Sunday, 1 March 2015

Losing your life to gain it

Sermon preached at Paulerspury URC on 1st March 2015. Texts: Mark 8:31-9:1 and Genesis 17:1-7,15-22.
Image: Diocese of Newcastle
So today is the second Sunday of Lent. If you’re giving stuff up or doing things differently, you’ve probably started by now. I struggle a bit with Lent, having grown up in the Church of Scotland, where they’re very good at austerity and self-denial, but in my childhood they still regarded the church year as a bit suspiciously Catholic. Nowadays I rather like the church year, but I certainly don’t fast to any great extent. Like many people I tend to give up one symbolic thing that makes a bit of a difference but not a huge one. Some years I’ve given up caffeine, but I’m not a saint so that’s just too difficult. This year I’ve given up chocolate. And I try to take up something positive too, such as some more focused spiritual reading, or a programme of giving like Christian Aid’s Count Your Blessings, or one focused around generosity like the programme called 40 Acts.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus invites his followers – that would be us – to give up something more fundamental. Their lives – or perhaps their soul, depending on which translation you read. We’re going to look in a bit more detail about what Jesus meant by that, how it relates to what we’ve heard about Abraham, and how it affects us in Lent and the rest of the year.

This conversation takes place at a pivotal point of the gospel of Mark, at the start of a series of discussions about who Jesus is and how that relates to his disciples, which lead in to the narrative of Jesus’ passion. Immediately before we hear about Jesus talking about his suffering and death, he asks his disciples who people say he is. They answered that some said that he was Elijah, some another prophet, some John the Baptist. Then Jesus asked them a crucial question, one we all ought to be able to be answer with all our heart: who do you say that I am? Not who do all those others say Jesus is, but who do you say he is? And Peter, ever impetuous and ready with a quick answer, says four words that in many ways seals his fate: “You are the Messiah”.

But what does that really mean? We know who was the Messiah as far as most people were concerned at that time – the anointed one, the one sent by God to lead his people out of servitude, to bring them to freedom, the great leader that the Jewish people were waiting for. But of course Jesus wasn’t that kind of leader. Here’s what Jesus said was the nature of Messiahship: to be rejected and condemned by the authorities, to be put to death, and ultimately to rise from the dead. Unthinkable stuff.

And unthinkable is pretty much Peter’s view of the matter too. We’re told that Jesus spoke openly of all these things, that he didn’t make any secret of them. Not too comfortable for Jesus’ best bud. Having just announced that Jesus is the Messiah, Peter can see the rosy future changing to something much darker. Lots of suffering for this man he admires and likes, and possibly for himself. So he responds a bit like child might do in sticking his fingers his in ears and going ‘la la la, I can’t hear you’; but Jesus will have none of it. He links Peter to the Accuser, haSatan, the one who undermines. Horned demons aren’t the point here – this Satan is the silken quiet voice who says “don’t worry, you don’t really have to go through with it”. Jesus is very clear: yes I do. And as he goes on to say, so do you.

Instead, in very vivid language, he lays out what discipleship is like, what it costs but what it gains. Much of the rest of passage is in strange apocalyptic language. For Lent, it’s a very eschatological passage, more like the sort of thing we read at the start of Advent – all that stuff about the Son of Man coming in his glory.

Now a word about Biblical scholarship here. A fairly reasonable thought is: did Jesus really say these things? Could he really have been so explicit about the nature of his death? Is this not one of those passages which was inserted, or at least amended by Jesus’ followers long after death given what they then knew? And if he’d laid it out what so strongly, why would the disciples have been so distraught and bewildered by the events we call Good Friday and Easter Sunday? Surely they’d be forewarned?

On the face of it, I have a lot of sympathy for this view. But actually there’s quite good biblical evidence to suggest that he might have said something a lot like this. The rebuking of Peter is a very solid tradition, and it’s the sort of thing that the early church, having been led by Peter, seems unlikely to make up. And I’m not convinced it matters that much. It fits with the Jesus that we know now. It makes sense for us.

So what does it really mean for us in practice? I’m going to suggest that Jesus lays out three steps: denying yourself or losing your life, taking up your cross, and gaining a new life.

What does it mean to lose your life? Is this a metaphor or to be read literally? Many of the disciples literally did that thing. But the word for life here (psyche) refers to one’s mind or soul. So it’s something about losing your identity, putting off the old person and taking on the new. In the ancient world, following Jesus’ call involved a profound change of identity. The disciples had already had to put aside their jobs and possibly their families to follow Jesus. They had become someone different. And Jesus is saying that to become his disciple, you have to become someone different. To take on a new identity.

We saw this in the Genesis reading, where Abram and Sarai were called upon to change their names, to take on a new identity. They’d given up their homes and their lifestyles, but now they were asked to change their self-understanding through their name. The theologian and historian Karen Armstrong, a former nun, writes very vividly of the ceremony when she took her final vows – she was symbolically buried and brought back to life as a new person. And of course, like Abram and Sarai she took a new name as a nun.

