Sermon preached at St George’s Preshute on 25th February 2018
Second Sunday of Lent: Genesis 1.1-7,15,16 & Mark 8.31-38
Jesus said: if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
It seems a very straightforward message in today’s Gospel reading. What we need to do to follow Jesus is to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Him.
However, what does it actually mean to deny ourselves and what does it mean to take up our cross? And even if we have worked out what it meant for Jesus’ first disciples, what does it mean for us, today?
If you had hoped to find here a clear answer to this question, what this means for each of us, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you. Not only because I don’t have it, but also because I think there is not one answer that fits each of us.
However, I do think that there is an answer for each of us, what it means to follow Christ. And although these will be different for each of us, I think there are some commonalities between them and especially in how we get to these answers. And it is on these commonalities, how to find out how Jesus calls us to follow him, that I would like to focus this morning.
The two examples that are set before us in the readings today are Abraham and Peter. Abraham, who hoped and believed against all odds; and Peter, who rebuked Jesus, because he did not understand what was going to happen. In the stories of these two people lie two important hints: we should not be ashamed to hope, nor to question.
Hoping and questioning can draw us in opposite directions, and we need both of them to find our way through life. Either without the other doesn’t bring us very far. Hope without questioning will make us naïve, and questioning without hope will make us cynical.
Different people will come to different conclusions what is right for them, even in very similar circumstances. So also important to remember is that we can never tell others what the right way is, but only help each other finding our way.
Before looking how this might work in our faith journeys, I’d like to use an example from a more work-related sphere. When I moved to Berlin in 2010, to try out whether a scientific career would be right for me, I was rather cynical about it: I didn’t really want to go; I didn’t want to go and live in another country for the sake of science, because I liked where I was. But it would be the only way to get anywhere in science, so I went. Without much hope.
A friend of mine, also a scientist, went off to Germany a few of years later. Basically to do the same thing: a post-doc in science. Try to see what it would be like. In contrast to my own situation, in her case, I was very hopeful about the enterprise. To me, and I wasn’t the only one, it seemed just the right thing for her. So, hope instead of cynicism.
In both cases, it didn’t go at all as I expected. For myself, I realised quite quickly that I wasn’t that passionate about science. I liked it, but probably not enough. But the experience of living abroad was great. I made new friends, managed to stay in touch with old friends, and found out what I really wanted to do. My cynicism was turned into a hope and a faith far beyond my expectations.
For my friend, things turned out differently. After some weeks already she realised that living in Germany wasn’t right for her. Not in a cynical way, but she just knew this was not what she was meant to do. And although she knew this almost straightaway, it took her quite some time to convince others, and to convince me. Probably because I naively thought that what was right for me was right for her as well.
So here we see that what looked like an almost identical scenario for the two of us, lead us in two completely different ways. But both of us feel that we are now doing the right thing. Both of us questioned, hoped, and listened.
It is this pattern of questioning, hoping and listening, that we find in today’s readings as well, in the stories of Abraham and Peter. Abraham questioned God: why did he continue to be childless until old age? But he kept hoping, even until his old age. And he listened, he was obedient to the call he heard. These three aspects are even more interwoven in the story of Abraham and Isaac, where it will depend on your interpretation what the exact relationship between hoping, questioning and listening is.
In Peter’s case: in today’s Gospel we hear how he rebuked Jesus. He did not get why Jesus had to suffer. But also he hoped, because only a few moments before this passage, Peter had confessed Jesus to be the Messiah. And he listened. He followed Jesus where he went, and heard his stories and his teaching.
Questioning, hoping and listening: these three can also be a way to discern how Jesus calls us to follow him. It is a call on us as a whole: we cannot separate our Christian identity from who we are. We see this exemplified in Jesus’ disciples, and in Abraham and Sarah. And in a way also in the example I gave earlier. Even our choices of work, of places to live, of how we relate to others and of family life, are choices we make because we want to live in a way that honours the fact that our life is a gift from God.
So we question. Especially in this season of Lent, we examine and question our lives, and see how we can make more room for God. We hope. Looking forward to Easter, we hope that God will transform our lives. Not necessarily in radical ways, but that God will take what needs to be changed and helps us to transform it towards the good. This is part of the symbolism of Ash Wednesday: it is from the ashes that new life grows. And we listen. In prayer, in worship, in reading Scripture and in encountering others, we try to listen what God is telling us.
And all these three, questioning, hoping and listening, we ultimately are able to do, because we can trust. We can trust in the God who died for us on the Cross and was raised again. Because God became human in the person of Christ, suffered for us, and conquered death, we know that God knows us, listens to us and has a place for us. Both in this life and the next.
So, as we are on our journey towards Easter, let us take Abraham and Peter as examples how we might question, hope and listen. In the trust that God will show us the way how to take up our cross and follow Him.