‘Take up your cross’

Take up your cross

A personal reflection on this morning’s service from John Dempster.

Duncan’s sermon today was on the challenging words of Jesus in Matthew 10:24-39, sharing things his followers needed to know to prepare them for their work. How do his words  help us prepare for a future – and help Ellie Dennis’s  generation prepare for a future – whose course we cannot yet know?

The passage began with Jesus talking about students and teachers, and servants and masters. ‘A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant to be like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!’ (v24-25) I guess there are a couple of thoughts there – first of all we (who are all students, pupils of Jesus, and members of the House of Christ) must expect to face the same pressures as he faced. But secondly, the point which Duncan emphasised – that as we reflect Jesus, so our children and friends and communities see Jesus in us, for we are ‘like’ him. It is our responsibility to mirror Jesus to Ellie’s generation.

Duncan made several general remarks about the passage before leaving us with three think about.  He illustrated how sections of this passage can be correctly or incorrectly interpreted. Duncan told us that on the Channel 4 news on Thursday evening he had watched a report about a far-right British nationalist group confronting Muslim people. Asked for the motivation behind the confrontation, and leader of the nationalist group said that they were opposing Islam in the name of Christianity, and quoted Jesus’ words in today’s passage: ‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ (v34-35) That, says Duncan, is a misinterpretation of the passage.

I don’t think he mentioned a more likely interpretation of Jesus’ remark – I guess that Jesus is not urging people to war, but stating the fact that when the gospel is shared, inevitably there will be those who oppose it, sometimes violently, on an intellectual, political, economic or religious basis. Jesus had, and still has enemies, and when we align ourselves with him, we find that his enemies regard us as legitimate targets.

Then Duncan shared a very positive and uplifting example of Jesus’ words being used in a 21st century context. He mentioned a documentary film called Twenty feet from stardom, which won an Oscar, a film about the backing singers, many of them women with a background in church choirs, who supported headline acts like Frank Sinatra. One of these singers, 72-year-old Charlene Love accepted the Oscar on behalf of them all. Stepping up to the rostrum, she began her remarks by addressing God, and then sang the traditional gospel song His eye is on the sparrow which is drawn from Matthew 10:29-31. God loves equally those of us who are backing singers, adding rich texture to the melodic line of God’s song on earth.

A key theme in the passage is that of the persecution Jesus’ followers will face as the result of their faith. Although there are some situations in the UK which some people would describe as ‘persecution’, in fact this is nothing compared with what is experienced by our Christian brothers and sisters abroad. The story of Meriam Ibrahim, imprisoned in Sudan in Africa because she refused to deny her Christian faith, sentenced to death, compelled to give birth in a prison cell while in chains, created international outrage, yet still she is in prison, although now she is not chained. Thousands of Christians in Pakistan have been accused under the blasphemy laws and face a death sentence; thousands more have been killed in Syria and now in Iraq. Recently, a Dutch priest in Homs in Syria, Father van der Lugt who decided to remain with his people, saying  ‘The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have,. If the Syrian people are suffering now I want to share their pain and their difficulties.’ – was taken out and brutally shot.

Will we, Duncan wondered, face persecution in Scotland after the Independence vote? He mentioned that faith groups weren’t mentioned in the Scottish Government’s White book on Scotland’s future. (I notice that there is just one brief mention of faith groups, and no mention of churches in the draft interim constitution consultation document which was released last week.) Duncan sees this not as evidence of some plan to side-line faith groups, but simply an expression of a recognition of the indifference of the Scottish people to faith and spirituality.

(It is odd, though, given that the Scottish Government has regular consultation with representatives of faith groups, and that research shows that 54% of Scottish people would call themselves Christians, to say nothing of Muslims and other faith groups. It does almost seem as if there is a strategy to present Scotland to itself as a post-faith society when in fact it is anything but.)

And then the three particular lessons:

1. Don’t be afraid

So do not be afraid of [enemies of Jesus] There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:26-28)

There is no need to fear whatever we’re worried about, whatever the future holds, because God is God, and the truth will out. Earlier in my life I knew what it was to fear, and to be oppressed with obsessive thoughts that I might harm myself or other people. But I also found comfort, even while I was racked by fear, in entrusting myself to the God who loves me, and is there for me, no matter what happens. ‘There is nothing to fear except fear itself,’ was a phrase (from Franklin D. Roosevelt) which helped me – loved by God, there was no reason for me to fear anything. But of course Jesus reminds us that there is one thing to fear – the consequences of turning our back on God, and on the divine whispers calling us to light and love which we all hear. To everyone at the service who is fearful, Duncan brought this word of comfort – ‘Fear not!

2. Many heart breaking things will happen, but God cares

Hard things will happen – but don’t, said Duncan,  think this is a sign that God doesn’t care. In fact God cares for us, and knows each one of us intimately.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered. (Matthew 10:29-30)

Our lives are in God’s hands, and therefore we can trust him at all times – even in the darkness, when we can’t sense God’s presence, when we doubt everything we have ever believed, something within us still calls out Godwards. I loved the comment Duncan made almost as an aside: God speaks in the dark – in v27 Jesus refers to ‘what I tell you in the dark.’ When we are in turmoil, our lives passing through darkness, it’s often then that we have a sense of God’s comfort.

3. Jesus demands our full participation

‘Anyone who does not take his or her cross and follow me is not worthy of me,’ Jesus said. ‘Whoever finds his or her life will lose it, and whoever loses his or her life for my sake will find it.’ (Matthew 10:38-39) Taking up your cross, Duncan said is a symbol of death, and of giving up your ambitions.   Jesus demands our full participation in the Kingdom Project. Each of us, Duncan says, needs to ask what these challenging words mean to use personally.

I guess when I was younger, I thought that following Jesus must mean giving up more and more, but I never knew whether I had done enough, or given up enough. I thought following Jesus must involve doing hard and unpleasant things, not the things I enjoyed doing and which came naturally to me. But I have coming to see following Jesus as increasingly becoming the person I am called to be, doing the things I am good at, because the ability to do stuff is God-given. This involves turning from the greedy, selfish, materialistic, fame-seeking part of me and living more fully out of my true self, the part that loves light and love and joy, and challenge and courage. For me, this is what finding my life has meant – uncovering the unique self which God has created and calls me to be.

But each of us needs to reflect on what following Jesus looks like in our personal experience as, together as a church, we find out the things we do not yet know.

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