For those of us who have been Christians all our lives, or at least for many years, this is a difficult experience to imagine. However Lent gives us some experience of a partial form of losing our old identity and becoming something new. However we choose to follow it, Lent gives us the opportunity to gradually strip away the things which separate us from God – the luxuries and complexities of the world, the lack of generosity which prevents us from loving God and our neighbour. It’s about living more simply, in a more reflective and thoughtful way, and thus bit by small bit in losing our sense that what matter most in life are cars, and food, and quarterly budgets, and technological gadgets, and even church committees. It’s about seeing these things for what they are – merely vanity, like vapour trails in a clear blue sky.

So to move to the second stage, Jesus says that his disciples must take up their cross and follow him. Today the cross has lost a lot of its meaning as a symbol. It’s something that belongs to jewellery and smart symbols in beautiful churches. Even the more gory re-enactments of the crucifixion in Catholic countries on Good Friday, or movies like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, don’t really give the full sense of what it meant to those Jesus was talking.

In the world of 1st century Palestine, the cross was the worst possible death imaginable. It was the death given to traitors and slaves. It was deliberately humiliating, slow and drawn-out. Going back to the world of Wolf Hall [mentioned earlier in all-age address], it was the equivalent of being tortured on the rack and then hung, drawn and quartered. Anne Boleyn’s beheading was actually a merciful execution. Crucifixion was horrible and humiliating. So for Jesus to draw any sort of connection with the cross must have been a shocking thing for his listeners – not just the disciples, but the wider crowd – to hear. What Jesus was saying was that as a follower of his, you’d be going up against the authorities, and you’d be in personal physical danger.

This is a hard one to allegorise or soften. Yet clearly Jesus isn’t calling us today to stand up against the state and to lose our liberty or our lives for it. Some followers of Jesus have done just this. I’ve been privileged to meet some of them or hear them talk – the liberation theologians of the Philippines who worked out of Christian conscience to undermine the Marcos regime; the anti-apartheid campaigners in South Africa who lost their liberty in the face of that evil system; the protestors against Trident in this country who have sailed boats in the face of submarines armed with weapons of mass destruction or cut the wire of the Faslane base to plant flowers on it. I couldn’t do those things myself, but I’m convinced that they were taking up their cross.

But for each of us, there are undoubtedly times when we are faced with an easy choice or a difficult choice, and we know really that the difficult choice is the one we ought to take, but we’re afraid. And that’s when we need to take up that cross, to be willing to sacrifice our own good for what we know to be right. As one author I read online writes about this verse, what are you willing to risk as a follower of Jesus? If you have a measure of wealth, or comfort, or privilege, are you willing to risk these things? Whatever the consequences for yourself or those who depend on you? To speak for myself: I work in a professional job and I’m the main wage earner in our family. Imagine if I was faced with a situation where I saw such appalling practice in my work, say mistreatment of others, that I had to become a whistleblower and take the matter public, despite what it would do to my job. Thankfully I’ve not faced that situation, and I strongly doubt it’ll happen where I work now. But in principle it could, and would I have the courage to do the difficult thing?

But taking up one’s cross can happen in small ways as well as big ones, and that’s where Lent comes in again. What we take up in Lent is not so much suffering. But we take up space to be a better disciple of God, we take up reflection, we take up discipline, we take up generosity. As I said earlier, it’s St David’s Day. One of his most famous sayings was in the last sermon he preached before he died, when he said:
Be joyful and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have heard about and seen me do. I will walk the path that our fathers trod before us.
This idea of doing the little things, which is often written in cards for St David’s Day, is a powerful part of taking up your cross. Making hard choices can happen in small ways as well as big. We can see this even in our shopping behaviour. It’s Fairtrade Fortnight at the moment, and choosing to buy fairtrade is no longer especially radical or especially hard, but it does involve some cost, and for some people it involves giving up a favourite brand. In our house we’ve been trying hard to reduce our use of products containing palm oil, which is the cause of a lot of environmental damage and child labour – which is tough because very many products in supermarkets contain it, and we’re only part of the way there – but we’re trying to do those little things as well.

And last of all, Jesus promises us that if we do these hard things – be willing to lose our past comfortable identity, and to stand against the powers of the world despite the danger to ourselves – then that’s the only way to save our own lives. Despite the eschatological language of the end of the passage, I think it’s a mistake to see this primarily in terms of the life to come. The word ‘save’ is almost one of jargon in Christian circles, and some scholars suggest that the word ‘rescue’ carries the meaning better of what Jesus is offering. If you want your life to mean something, you need to follow Jesus, and in these ways that he has outlined.

This isn’t something we can do alone. Abraham and Sarah, in their new identities, entered into a covenantal relationship with God. Jesus calls us not to take on a set of intellectual views, to believe some words, but to enter into relationship with him, to follow him where he leads. And we do this by supporting each other through our struggles to take up our cross. We do it together, as the body of Christ.

