Sermon by Rachel Noel, St Mary’s Fordingbridge & Sandleheath Church, 3rd September 2017
May the words that I speak and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our Rock & our Redeemer. Amen
In case we’re ever lulled into the thinking that being a Christian is a nice, cosy, comfortable place to be – that we can just gather with our friends, with like-minded people to sing hymns and say prayers, and then go about our lives feeling reassured that we are OK… this passage from Matthew is a massive challenge to those illusions!
Sometimes it’s easy to choose to only see one side of a person… and I think this is particularly true of Jesus.
How many of us grew up with the Sunday school poster of Jesus standing near some trees, with animals all around him, looking very peaceful & gentle? (For those of you familiar with the Disney pictures of Snow White, also standing in the trees, surrounded by animals… there’s something vaguely familiar!)….
And this gentle Jesus image is reinforced by some of our songs – some of you may be familiar with Charles Wesley’s hymn – Gentle Jesus, meek and mild …. lull me, lull me, Lord to rest…. I shall life the simple life, Free from sin’s uneasy strife, Sweetly ignorant of ill, Innocent, and happy still..
(it’s OK, I’m not going to make you sing all 14 verses of it!)
Today’s gospel reading is a wake up call… it’s a challenge to each and every one of us.
Jesus is talking with his disciples and trying to tell them what was going to happen. He’s shown explaining to the disciples that he must be killed and on the third day raised.
Peter is upset, and he responds- “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” (This seems like a perfectly reasonable response, when someone very close to him has just said that he is going to be killed!)
Is this just Peter’s concern about the personal loss of Jesus?
As well as the personal loss… could this also be Peter responding to his idea of what the Messiah must do… and for the disciples, they’re not yet ready to accept that it must mean death.
And Jesus reply here: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Wow…. I’m not sure this is the sort of language we might be tempted to ascribe to Jesus… especially the gentle Jesus in the woodland with the animals… if we were thinking about him as a leader of this small team of disciples…
Today… would he be hauled up in front of HR for bullying? “Get behind me, Satan!”… those are strong words… (it was only last week that he was proclaiming that Peter was the rock on which he was going to build his church.)
I’m guessing the disciples would have to be pretty resilient!
Each time they think they’ve understood… they’re suddenly silenced and made to realise that they’ve still not really got it.
Then we’ve got a selection of sayings from Jesus:
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
These are probably familiar words to you… we’re used to hearing them…
but I want to stay with them for a little bit this morning.
These words are so counter-intuitive… to the disciples then… but also to us now.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
We live in a society focused on the now, on the individual, on success.
If you read any self-help book, or listen to documentaries on the telly – self-denial is not the in thing.
The world at the moment seems to be built on social media, on the story of ‘self’… it’s filled with pictures, with selfies… showing success
Only this week, Louise Hay has died…the lady that wrote a lot about the power of positive thinking… that all we have to do is think positively… boost our self-esteem and all shall be well.
Jesus call here to his disciples… and to us… is not about joining in this game of self-esteem, of promotion of self.
However we have to be careful too, it’s not about self-hate here either… just giving up things also won’t make us Christian either.
This call to lose their lives… is a call to change our orientation – it’s not about self… it’s about turning to God.
A call to life, that isn’t about self… that’s radical… it’s completely & utterly lifechanging.
” For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
This is the whole gospel in a nutshell… and yet it’s so hard… as hard as a camel entering the eye of the needle!
Thomas Merton talks about the true self and the false self.
I wonder if part of the life we have to lose, is the impression, the illusion of ourselves that we have.
The False self is the person that we want ourselves to be… that we would choose to show other people, or kid ourselves that we are.
This false, private self is a projection… and for most of us, we spend most of our lives trying to maintain this image of ourselves.
And our sin comes from this false self, as we feed our self with our own selfish desires…. we fill our lives chasing pleasure and experiences that will build us up… we crave the feeling of feeling loved, of being special…
but in chasing that false self, in maintaining that false self…
sometimes it is really hard to let go of that illusion, of that image
to discover who we truly are.
This passage has got particular resonance for me, this year. As you know, I’ve had to live with some intense mental health problems.
At the height of the mania, I had become an extreme, intense version of my usual self… sometimes not being able to hold onto thoughts long enough to speak a whole sentence. (in contrast to now… where you may wonder if I have too many words!)
In that time, Thomas Merton’s True Self/ False Self took on new meaning for me, as I could no longer rely on my intelligence, my capability. Any competence or confidence that I would usually put on is lost to me.
But…In the quiet of night, stripped of all my defences, I had such a strong sense of God, of light and life, of peace… and all I could do is be,
is be who I am.
I couldn’t even rely on Descartes ‘I think therefore I am’… I couldn’t trust my thinking, or what I was getting from my senses…even that, I had to let go.
After Bishop Jonathan, Christine & Phil had taken me to hospital, I wondered if I’d said goodbye to all those that I love. In the darkest moments, I couldn’t even tell if I was alive or dead… is this what is meant by dark night of the soul?
And yet there was also such a gift of this mental health journey. In the intensity of the situation, there was also such peace, such liberation in those moments too. All the trappings of life, of status, of ability… they’re meaningless in those moments of life and death. All I can do is be present, be open to the moment, to choose life.
For me, those moments have been such a gift… a momentary insight into what these verses mean… as I had to let go of my own abilities, my own capabilities… my own sense of self and how I could solve the situation…
I had to let go of all of that… and in that vulnerability… to be open… to let God.
And there was such peace in that moment… of knowing that I am loved by God, I am accepted by God… even when I can’t do anything… that all I can do is bask in that love
I’m not suggesting that each of us should be looking to go through mental health problems….
but I think Jesus can use any of our experiences in life… and sometimes it’s the really tough experiences…
that in those times…we can see glimpses of him, and his calling to us.
I’m reassured by the role of the disciples in this story… these are the people that had been closest to Jesus for several years, travelling around with him, listening to his stories, knowing him as a person.
They’ve been sent out already, preaching and healing in the towns they come to…
And they’re still learning… learning what it means to be a disciple.
I’m reassured… because they don’t always get it right… Peter, who was called to be the rock, the foundation of the church… still gets it wrong… and he goes on to get things wrong again… but he keeps getting back up, and responding, following Jesus.
This is such encouragement to me… and hopefully to all of us… even the disciples got it wrong… they made mistakes… they fell, they turned away…
This life of discipleship can’t be learned in advance, from a manual…
We’ve got the bible to help us…
But our faith, our lives… can only be worked out as we live
As we live through the joyous times…
but also as we live through the difficult times…
each of us is called by God…
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Will you choose that life?