purpose in life. What is it all for? One of the most corrosive results of the modern sceptics’ denial of God as Origin of the world, of the assertion that the world has come to be simply through blind forces and random developments, is that it inevitably leads to a denial of God as the end and goal of creation, the giver of meaning and purpose. If the world is the result of blind and random forces, there is no purpose beyond the petty and personal ambitions each of us may choose for ourselves. The world is going nowhere, the human race is going nowhere, there is nothing and nobody to seek. It may satisfy some scientists to enlarge their understanding of how the world works, but if the world is already millions of years old, and will continue for millions more, nothing in our little span (if that is all there is) can really matter. In the long run we are all dead.

It is at the very heart of the Christian Gospel- “God’s good news”, as St Paul calls it at the beginning of his letter to the Romans- that even if in the long run we are all dead, in the even longer run we shall all live. What appears to be the final curtain is only the end of Act One. There is more to come.

It is Jesus of Nazareth who has brought us this good news, and he has done this by passing through death to the other side, and returning to tell us that all is well. But for him and for us the way is not necessarily easy, indeed it may be very hard indeed, and we have to be prepared for that. What will carry us through is trust in him, our holding on (though everything seems to go against it) to the conviction that our lives do mean something, that there is a Power that has called us into existence, which continues to care for us, and which will not let go of us unless we are determined to refuse what is offered.

In Jesus, God himself has entered the world as one of us. He does not simply offer us directions or a map for our journey, he has made that journey himself, from womb to tomb. And he chose not the easiest and smoothest path through this world, but the hardest and roughest and darkest. This was not because God sees human beings as wicked and deserving punishment, a punishment which has to be suffered by someone. God does not desire the death of a sinner! It is because human beings are their own worst enemy, running into danger and refusing to listen to the guidance of a loving Father.

“He began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected… and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.” Peter- well meaning yet far from understanding, thinks Jesus is simply giving way to negative thinking! “No, no, Lord, don’t think like that!” But it is Peter who stands rebuked as “Satan”, the Adversary, who is looking at it from a human point of view- the side of men- not from the side of God. In his “Introduction to Christianity”, written many years ago but re-issued more recently, Joseph Ratzinger (then just Professor, now Pope) explains the difference.

“In the New Testament the Cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below. It stands there, not as the work of expiation that mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God’s that gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about…”

(He continues) “Christian sacrifice does not consist in a giving of what God would not have without us but in our becoming totally receptive and letting ourselves be completely taken over by him. Letting God act in us- that is Christian sacrifice.”

Jesus surrendered himself to pain and death to convince us that God will go to any lengths to win our love in return. The Cross is necessary, but “It is not pain as such that counts” (Ratzinger goes on) “but the breadth of the love that spans existence so completely that it unites the distant and the near, bringing God-forsaken man into relation with God. It alone gives pain an aim and a meaning.”

When we grasp why Jesus had to suffer, we will understand why, if we want to be his true followers, we too must embrace the Cross. That does not mean inflicting pain on ourselves, as if we were masochists, but empathising with the pain of the world, and accepting (if that should be our lot) rejection by those who reject God, and also whatever other ills, sickness or sorrow, may come to us, as they may come to any human being in this world. The challenge is to meet all this as our Lord met it, willingly and courageously, offering it to God as an expression of our love for him and for our fellow men, in faith.

It is for the sake of Christ we do this: “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” When we perceive in the Cross the great sign of God’s love for us, of how much he has poured himself out for us, we have no difficulty in responding. Love calls forth love. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him- (puts their trust in him)- should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

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