Take up your cross
Ordinary Sunday 22: 31 August, 2014
Fr Philip Gill
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill and Lazarus Centre Chaplain
When Jesus asks those who would follow him to take up their cross he is not asking us to adhere more closely to a set of religious principles or commandments for their own sake, but he challenges us to join him in the adventure of life. It is life moving in a certain direction, toward God, for this is the way to the abundant life Jesus lived — and in which he wants his followers to share. He says, "For those who save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it".
I consider two stumbling blocks that make taking up the cross difficult. First there is the counter-intuitive nature of the challenge. One of the primary drives of any human being, or many living things for that matter, is self-preservation. As St Paul says, musing upon the sacrifice of Christ:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person-though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Though there are many examples of self-sacrifice in history, these are held up as heroic, rather than everyday, responses to the business of existence. Why would anyone willingly give up this drive to self-preservation even if it were possible to do so?
The second reality is the counter-cultural nature of such a decision. Self-sacrifice, the giving of one's self for the greater good is rightly applauded, but asking someone to live a life of self-sacrifice is counter to our society's celebration of consumption and acquisition. Those willing to sacrifice are sometimes seen as weak and can fall prey to people who see an opportunity to take advantage of the generous or caring. There is a moment in the gospels when Jesus, in an exchange with his questioners, berates them because they were constantly looking to discredit him.
"For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!'" 
The words "glutton and drunkard" also appear in the Book of Deuteronomy. There it is written that parents of a disobedient son could bring him before the elders declaring him a "glutton and drunkard". On the basis of this condemnation the son could be taken outside the town and stoned to death! I don't know about your growing up — but I thought my parents' threats to "send me away to boarding school" were frightening enough!
To take up the cross is certainly counter-cultural in our society but the counter-cultural nature of Christianity no more evident today than in Iraq. Bishop Alistair Redfern is the lead bishop for the Church of England's response to International Development. In a letter to the bishops of the Church of England he writes:
Over the last few weeks we have witnessed a tragedy of historic proportions unfold in Iraq with thousands of innocent people at immediate risk of death for no other reason than their religious beliefs. It is impossible not to be profoundly dismayed by the barbaric acts carried out by ISIS fighters that threaten to alter permanently the country's complex and ancient religious heritage. The forced and bloody exodus of Christians and other religious minorities from Mosul and more recently Qaraqosh, the heart of Christian civilisation in the Nineveh region for almost 2,000 years, underline in very clear terms the appalling inhumanity of the perpetrators of these crimes.
For the Christians of Northern Iraq, the request to take up the cross of Christ is not an empty metaphor and in many cases it is not a metaphor at all. They are taking up their crosses — they are losing their lives. If you want to follow responses to this tragedy you can go to the Church of England's website and find out how to join in the pray, act, give initiative.
Counter-intuitive and counter-cultural: why then would so many millions take up this challenge to follow Christ? There are, I believe some compelling reasons for taking up the cross of Christ even in the face of doubt and rejection. First is that people believe they encounter Christ as risen and experience his call upon their lives as real and urgent. The voice of Christ is not an echo of history but an imperative of the present demanding a response. In his beautiful book, Being Christian, Rowan Williams makes the point that, "...one of the central truths about the resurrection is that Jesus is still doing what he did before..." 
Many can relate to the experience of St Augustine of Hippo all those centuries ago when after a long and deeply emotional spiritual struggle, he heard a voice repeatedly calling him to take and read the scriptures. As he did so his eyes fell on a passage from St Paul to the Romans: "...not in reveling or drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature or nature's appetites." Of that moment he writes in his Confessions:
I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled. 
Attempts to reduce our religious experiences, whether they are momentous like that of St Augustine, or more like gentle urgings of the heart, to mere neurological impulses border on arrogance. These encounters can lead to profound changes in life orientation and in everyday behaviour. They fuel lifelong witness of deep faithfulness.
However, even our most profound experiences can fade in the rough and tumble of real life. What can it be that keeps us faithful in times when doubt could easily overwhelm us? We might well want to put down the cross and so to speak, run like hell, from the challenges that being Christian brings.
Though the Church does not have a monopoly on great expressions of faith, hope and love, and the Spirit of God cannot be contained in our doctrines and councils, those who make a positive response to the call of Christ to take up the cross do so in the power of the Holy Spirit, called into the supportive fellowship with other Christians and into creative relationships with all creation.
Saying 'yes' to the cross will also heighten awareness of a world broken and in need, and yet also yearning for wholeness and fulfilment. When confronted with the invitation to take up the cross I reflect on that well-worn dictum attributed to philosopher Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing".
Perhaps to carry the cross of Christ is to know the world as broken, and yet still care for it as God does; to know ourselves as sinful, and yet still love ourselves as God does; and to know each other as incomplete, and yet still forgive each other as God does.
We dare to imagine a creation closer to God's end purpose. Waiting and working for this fulfilment is both joyous and excruciating. In moving towards that purpose we will know the comfort of God's unconditional love and the promise of eternal life, but we will also know the pain of our own failure and the ridicule of those who think we are deluded. Christians have faced these realities from the earliest days as we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews for example:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
As we consider this morning what it means for us to take up our cross and follow Christ, let us also be mindful of our brothers and sisters around the world for whom faithful following of Christ will indeed cost them their lives. We do so in words of a prayer written for the Christians suffering in Iraq and Syria
Hold in your loving arms, all those who have been caught up in this conflict. We pray for those forced to flee their homes, all who have lost friends, family and possessions and who now face an uncertain future. Bless our Christian brothers and sisters who have seen the destruction of their churches and communities and for our Muslim neighbours who have also experienced destruction and suffering. Amen.
"For those who save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
- Romans 5:6-8
- Matthew 11:18-19
- Deuteronomy 21:18-21
- Alistair Redfern, Responding to the crisis in Northern Iraq, Original article here.
- Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2014, p. 44.
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin, Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1961, p. 178
- Hebrews 12:1-2
- John Sentamu, Archbishop Calls For Prayers for the People of Mosul, Original article here.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.