FEB 28th 2021
Psalm 22.23-end; Romans 4.13-end; Mark 8.31-end
Note: We were pleased to welcome Ms. Rosie Evans, Pastoral Assistant at Christ Church Vienna, as our guest preacher on 28 February 2021.
May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says to the crowd and to the disciples: “If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
When I first read this, I struggled with the phrase ‘deny themselves’. Why would a loving God, who cares for us, want us to deny ourselves, to give things up? I equated denying ourselves with becoming less of the person we are, stripping away our identity. However, the more I wrestled with this phrase, the more I realised that paradoxically, in denying ourselves, we can become more of the person we truly are - first and foremost a person of Christ. Especially in today’s world we can become lost in a sea of distractions, and these distractions can make it harder to find, listen to, and respond to God. Jesus calls us to be his followers, but how can we follow him, if we don’t know where he is in our lives? Or if he isn’t in the centre? This season of Lent is a chance for us to limit the distractions of this world, to refocus, and to put Jesus at the centre of our lives. An article that I read in the lead up to Lent described it as a time and opportunity to declutter. It talked of decluttering as a way to release physical and spiritual clutter and focus on developing your relationship with God.
Reading the word ‘declutter’ took me back to the summer, when I was preparing to move to Austria. My dad had to hire a van to move me and my ‘stuff’ from my house in York back to my room in Halifax with my family. It’s amazing what you can collect after only 4 years of being in one place! When I had carted everything upstairs, it became so difficult to find anything. Seeking out one single item felt almost impossible. I had to search through a sea of bags and belongings, trying to fish out the thing that, more often than not, would be buried right at the bottom. The items I was sifting through were very literally extra baggage, things that were hindering me from finding the one item that I actually needed. But I put up with this extra baggage, because I thought I might need it, and it was in some ways difficult to let it go. After a few weeks, however, I decided enough was enough, and it was time to start the big clear out. It was a long process that often felt like I was moving backwards rather than forwards. I realised that I had kind of become comfortable around my sea of belongings, and my room felt bare once everything had been taken to the charity shop. But despite my discomfort, I realised that I was able to appreciate what I did have so much more when there was less. I didn’t have to go searching for anything - whatever I needed was so much easier to find and keep track of. I felt more invested in what I had left. I remember at the time, reading a blog by Marie Kondo, who is often described as a “tidying and organisation expert”. It read: the best thing to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t. Just as it was easier for me to find what I needed after my clear-out, it is by physically and spiritually decluttering during this time of Lent, that we can learn to realise what we truly need, and begin to see more clearly where Jesus is in our lives. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have other things in this world, but we shouldn’t prioritise those things over God. A phrase from the daily reflections that I have been reading over Lent sums this up well: Once we see clearly that spiritual life begins with God, everything else begins to slot into place.
But denying ourselves isn’t the end of Jesus’ invitation. He then tells the crowd and the disciples to take up their cross and follow Him. What does this mean? In a recent Bible study, I was discussing with the group what it means to be a follower of Christ. One member talked of the words “follow me” reminding them of a tour guide, holding up a long stick or a sign, leading the way as others follow behind them. But Jesus holds up much more than a stick, or a piece of wood. He holds up the cross - a sign of His own suffering and death, but at the same time, a sign of God’s love and a sign of life. As Father Frank described on Ash Wednesday, the cross is a sign of the paradox of life, the full meaning of which will be revealed on Good Friday, when the order of the universe is transformed; and death becomes life. When, as our reading from Romans tells us, our Lord was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
It is my understanding that to follow Jesus means to be willing. Willing, firstly to share in Christ’s suffering. A commentary I read recently described how, in our own suffering, Christ allows us to share in the deepest sign of His love. Through our suffering, we participate in the sacrifice of Christ, signalled by the cross, which brings about our salvation and the salvation of others. So in our willingness to share in Christ’s suffering, we share also in His love and in His life. Following Jesus doesn’t keep us from what Archbishop Desmund Tutu describes as the “warp and woof of life”. It doesn’t stop us from feeling the hardships of life in lockdown, the grief of losing loved ones, the loneliness of not being able to see others, the desperation of wanting life to get back to at least some kind of normality. But it does give us hope. It helps us to look at this time of challenge, and other difficulties of life, from a different angle. To realise that by following Christ we are promised life.
Christ’s invitation to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him is an invitation to hold onto the hope and faith in our times of trials, just as Abraham did in today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. He hoped against hope. Despite the circumstances that seemed to be working against him, in his case, his weak body and the barrenness of his wife’s womb, he continued to praise God and give glory to God. He continued to put God at the centre of his life despite his struggles, not letting distractions get in the way of his commitment to and trust in the Lord and Saviour. He continued to have faith. And so this season of Lent, I invite you to reflect upon the things that distract you from God, the things that hinder you from putting Jesus at the centre of your lives. I remind you of God’s invitation to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, and finally I encourage you to continue on in your journey of faith, whether you are new to the faith, or have been a follower of Jesus for a number of years. At the centre of today’s passage, I believe, is a reminder and invitation to declutter and recentre, and recognise and share in Christ’s suffering so that we can share in the love, hope and life that Jesus, our Lord and Saviour brings.