Sermons from St Faith's

Carrying the Cross
Fr Mark WatersNeil Kelley, August 31st, 2008

 You may have seen it in your newspaper this week – the story of the fastest growing church in the UK – Kingsway International Christian Centre. Launched in 1991 in an East London school with 300 people (several/about two or three times what we get at our very best) it now attracts 12,000 worshippers to its Pentecostal services every Sunday.

And no wonder. The church preaches a prosperity gospel – based on the words from the book of Deuteronomy ‘empowered to prosper’ the church tells you that God wants you to get rich. And the sermons are about exactly that – how to get rich, and how to get richer. This is what God wants for your life.

What a contrast with this morning’s readings. First from the prophet Jeremiah, a long way from getting rich – ‘the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long’. And then of course from the gospel of Matthew –Jesus is to suffer at the hands of the elders and scribes and priests, and be killed, and we hear that the same is in store for his followers - anyone who wants to be a follower of his, must deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow him.

I don’t know how the Kingsway Christians, reading the same bible that I do, arrive at their interpretation about a gospel of financial prosperity. The congregation is largely made up of people from the west coast of Africa who desperately need to feel at home in this culture. Maybe their message is just right for that purpose. Maybe that’s just what they need to hear at this moment in  their lives.

But for me the story of their success is a telling example of just how easily any of us can make the gospel in our own image. It reminds me a bit of the other so-called spiritualities which are prevalent in modern Britain. Like the ‘get fit’ redemption. Spending hours at the altar of the gym, toning your muscles and honing your shape as a way of achieving personal salvation in terms of the body beautiful. Or the meditative way to God – becoming calm through yoga and deep breathing, or by the graceful movements of Tai Chi as a way of reaching your personal nirvana in a world of noise, conflict, tension and ultimate consumer disappointment. Stay cool and chilled. Be aloof. Concentrate on yourself, and all will be well.

But before we point too scornfully at Kingsway Church, or any others, we need to recognise that not many of us are ready for the real gospel. Most of us settle for much less:
    - a ‘high church’ with just the right amount of bells and smells and choreography to make us feel a bit superior to those evangelicals
    - or feeling that our ‘traditional’ way of doing what we’ve always done is somehow closer to God than any other way.

The list of ways in which we can deceive ourselves is pretty endless. We find something we like ecclesiastically or socially, call it the gospel, and settle into whatever rut we find most comfortable. And there we stay. I would say it’s the story of most churches and most church folk. Most of us are pretty conservative at heart. And the gospel is always a challenge ahead of us.

So the really important and disturbing question with which we are presented today, the one which challenges all of our comfortable notions of church or spirituality, is what it means to carry the cross. Just what does it mean to carry the cross?

Often we interpret it as something bad that happens to us. My cross is my arthritis, or my depression, or my redundancy, or whatever. This is not true. Pain is everywhere, and pain is infinitely various, and at different times in our lives all of us understand what pain is. But the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to are not the cross. They deserve our sympathy, and we believe God hears our cries of pain, but the king of glory does not die on them.

The cross is something else.
The cross is not something that happens to me unbidden.
The cross is not fate.
It is not bad genes or inherited weaknesses.
It is not the accumulated burden of the things which are wrong with my life.

And taking up my cross is not anything to do with church.
It is not running and maintaining a church, or sitting on the PCC, or going to Deanery Synod, or on retreat, or to daily mass.
And it is not going to church.

My cross is something I I have to choose to pick up.
It is something that I feel God is calling me to do.
The cross is a passionate taking up of what I understand God’s will to be for me in the face of violence, and hatred, indifference, and evil of the world.

In other words, it is going against the grain. It is proclaiming that there is another way to live which is not the world’s way. And it is opening yourself up to attack, or ridicule, or being ignored in order to live that out.

The key to this challenge sounds simple but is in fact very hard.
In order to pick up my cross. In order to initially even identify what my cross is, I must first die to the false and immature self that I am now. I must do this to find my life, my real self, the self that God intends for us, so that it may come to life.

I cannot say what your cross is, or might be. Only you can.
Only you can come to know, through faithfully living the unique piece of human experience which is yours, what God has given you to be your vocation. What it is to which you are called over and above and beyond the things with which you are presented in your life.

What is it that you have to choose?
What is your narrow way?

If you already know the answer to that question then you are truly blessed.


A couple of warnings before we finish.

Firstly, the matter of identifying and beginning to carry your cross is urgent.
Most of us – probably all of us - wish we had made better use of our life than we have yet done.

John O’Donohue, the poet and theologian and man of prayer, was asked by a friend if there was one spiritual question which haunted him more than any other. And John O’Donohue replied, ‘yes, I know exactly what it is that preoccupies me spiritually. It is that my time is passing away like sand running through my fingers, faster and faster, and I can’t do a thing about it’

Our time is short. If we don’t know what our cross is then we’d better devote some time to finding out what it is, because one day it may be too late, and we may then never know.

Secondly, we are not alone in carrying our cross.
As we read the story of Christ’s passion we tend to forget an apparently tiny detail. Christ needed help to carry his cross. Even Jesus, who we invest with so much power and spiritual authority, needed Symon of Cyrene to carry his cross for part of the journey.

So it is with us. Even if we know what our particular cross is that we must pick up and carry. We do not have to bear it alone.

But this is so very hard too. We Christians find that most difficult. Especially us diffident and British Christians. We often have no difficulty at all with the need to give help to others, we do it almost naturally. We’re very good at it. And it makes us feel good.

But we are often almost incapable of receiving any help.  We have a compulsive desire to try and feel secure by the false notion of self-sufficiency. We imagine that we just need to grin and bear it. With stiff upper lip, in true stoical British fashion.

The wounds that life has inflicted on us have often given us a fear of real life, and the relationships which real life involves. And we dread more than anything else the fact of being needy. And the danger of that supposed self-sufficiency, is that we might never discover what our cross is, let alone get to pick it up – because we are often so busy being helpful and self-sufficient.

We began today with the idea of a prosperity gospel and its popular success.
At the end we discover that our gospel is one of poverty.
Blessed poverty, knowing our need of God.

I cannot say what your cross is, or might be. Only you can.
Only you can come to know, through faithfully living the unique piece of human experience which is yours, what God has given you to be your vocation. What it is to which you are called over and above and beyond the things with which you are presented in your life.

What is it that you have to choose?
What is your narrow way?

Thanks be to God.

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