And together we gain so much. This is about the richness of life that Jesus promises us here and now, living life in abundance. It’s about following the path of Abraham, to gain wholeness, and a new sense of our role in God’s plan. It’s about following the path of Sarah, to gain freedom from the expectation to be someone else’s person, and the right to be our own person. And it’s about following the path of Jesus, to gain life in the very richest and fullest sense. It’s something to be followed during Lent, and throughout our lives – individually and together.

Let us pray.

Lord God, help us to follow in the way of Jesus, when it is easy and when it is hard. Help us to learn how to deny ourselves, how to take up our cross, and how to glory in the new life you promise. Make us resilient together so that, at all times and in all places,  we will stand and give glory to you. Amen.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Patient and impatient waiting

Patience is a virtue. We wait for God's good time to give us wisdom. Many spiritual traditions are built around silent waiting - sitting in stillness with God and with others, being ready for his calling to speak and to act. I practised that discipline through Quaker worship for many years. It's a powerful discipline - hard work but at its best it can carry a deep experience of God's presence and his will.

This morning's reading in my daily prayer podcast, Pray as you go, which follows the Roman Catholic daily lectionary, comes from Psalm 40. It begins "I waited patiently", and goes on to talk of being called by God to speak in the 'great congregation' of the people.

But sometimes impatience is called for. Yesterday, the Church of England consecrated its first female bishop - something wonderful to see, but that should have happened many years ago. It was right for the campaigners for women priests and bishops in the Church of England to be impatient.

And today is Holocaust Memorial Day. 70 years ago, the death camp at Auschwitz was liberated by Russian soldiers. Nobody in that camp should have had to wait a single day more - the earlier it had been liberated, the more lives would have been saved. Impatience was right in that case too.

The scriptures are full of impatience when faced with injustice - "how long, O Lord?" (Psalm 13). It's a legitimate emotion, one that comes from the heart. But it's a generous emotion, not for one's own sake but for that of others.

Patience in our own case, waiting for inspiration or calling. Impatience in the face of injustice. That is surely the way to which we are called.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Changing countries, changing boundaries

I've been reading the excellent book 1913: The World before the Great War by Charles Emmerson. He lays out a compelling portrait of the world in the year before the First World War (through a picture of 20 different cities across the world). He observes that the world of 1913 is often viewed through the lens of the catastrophe and carnage of the Great War, but that the war was not inevitable and there was much else happening other than the run-up to war.

Reading the book made me very aware of countries and their boundaries. The world was carved up into several large empires which no longer exist or are much reduced (notably the British, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires), while many of the countries we now take for granted as universal were part of one of those empires or another entity.

Europe in 1914 (Image: Diercke International Atlas)
If we look specifically at Europe (whose own boundaries are contested, but is often taken to go as far east as the Caucasus Mountains and the Ural River), there were 26 countries in Europe in 1914 (an easy year to get data for), while there are 46 today.

Europe in 1914 consisted of: Albania, Andorra, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Romania, Russian Empire, San Marino, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Europe today (image: Diercke International Atlas)

Europe in 2015 consists of: Albania, Andorra, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Vatican City.
For completeness, it's worth saying that there are four states which geographically are wholly (or almost wholly) in Asia, but which are often associated with European institutions, including the European Union: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus and Georgia. And there are six states which are not widely recognised internationally except by a few states: Abkhazia, Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, Transnistria, South Ossetia. (And here's the part where I confess that my lists are extracted from Wikipedia, which is generally reliable for uncontested topics, but doesn't always handle controversies so well - so probably each state in this paragraph would be placed elsewhere by some people.)

Of the nineteen states which didn't exist in 1914: 8 were part of the Russian Empire; 5 were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; 2 were part of Britain and its empire (Ireland and Malta); 1 was part of Denmark; 1 was part of Serbia; 1 was part of Italy; and 1 (Poland) was split between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany. Austria-Hungary, as well as losing its empire, formally split into two successor states, Austria and Hungary. Many of these changes happened in 1918 after the First World War, but others happened at a later time.

Enough already of lists and stats. Here's the moral: boundaries change. Nations in one time are not nations in another time. Sometimes boundaries change as a result of war, sometimes due to economic pressure, sometimes due to democratic will - or all of these together. But boundaries of nations change over time. 

This is important because we are in a time when European boundaries are under question again. Scotland and Catalonia had independence referendums (of different kinds) in 2014, Ukraine's boundaries became threatened by Russia. The Balkans are quieter than they were, but not entirely settled. And there are independence movements, with more or less support, in various regions of current European states. 

Future boundary changes are hard to predict, but one thing is almost certain: the political map of 2115 will not be the same as that of 2015. And it might look just as different from 2015 as the modern map looks from that of 1914. Countries are not static entities.