Sermon preached at the Sung Eucharist on the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity 2023
How will you engage in community with others in the Church?
The Reverend David Stanton Sub-Dean and Canon Treasurer
Sunday, 3rd September 2023 at 11.15 AM
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Words from this morning’s Gospel:
Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
For the vast majority, if not all, of us here this morning the command to take up the Cross will not shock us; we will have been heard it before, more often than not during Lent.
Indeed, it has become a familiar challenge for all attempting to live the Christian life.
But to non-believers, it makes very little sense at all. In fact, it comes across as pretty much sheer lunacy.
To those who don’t believe, the Cross is little more than a rather unpleasant symbol of pain and the reminder of a rather horrible death.
But to those of us of faith it is the very symbol of Christianity. Many of us mark ourselves with it upon entering the Church. We began this Eucharist with it and we will end this Eucharist with it.
We start almost every time of prayer with it. Indeed, the Celebrant holds his arms in the shape of it during the Eucharistic prayer.
St Francis of Assisi used to call it his ‘book,’ where he learned all of his wisdom. And the Cross is also the key that opens the doors of heaven.
From the very earliest of times pagans used to mock early Christians for worshipping someone who was killed on the Cross, who suffered such a horrible, violent end.
Because that derision was still happening even centuries after his death, many of the first Christians were somewhat embarrassed by the Cross and didn’t use it as a popular Christian symbol until the third century.
Today, there are still some Christians who are embarrassed by the Cross.
We see it in some church schools and universities - who have removed the Cross and replaced it with an image of the risen Lord lest anyone be offended.
Nevertheless, the Cross, for believers, is not so much a symbol of pain, but rather a symbol of the Love that made even that much suffering worth it.
You will recall that Jesus said during the Last Supper, ‘No one has any greater love than to lay down his life for his friends’ and that’s precisely what Christ did when he gave his own life on the Cross so that we might live.
The Cross is a picture not principally of agonizing suffering but of this wonderful love of God for us.
St Paul, after he stated that the Cross is a scandal to the Jews and a folly to everyone else, declared that to those who are called, the Crucified Christ is the ‘power of God and the wisdom of God’.
Christ on the cross manifests the power of his love and the wisdom of God’s plan of salvation.
The Cross is the great sign of God’s humility.
Real love is willing to do anything, and God was willing not just to come down from heaven and take on our human nature, but to allow those he created, those he was about to redeem, to torture, abuse, and kill him in order to save them and us.
But why was the Cross necessary? Well, for two fundamental reasons:
Firstly, to combat all the negative strength of evil, and secondly to reveal all gentle omnipotence of the mercy of God.
The Cross seems to declare the failure of Jesus, but in reality, it marks his victory.
On Calvary, those who mocked him would say to him: ‘If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross’ (Matthew 27: 40).
But the opposite was true: precisely because he was the Son of God, Jesus was there, on the cross, faithful to the end to the loving plan of the Father.
If we contemplate and look prayerfully at Jesus on the Cross, what do we see?
We see the sign of the infinite love of God, for each and every one of us, and the roots of our salvation.
From that Cross flows the mercy of the Father who embraces the whole world.
Through that Cross, evil is overcome, death is defeated, life is given to us, hope is restored.
It was the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who once wrote in his prison cell that ‘only a suffering God can help…’
But he did not mean to say that God is diminished by pain or suffering, only that we cannot keep apart the praise of God and the pain of the world.
And when we gather to celebrate this Eucharist, to remember the words of Jesus Christ, This is my body…This is my blood…, we cannot keep apart the praise of God and the pain of the world.
Yet, it is the proper, if peculiar, vocation of Christian people to hope, however reticent that hope may sometimes be. For when we speak of the cross, we also bear witness to the resurrection.
In bearing witness to the resurrection, we recognise that the pain of the world is transformed and transfigured by the love of God.
One of the curious paradoxes of the contemporary church is that it is very good at distracting us from contemplating the mystery of the cross.
As post-resurrection believers we ought, in theory at least, to understand a little more than Christ's first disciples in the gospels did. In theory at least.
We have the Holy Spirit to direct and inform, to energise our awareness, to kindle our expectancy.
But like those first disciples, we look as well as listen. We watch with expectancy the world in which live.
We listen for the word to come alive for us in sacred scripture.
We look at the great self-identifying actions of the Church in the Sacraments, asking the Spirit to make the connection come alive.
We look, we listen with awareness and expectation. We look at one another as Christians with expectancy.
But let me remind you of my opening quotation from today’s Gospel:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Throughout the long history of the church Christians have been called to deny themselves, to live that disciplined life.
It can be helpful sometimes to gather those disciplines, those habits, together into a personal code of practice, sometimes called a Rule of Life.
What kind of things might be in it? Public worship first of all. Putting God first on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection; to worship with other Christians and to receive the Sacrament.
Next private prayer: Set some time aside daily for prayer. It may be helpful to join with others and join your prayers in some way with the prayer of the church.
Third, practice the discipline of secret giving to and through the local church and for the relief of those in need.
After public worship, private prayer, and secret giving, how will you engage in community with others in the Church?
We all need the fellowship with other Christians: to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
Finally, how will you offer your time and your gifts to serve your wider community and your church?
We all have something we can give through our time and our talents.
All of these things are needed and vital. They might feel like a sacrifice at first, but actually, the more we do them, the more connected we feel to others.
A Rule of Life is a very simple thing: a set of habits and disciplines to make sure we are being faithful and being sustained as we follow Christ.
Public worship, private prayer, secret giving, fellowship with others, and loving service in accordance to our gifts. Think about what you will do.
Take up your cross and pray about such disciplines.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.