Philemon 1-21 & Luke 14.25-33
Well, here we are gathered again for the new term. It’s great to have our choir back, and if you’ve been away, welcome back! We have a busy term ahead with lots going on so there’s much to look forward to.
During August, we’ve been gathering feedback from you about how we’re doing as a church and there have been lots of really useful and interesting comments. The feedback will really help us to identify some priorities for action as well as celebrating our strengths as a church community. The exercise we’ve been doing is very similar to the sort of thing many of us might have encountered at work or in other leisure organisations. For example I’m sure gyms often consult with their members about how they might develop in future – not that I’d know, of course.
But a church community is rather different, I think. For a church is much more than a way to pass our leisure time, or our time at work. It’s really about how we get to know Jesus and become more like him, and share the good news of the change he makes in our lives with the wider world.
In the gospel passage we just heard, Jesus is being followed by large crowds. Doubtless everyone was excited to see what he was doing, and hopeful that great change might happen – the Roman oppressors would be overthrown, and everyone who was ill would be healed, and everyone would have plenty to eat.
But this is another tough-love-Jesus passage. Jesus tells us it really isn’t as easy as all that. ‘Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’. I know our text says ‘the cross’, but the original has literally ‘the cross of himself’, so it’s clear Jesus is referring to the burden each of us is to carry.
Everybody knew what the cross meant. They understood crucifixion – that awful torture the Romans used to punish criminals. If they hadn’t actually seen a crucifixion, certainly everyone would have known the sheer horror of it. Jesus is suggesting that the folk in those large crowds need to understand that the way forward is not an easy one. It’s full of challenge, and even peril. I bet they went a bit quiet when they heard what he said.
So here’s the question? How are you doing with your cross today?
Maybe your cross is weighing you down with some heavy thing that you’re carrying – suffering of some sort, fear, anxiety, worry? Or the pain of some past oppression?
We all carry some of this – perhaps more at some times than others, but always something. So how’s it going for you today? And what are you able to do about it?
We all have some choices – we can sigh and shoulder the heavy load but continue to be more and more bowed down by it. We can try to carry on regardless, to suppress the burden and lock it away and try to pretend it isn’t there – sometimes that works for a short while, at least. Or we can run away and leave it behind, make a new start and hope it won’t catch up with us.
But Jesus doesn’t simply say we are to take up our cross. He says we are to take up our cross and follow him. It’s that choice to follow that makes us disciples of Jesus. It moves us from being curious explorers of an exciting new lifestyle to the realisation that being a follower of Christ means giving up all that we’re holding on to.
Why? Because Jesus’ promise of life in all its fulness comes when we let go. When we let the rain of God’s love pour into our thirsty souls, like the dry grass being renewed by fresh and living water. Following Jesus involves a deep and personal surrender.
Well, that doesn’t sound easy, does it?!
It’s not, really. It needs trust, and some courage – and our burdensome crosses are really distracting and that makes it hard to focus and get to that point.
But the good news is that we don’t have to do it alone. Jesus began a whole church to help and support us.
You can see this a little in the story of Onesimus that we heard in our first reading this morning – a runaway slave encounters St Paul and the early church and is converted. Instead of the death penalty from his master when he is sent back, he is to be welcomed as a brother, for the master, Philemon, now runs a church at his house, and is asked by Paul to help and support Onesimus as an equal part of the community. As Paul says elsewhere, in the Body of Christ there is no inequality – slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek but all are one in Christ Jesus.
As I’m sure you who have made that commitment could testify, being in the Body of Christ may not mean our crosses evaporate suddenly, but it does mean that we share one another’s burdens and that makes it a whole lot easier. Somehow, our burdens are then lightened by the experience of a living faith in Christ.
You probably know the hymn “Brother, Sister, Let me serve you”, which actually sums up what I’ve been saying rather well. At first reading it may seem like a rather gentle hymn about being nice to one another, but actually I think it speaks powerfully of how we can serve and support one another on that journey with Jesus. Apparently the third verse was written first, in 1976, and the others followed a year later:
“I will hold the Christ-light for you in the night-time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.”
May this indeed be both our commitment and our joyful experience as we go forward together at All Saints. Amen.
Derek Lancaster, LLM