Fr David's Sermon
12th March 2006
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ĎIf any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Mk.8.34
Why isnít Christianity popular? Itís a question we all struggle with. How can we present an attractive faith that will draw others? Such questions are real but they can divert us from the gospel. The message of Jesus is uncompromising, direct and uncomfortable. If people donít follow it shouldnít surprise us.
We can see why they donít from todayís passage. It takes us to the heart of Lent, to the heart of our faith. It is not comfortable reading, however much we try we canít weasel out of it. It demands a response, either a yes or a no, either acceptance or rejection. Jesus urged his hearers to repent, to do a u-turn, to change direction in a radical way. Mk 8.31-38 marks a turning point in Markís gospel. From now on Jesus becomes the patient, one who is done to, rather than doing to others.
Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. In this way he described his coming Passion, his divine destiny, suffering and death on a cross.
Hearing this, Peter who loved Jesus, was deeply offended and upset. His rebuke of Jesus earned him the rebuke, ĎGet behind me Satan. í These were harsh words to one who had previously been praised for getting it right, for seeing that Jesus was the Christ, the messiah. They were harsh because Jesus wanted Peter to know and to receive the truth, to be confronted by it.
But it wasnít just Peter who need to hear them, the other disciples and the crowed of bystanders were similarly confronted and challenged. He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ĎIf any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow meí. Being a follower of Jesus meant going the same way, literally for many of the first Christians including Peter. Self-denial, the way of the cross, was not a popular message, neither then or now or in the intervening two millennia. It was message that many could not accept. Ironically it led the rejecters to clamour for the very same crucifixion they found so offensive.
But then comes the twist. It is natural for human beings to want to be comfortable, to cling on to the things they value, to life itself. From now on Jesus says worldly values and experience will be reversed. In one of the great gospel paradoxes they are turned on their head. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Those who save lose, those who lose save. We can have everything, great wealth and power and yet lose everything. These words come out of Jesusí wrestling with the wilderness temptations to be successful, powerful and spectacular. He resisted them and so must we. The gospel is hard and therefore hardly likely to be popular and yet it promises everything if we are faithful to it, life in all its fullness. Jesus has gone the way before us, he suffered and was killed, and giving up everything for us he rose again on the third day.
Just like those nails on the cross Jesus drives his message home with a final note of warning. ĎThose who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.í In our eagerness to cling to life and to comfort we become embarrassed by Jesusí words, we become ashamed of him. Ours, like all generations, is an adulterous and sinful generation. Itís how things are in a fallen and apparently glamorous world. But if we are ashamed of him then he will be ashamed of us!
It is a hard gospel for Lent, having within it the prospect of life in all its fullness; suffering, yes, death on a cross, yes, but also the hope of resurrection. We can ask for grace to accept it for ourselves, so that in the daily turning that is repentance we too will receive Our Lordís gift of life. In giving up and letting go we receive. By being proud in our faith we become a source of pride to God. In glorying in the cross of Christ we share in his glory.
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