Sermon 25th February 2018

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

SUN 25 FEB 2018, 11am, LENT II

Revd Angus MacLeod MA BD

Listen here: https://soundcloud.com/user-942286720/sermon-25032018

 

Jesus said:

“If you want to follow me – learn to deny yourself and take up your cross.

If you choose to keep your life safe, you will lose it;

But if you let go of life, you will discover real living. Mark 8:34-35

 

North of the Sea of Galilee, at the source of the River Jordan

lies the city of Caesarea Philippi.

In Jesus’ day, site of Roman temples, dedicated to emperor gods;

home too, to local cultic religions.

A city reeking of politics and religion, imposing grandeur;

claiming the powers of heaven and earth.

 

It is there – deliberately perhaps – that Jesus asks the haunting question:

“Who do you say that I am?”

Peter, the Rock, in a moment of impetuous magnificence declares:

“You are the Christ.”

 

Then just as swiftly, Jesus begins to teach the disciples:

“The Son of Man must undergo suffering, be rejected, be killed

and after three days rise again.”

Peter says “Christ”; Jesus responds “Cross.”

“Madness” Peter blurts back.

We shouldn’t be surprised.

 

The disciples’ great hope, cultivated over the three years of following,

the liberator from so many oppressions –

they had seen his signs, heard him proclaim a kingdom coming, already now –

Was the would-be champion to surrender without a fight –

submit to the death of a common criminal?

 

“There must be a better way Rabbi – more fitting for a messiah, more royal –

less risky, less… defeated?”

 

Reasonable advice, sound strategy – a loyal protection?

Perhaps an element also of self-protection.

Which of us doesn’t prefer success, status, popularity;

we incline to saving our skins.

 

For Jesus however, Peter’s persuadings bear a terrible echo

of those temptations of the wilderness (our Lenten starting point.)

 “If you are the Real Thing…

Make the stones be bread. Leap from the Temple heights. Bow the knee in worship.”

Peter’s temptation: “Be messiah; but go easy on the danger.”

 

Peter, while having some initial, God-given insight,

is still blind to the real meaning of his own words.

It is no coincidence that the whole section from Mark 8:22 – 10:52

Which includes Jesus’ prediction of the cross, three times,

is framed by two stories where blind men are given their sight (8:22-26; 10:46-52).

Jesus’ words about his death and about discipleship

are bookended by reflections on blindness and sight;

implications of the blindness of his opponents,

but also, the limited sight of his followers.

 

The rebuke is instant and stinging –

evidence maybe of how hard is Jesus’ internal struggle.

“Get behind me/depart from me Satan!

The Hebrew equivalent of the word Jesus calls Peter is ha-satan,

which doesn’t mean “devil” at all; simply, “the accuser” or “the adversary.”

Jesus isn’t saying that Peter is evil incarnate,

but he is being an adversary, an obstruction to what Jesus must become.

 

In Lent, we might consider what are the obstructions to us

becoming more fully the people, the community, the congregation

that God longs for us to be?

Our adversary may not be a person;

it may be our own doubt or fear,

our pride or addiction,

hatred, anger, greed or insecurity;

adversaries preventing us from taking up our cross.

 

A minister, wrestling with the decision to take up an unpopular cause,

which would lead to opposition in her congregation, was quoted as saying:

“I believe in dying for a cause, just not this young.”

 

“If any want to become my followers

let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.

It is in the letting go of life,

that you will truly discover it.”

 

The stakes are raised; there is more to being a disciple

than watching him heal or hearing him teach.

Jesus spells it out:

It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to end well.

C1st Palestine knew exactly what taking up the cross meant.

Romans raised crosses like billboard notices,

Ruthless power and the consequences to any who opposed it.

In 6AD/CE 2,000 Galilean insurrectionists crucified.

Had the child Jesus witnessed such things?

 

A commentator posed the question this week:

Is it possible that by picking up our crosses —

by stepping into that which frightens us the most —

we disarm it?

 

Some years ago, I spent time at the Cistercian monastery at Nunraw, near Haddington.

Once a community of about sixty, today there are only about twelve monks,

many of them elderly.

The Abbot greeted me warmly, showed me round,

explained the routine for services and meals

and warned me about the terrible singing in chapel. (He was right!)

 

In the afternoon I wandered outside.

The monastery commands majestic views over rolling hills,

looking north towards the Forth.

Just outside the monastery walls is the cemetery for the brothers.

 

There is a plain tall wooden cross, painted a reddish brown.

In rows, around the focal cross are smaller, similarly painted, equally plain crosses,

bearing the names and dates of the deceased monks.

 

It is very simple, utterly unadorned.

There is no cemetery wall, just crosses rising from the grass.

It feels a little shockingly matter-of-fact.

It is very humble. No fuss is made of these men.

The defining thing about their memorial is their cross,

symbol of their faith,

gathered as they are around the tall, unnamed cross;

a steady reminder of the surrender of the ego that the monk’s life entails;

the letting go of all things

in order to discover the true freedoms and joys of life.

 

Next to this field of crosses is a small memorial garden.

Seven young trees surrounding a rough boulder and a stone bench.

The bench carries an inscription.

The names of seven Cistercian monks – as it says,

Assassinated in Algeria May 1996.

 

These are the monks of Tibhirine –

Their story came to wider public attention

when their story was movingly told in the award winning French film, Of Gods and Men.

 

Caught up in the political unrest of Algeria

the small community of monks were increasingly threatened

both by Islamic militants and the security forces of the Government.

Eventually they faced the choice –

to relocate, leaving the village and the medical mission

where they had been for many years,

or remain, surrendering their own chance of safety,

because those they served had no option to get away.

After much heart searching the brothers agreed to stay.

 

Before their end came, their Prior wrote an extraordinary letter.

“If it should happen one day – and it could be today –

that I become a victim of the terrorism

which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria,

I would like my community, my Church, my family,

to remember that my life was given to God and to this country.

To accept that the One Master of all life

was not a stranger to this brutal departure.”

 

The letter records his gratitude for his life, his family and friends.

Then, remarkably – and in words that have ensured their remembrance,

He addresses his unknown killer:

“And you too, my last-minute friend,

who will not know what you are doing,

yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU AND THIS A-DIEU –

to commend you to this God in whose face I see yours.

And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise,

if it please God, the Father of us both…

AMEN! INSHALLAH!

 

Jesus does not desire us to suffer, he is not trying to crucify us;

he simply reminds us of the cost of love.

He promises us, with the authority of his own life, death and resurrection,

that in the taking up of our own crosses,

the willingness to accept many dyings, great or small,

we fathom life’s deepest meaning and lasting joy.