May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
I have recently found out the rather wonderful news that one of my daughters, Lizzie, is expecting and I am to be a nana for a second time. Everything is progressing well, although it’s been hard on her husband Lewis as he has not been able to attend any of her scans with her, which could have been a bit scary if the news were not so good.
However, a blood test has revealed that she has gestational diabetes, the news of which came just as she had enjoyed a piece of homemade cake, so no more treats for a while. Hopefully, she will be able to control this by denying herself some of the more sweet things in life and although it will be a minor hardship she will change her lifestyle for the benefit of her unborn child – a necessary form of suffering.
Suffering you may say… suffering…. is that really suffering? Well suffering means to undergo pain, distress or hardship and it can be physical, emotional, or mental. It can be as simple as not getting what you want or as tough as living with a terminal illness. Whatever level of suffering it might be, it was the one thing that Jesus told his disciples both he and them and those that came after would face in one way or another.
Alongside this they were to ensure a change in their lifestyles to that of self-denial, defined as ‘the willingness to deny oneself possessions or status, in order to grow in holiness and commitment to God’. It is an essential part of our Christian life to renounce our egos, where we are the centre of existence (which, lets be honest, goes against our natural inclinations) and recognise instead that Jesus is our true centre.
Carol spoke last week about Peter’s naming of Jesus as the Messiah as a pivotal moment in his story, and we can see that from now on there is a distinct change of mood. Less of the teaching in parables and more about warnings of what lies ahead for him and his followers.
Once again it is Peter who resists the idea of such a thing happening, but even Peter himself was soon to come to understand exactly what was required. The disciples had already showed what it meant to step away from the life that they knew, to go out into a world that is sometimes so diametrically opposite to what Jesus was teaching and to see this through to the bitter end.
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me. “
The idea of self-denial is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, that ‘‘When Christ calls a man (and you can substitute woman here), he bids him come and die’. This is the ultimate act of selflessness but through denying ourselves each day, our life in Christ grows, strengthens, and develops more and more. Christ now becomes our life.
So, what does that life look like? Well Paul, in his letter to the Romans outlines what the Christian life might look like with this new way of thinking; a complete contrast to the idea of community put forward by the empire. In the community of Christ, people are called to honour each other, whether they are the wealthiest, highest status members of the group or the lowliest workers and migrants. Love is not to be measured or mechanical, but genuine, joyful and from the heart.
There is to be no more sycophancy and toadying to those more prominent in society in order to get ahead – Uriah Heaps there were to be none! Instead we are to look in completely the opposite direction – to the needs of the poor, offering hospitality, a meal, work if we have it, anything to make people’s lives better. And the streets of Rome could be pretty lawless in those days, so it made sense to align yourself with the Roman ‘mafia’ and give as good as you got. Again, not so says Paul, instead you should offer a blessing to those who persecute you, don’t repay evil for evil, live at peace and leave the wrath to God.
Paul’s way of imagining what self-denial means should be no different nowadays if we are to be part of Christ’s community. It is sometimes a hard path to walk and can lead to personal suffering, and there is no doubt that from time to time, like Christ, we will stumble under the weight of the cross we are being asked to take up. But it is also the only way to life.
The promise is that those who commit themselves totally to Jesus will, one day, see his glory and be welcomed into his kingdom, and if we’re lucky, we may also glimpse his glory in this life as well.