Proper 18 (2010) Year C RCL Principal
One of the subjects that comes up again and again in our household, as is probably the case in any household with small children, is ‘growing up’. What do you want to be when you grow up? Is one of those questions that Katherine and Jack seem very happy to keep replying to, despite giving different answers most times its asked. Or there are comments about ‘how grown up they look’ or ‘aren’t they growing up fast’. Most of us have probably heard all this before and if we don’t remember people saying it to us, then we probably remember it being said to our children, or grandchildren, or other family members or friends.
And scripture is quite keen on the subject too. St Paul talks of Christian faith needing to mature, in 1 Corinthians 3v21 of needing to move from ‘milk to meat’ in our spiritual journey as a child needs to be weaned. Paul also talks in Ephesians 4 v 15 of ‘growing up into Christ our head’. Jesus too, whilst instructing us to be child-like, never calls us to be child-ish, and in fact calls us to be mature in our faith, to be willing to make sacrifice, to truly consider the cost of our faith, and to be open to losing everything for the sake of the Gospel.
Crumbs, Christian life is hard.
On a purely personal note I am reaching the end of my second year in these parishes, and though it has been and continues to be very rewarding, it can also be really hard. This isn’t a complaint, and if it had been too much I wouldn’t be wanted to stay! But it has been a tough couple of years. I have to say that I have been on quite a steep learning curve in my personal, pastoral and professional life. I know I’ve not always been right, and there have been some things I could have done better, things I didn’t do as I should have, and things I wish I’d known when I arrived. But I hope and trust that I have learned and grown in my time here, as many of those in our Parishes have done also.
Our parishes are going through major changes too, in personnel, in our times and styles of services, in the fabric of our buildings and the organisation of our Mission Community. Many of these changes have been overwhelmingly positive but alongside that we have lost some very special people, we’ve struggled with the issues facing our villages today and we’ve had pain and sadness alongside the joy and the rewards of our ministry.
For those who think that this Christianity lark is a doddle and that Churches are havens for the weak, a short time in our villages would soon show what a nonsense that is.
I have had people say to me that ‘religion is a crutch’ and that it props up those who are too weak minded to carry on without some kind of spiritual panacea. Actually, if we were to carry on that metaphor I would say that religion isn’t a crutch, but a stretcher, because the only way we can truly encounter God is by being carried there by his grace, and through grace alone.
But those of us who have actually committed to following Jesus know that it is difficult to be a Christian. It’s not a way out of the ‘real world’ but a way which makes us sensitive to the pain and brokenness of our society and the world around us. Christian faith doesn’t make us immune to suffering or pain, in fact it more often than not makes us more aware of the suffering of others and prevents becoming apathetic or uncaring towards one another or the world.
But none of this should surprise us. Being a Christian is hard, and today’s Gospel reading is quite clear about that. Jesus doesn’t pull any punches. Jesus compares following him to setting off to war, or preparing a major building operation, not something to be taken lightly, and not something to be undertaken without planning to see it through to the end. Even more so he says ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’.
Crosses would have been a relatively familiar sight to the people Jesus was speaking to. A grisly, agonising and long lasting form of execution it was used as much as a deterrent to those thinking of disobeying Roman law as a way of punishing lawbreakers. Crosses were put in prominent places where people would see them, and before each crucifixion the condemned would be forced, as in the Good Friday story we know so well, to carry their cross to their place of execution – a very public spectacle.
So Jesus refers to something that is both familiar and shocking to try and give some idea of the cost of discipleship. There is no hint in this passage, or indeed in any of Jesus words, that being a disciple is an easy option, or the route to a cushy life. In fact throughout the Gospels Jesus talks of his own homeless status, about the need to endure suffering, about the threat of persecution, about working hard and about absolute devotion to God’s cause – a devotion that is equivalent to hating family, friends and even life itself.
But this suffering is not an end in itself, it often comes as a part of the life of the disciple, part of every life – but we don’t follow in order that we might suffer, but we endure suffering that we might be faithful. Our call is not to suffer, but to remain true to our faith and to the truth of Christ no matter what we endure.
And even from suffering God can bring life. Jesus suffered and died on the cross that he might defeat the greatest suffering, that of death and the power of sin. Then through his faithfulness was brought back to life again through the power and the love of God.
“But what has all this got to do with being grown up?” you may ask. Well, Jesus doesn’t want us to have a naïve, blind, infantile faith, but to take on board the very real, very difficult, even very painful cost of being a Christian. One of the commentators I read on this passage tells us that Jesus is encouraging us to have a mature, reflective attitude to our journey of faith.
For those of us who remember the pains of growing up, of finding the world to be less and more than we had imagined as children, of discovering that things weren’t quite as much fun when we became adults as we thought they would be as children, we are reminded that Christian faith shouldn’t have a rosy or incomplete picture of the world. Being mature means accepting responsibility for our own journey of faith, being willing to take on the responsibilities of adulthood, and to behave and respond to the world in a thoughtful and appropriate way.
In the church that means that we all take responsibility for the ministry of the Church and no longer hope to be spoon fed by someone at the front, or that the work of ministry will be done only by the ‘spiritual grown ups’ we call clergy and readers. St Paul says, we ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’. – we all have some responsibility for our own spiritual growth, our education, our calling to serve in the name of Christ here in Stockland and the other villages in the Mission Community to which God has called us.
It means being willing to take up our cross and follow.
Let’s pray not that we might escape all the troubles of the world, but rather that through everything we may endure and be faithful, allowing the potter to reshape and create something new, fashioning from the struggle something beautiful and filled with purpose. That we may mature through good and bad and grow up into Christ our head. And let’s pray that we will have the faith to see God at work, even when it seems the struggle is too much.
May God bless us in all we endure, and give us strength, faith, hope and love.