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Taking up one’s cross in everyday life

Tuesday 15th September, 2015 @ 10:18 am

by Christopher Harrison | tags: ,

Taking up one’s cross in everyday life - Sermon preached by Rev Christopher Harrison at St Peter’s and St Mary’s churches, 13th September 2015

We’ve just heard, in the gospel reading, about one of the turning points in Jesus’ life. He had emerged from a relatively obscure background in Nazareth; from the age of around 30 he had created increasing controversy with his teaching, his healing, and his readiness to confront the religious authorities. But what exactly was his aim in all this? Was he just another in the line of wandering maverick preachers, who were quite a common feature of life in Israel in those days? Or was he more than this?

Today’s account of Jesus and his disciples, gathered at Caesarea Philippi, in the mountains north of Lake Galilee, tells of the moment when the disciples realised that Jesus was different from all the others. It was there that Peter first saw that Jesus was the Christ, which means the anointed one – anointed by God to be his Messiah. But he didn’t at first appreciate the full implications of this realisation. Jesus explained that his path as God’s Messiah would mean suffering and death. Peter couldn’t believe this; surely the Messiah would rally the people of Israel in power and glory against the Romans, not face the prospect of humiliation and rejection. Jesus rebuked him, and uttered those famous words, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?’

Those words have unsettled Christians through the ages. They present the Christian faith as anything but a comfortable journey towards guaranteed eternal bliss. They are daunting and even frightening. There have been those people, though, for whom that stark call to self-sacrifice has been an inspiration rather than a burden. I’ll like to tell you this morning about one such person; a Polish priest and monk called Maximilian Kolbe. Maximilian Kolbe was born into a poor Polish family in 1894. At the age of 16 he became a Franciscan novice, and was ordained priest in 1918, at the age of 24. Maximilian was very involved in leading a revival of Christianity in Poland, in particular by publishing magazines and newspapers about the Christian faith. His work was so successful that in 1927 a huge new monastery had to be built to house it, along with the 700 priests, monks and seminarians who were involved with him in the revival movement. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, however, they stopped his work. In 1941 he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. He was treated with appalling cruelty – being beaten and whipped, and forced to do impossibly hard labour. But he always shared his thin ration of soup or bread with his fellow prisoners, and always took the back of the food queue.

One day three prisoners escaped. As a punishment, ten other prisoners were picked and sent to an underground starvation cell, where they were to be given no food or drink until they died. When one of them cried out that he would never see his wife and children again, Fr Maximilian stepped forward and said that he would take his place. Over the next two weeks the prisoners starved to death; Maximilian Kolbe was the last to die.

Maximilian Kolbe is an example of one of those rare people who was able to give his whole self, including his very life, so that somebody else might live. As Jesus said at the Last Supper, ‘No-one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends’.

For most of us, the martyrdom of people like Maximilian Kolbe may be a theoretical inspiration, but not something we are likely to be called to face ourselves. So how are we to deny ourselves and take up our cross, to lose our life in order to save it? Ultimately, how we respond to this command of Jesus is something between God and our conscience. But we shouldn’t use the fact that few if any of us are called to be martyrs in a literal sense as an excuse to do nothing. For ‘denying ourself’ is not just about grand gestures, but about everyday life. We come back to some of those quite demanding teachings of Jesus in which he explains how we are to being the process of moving from a self-centred mind-set to one that is centred more on others than ourselves. There are three such sayings of Jesus which represent a kind of progression, in ascending order of difficulty, for those who want to respond seriously to Jesus’ call to deny ourselves and take up our cross:

- go the extra mile; turn the other cheek; love our enemies, not just our friends.

We tend all too easily to forget that Jesus taught a way of life which in fact goes far beyond polite cordiality and being nice to other people. He presented the people of his time – and people of all time – with a way of life which can transform the world – both on a personal level and a national level. With his death on the cross, and resurrection three days later, he began a process whereby people might be inspired not just to give their very lives for others, like Maximilian Kolbe, but to allow God to reshape their everyday lives in such a way as to break the cycle of self-centredness, greed and violence which is still so prevalent in the world around us.

For us, then to take the cross seriously, to be part of that transforming process begun by Jesus, we can do worse than to renew our attempt to take those teachings to heart – to go the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, not just our friends. This is the way to a better world – it may be the way of the cross, but it is also the way of resurrection.


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