4 March 2012
May I speak in the Name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”
It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that once you become a Christian everything will be right with the world, that nothing bad will ever happen to you and that you will get whatever you pray for. If you become sick then you will be healed, if you are poor then you will receive money and that you will never be depressed because God will always make you happy. Unfortunately there are at least three problems with that view:
- It is not biblical;
- It does not fit with our real world experience; and
- It belittles God.
One of the huge values of Lent is that it reminds us in no uncertain terms that being a follower of Jesus is not all about personal fulfilment without cost or effort. It is a season in which we think about the wilderness in which our faith is tried and in which we take up our own crosses and follow Jesus to Good Friday. As someone charged with preaching the gospel, which is a huge privilege and a huge responsibility, it is always tempting to gloss the sombre bits and get straight to the good news – and of course that is exactly what Peter tried to do when Jesus started to speak about his forthcoming crucifixion – Peter attempted to rebuke Jesus for being too downbeat – Jesus’ response was swift and to the point –
“Get behind me Satan – you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.”
It is surely no coincidence that only last week we had the reading of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness and that Jesus’ ultimate response was to rebuke Satan for trying to tempt him away from his God-given ministry. And today Jesus speaks to Peter in very similar language because Peter is also trying to divert Jesus from the hard yet unavoidable path that lies before him.
That response of Jesus is both an incredibly helpful yet an extremely challenging message to keep in mind both when preaching and when thinking about what it means to be a Christian – do we have in mind the things of God or the things of men? Are we speaking and thinking and living in accordance with the true depths of God’s message for us or are we paddling in the shallows for the sake of our mutual amusement? Vivienne told me that there was a debate about Christianity on the radio the other day and someone compared the church to a swimming pool – in that most of the noise tends to come from the shallow end.
I suspect that in Lent, at least, any attempt to avoid the challenge of the wilderness or to avoid the burden of our own crosses for the sake of the feel-good factor is a substantial failing to have in mind the things of God.
Vivienne and I have some friends who now live in the depths of rural Wales. The wife was one of my friends with whom I trained for ordination and her husband is a former lay URC minister. One of the reasons that he is a former rather than a current URC minister is that he has become severely disabled by a virulent form of ME. ME is what the newspapers used to disparagingly call “Yuppie ‘flu” but if he ever met this man you would appreciate that a debilitating and chronic illness which has robbed him of much of the quality of normal life. For example he cannot sit upright for any length of time – when he and his wife travel by car he has to lie across the back seats surrounded by a selection of pillows and cushions that go everywhere with him. As soon as he arrives anywhere he has to commandeer the nearest sofa and again he lays prone amongst his pillows exhausted by the effort of moving from the car. At dinner time, he cannot sit at the table but has to lie across three chairs pushed together. And, when it comes to eating, he is a mass of food intolerances – he cannot eat wheat, tomatoes, cheese, sugar, fruit he cannot drink alcohol and on and on the list goes. He has to carry his own supplies of special foods and drinks with him otherwise he would probably starve.
I spoke to him once about his condition and about its impact on his spiritual life. He said that being disabled is like being in a permanent wilderness – you simply cannot join in with the comforts of ‘normal’ society – you are often on your own, without comfort, left to your own devices. If we think about our own experiences I suspect that for each of us that it is at our times of being most on our own that the devil whispers in our ear to reject God’s call on our life. Now, if our time in the wilderness is short then temptation may be resisted but imagine being in that wilderness permanently – how do you resist the temptation to blame God for your predicament, how do you resist blaming him for failing to cure you through either prayer or medicine? How do you cling to the concept of being made in the image of a perfect and loving God when your self-image is one of brokenness and pain? His answer has been to draw deep on the wells of Christian spirituality and, in particular, from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Desert Fathers were the earliest Christian monks who took themselves out of the cities and away from the comforts of normal society and went to live in the depths of the Egyptian desert. Like Jesus before them, and like us now, they faced the temptation to give up and walk away, to take the path of least resistance. There they wrestled with their personal demons but, over time and with much prayer and perseverance, many of them won through and discovered the joy of knowing God at a very deep level – way beyond the superficiality of much of our discourse about God they encountered the living God in the wilderness. Taking the example of their lives, their sayings and their experiences my friend said whilst his disability was a wilderness he now found it a blessing to be able to make his body into a hermitage in the wilderness and to there seek to encounter God.
So, for him, the wilderness of disability can be a place of encounter with God. That doesn’t mean that there is no temptation in the wilderness or that it is wrong to shake our fists at God when tragedy strikes but it gives us hope, it gives us a signpost, that on the other side of temptation and on the other side of grief and anger God is waiting for us and loving us and despite all our feelings of loss and abandonment he is already there with us in the midst of all the suffering guiding us towards the good news.
And there is good news because we know that whilst the cross of Good Friday is casting a long shadow across Lent death does not have the final word. Yes, we have to endure the wilderness as Jesus did and yes we have to carry our own crosses to Calvary and there die with Christ. But if we die with Christ on Good Friday then we rise with him on Easter Sunday – we are a resurrection community and because of that we are also a Eucharistic community – a community of thanksgiving that knows always that Christ has gone before us, hallowing our path, and that Christ is with us always, to the end of time.