Lent 2: Follow Daily

Here are Bishop Emma's Sermon notes for the Second Sunday in Lent

Mark 8:31-end

These days, (when permitted by the Covid restrictions of course), if you go to a coffee shop and simply ask for ‘a coffee’, apparently that’s not good enough. You then get bombarded by a whole range of follow-up questions: What kind of coffee? An Espresso? Cappuccino? Macchiato? A pour over? Single origin? Blend? Small, medium or large? With milk or without? Hot milk or cold milk? I’d like a coffee please!

I sometimes wonder if our approach to Jesus is a bit like our approach to buying coffee. What kind of ‘Jesus’ would I like today?

If I’m honest I would possibly like Jesus to be a bit more like my idea of what Jesus should be - the kind of Jesus who will be at my beck and call to make my life a little bit better, a bit easier. I’d quite like my Jesus to be some kind of superhero, who swoops down to help me out when I’m in a fix - like when I can’t find a parking space, for example. I think I’d like a kindly Messiah, who understands me, but also one who can sort out all the world’s problems in one go - without getting in the way of anyone’s free will, of course. I’d like a Jesus that doesn’t offend anyone too much and doesn’t make me look too crazy, or ask me to do too many embarrassing things.

Jesus’s disciples probably wouldn’t have chosen the kind of Messiah Jesus described himself as, in today’s reading:

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

This Sunday, the second in Lent, we continue our series of sermons based on the refreshed vision we have agreed together as an ecumenical county: “to release the whole people of God for the whole mission of God for the transformation of Cumbria in Jesus’s name”.

Last week we had an introduction to the 4 themes of that refreshed vision: to “follow daily, speak boldly, care deeply, tread gently”, … with a reading about Jesus and his temptation in the wilderness. Today we focus in on the first of the themes - follow daily - with a reflection on Jesus foretelling his death and resurrection.

So, what does this glimpse into the life of Jesus from Mark 8 show us about our theme to ‘follow daily’?

Up to this point, and just before we pick up our reading for today, Jesus has been trying to get through to his disciples the not terribly welcome news that, far from being the Messiah they would probably choose - the one who would storm the gates of Jerusalem with some (hitherto unknown) army to overthrow the Roman occupation, if not quite a superhero, then close, Jesus was in fact a Messiah who was to suffer and die.

Let’s think how all this must have sounded to Peter. It would be a bit like a politician who suddenly burst on the scene today and announced that he was standing in the next General Election. It doesn’t matter really which party. This person announces such sensible policies, such solutions to the world’s problems, talking such wisdom and sound common sense that you believe everything they are saying. This person puts forward workable solutions to the debt crisis, to the pandemic, to low-cost vaccinations for everyone, to trade deals, to the funding gap in the NHS. This new politician has the strength of character and the integrity and honesty to make you want to follow them and vote for them. This amazing new politician is all set to win a landslide victory - and then a few months into his election campaign, they announce - “Oh and by the way I will be dead before the election happens”.

How would you feel? This was not the kind of Messiah the disciples had ordered!

Peter reacted strongly to all this talk by Jesus of death and dying and “took him aside and began to rebuke him”. Peter dares to correct Jesus’s theology! But Jesus corrects his misunderstanding, and then helps his disciples to face the reality:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

I guess we sometimes fall into the same trap as Peter. We would like our Messiah to be strong, invincible, able to sort out all our problems with one sweep of his mighty hand.

The trouble is, when we ask for a strong and powerful God like that, we see strength in the same way as Peter did - from a human perspective, rather than a divine one. We see strength as the ability to carry out one’s own will through power, and force. In the eyes of God strength looks very different. For God, strength is measured in vulnerability, in sacrifice. Ultimately, evil won’t be overcome by military or political might, but through the self-giving sacrifice of a humble saviour. Jesus came to give himself away. That’s the kind of Messiah he is. And he calls his disciples to do the same as he does:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

This is what it means to ‘follow daily.’ It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.

The Christian writer, Tom Wright says, “Following Jesus is not an invitation to accompany him on a pleasant afternoon hike, but to go on a walk of danger and risk. Or did we suppose that the kingdom of God would mean merely a few minor adjustments on the way?”

I wonder what you have given up for Lent? Alcohol? Chocolate? Cake? I spoke to someone the other day who has given up alcohol, tea, coffee, chocolate and cake. That’s a bit extreme!

A few years ago, Pope Francis encouraged Christians to give up indifference for Lent. He said: “Indifference to our neighbour and to God represents a real temptation for us Christians”.

Our reading today challenges us with something similar - with giving up something costly for Lent - and that something is living our lives exactly the way we would choose, and instead taking up the costly call to follow Jesus daily, rather than our own desires, preferences and securities.

Jesus challenged Peter to consider whether he really wanted the Messiah, or whether he wanted his own idea of the Messiah. We too are called to the same kind of reflection. Do we want to follow the Jesus superhero we would quite like, or are we willing to follow the real Jesus? This Messiah may not be the kind of Jesus we would have asked for by choice, a suffering one, with holes in his hands and feet, but this is the only kind of Jesus who can save us.

We have made the phrase ‘carry your cross’ into an everyday truism, shorthand for any kind of suffering that comes our way. But remember that when Jesus said it, it didn’t yet have that slightly noble overtone. Jesus himself hadn’t yet carried his own physical cross at this point. The cross was a source of shame and derision, used to torture and kill any who dared to challenge and stand up to the power of Roman rule. And so, the call to take up the cross is the call to join a revolutionary movement.

Are we up for that? Jesus’s words remind us that to follow daily means taking up the cross, the symbol at the heart of the Christian faith - dying and resurrection, death and life, reality and hope.

This is a great time of opportunity - people need now more than ever to hear Jesus’s gospel message of hope out of death, comfort in pain, healing, blessing. As we go into this next week let’s go with ringing in our ears the daily call of Christ to costly discipleship, to take up the cross, and follow him.

And the good news - the very, very good news - is that when we give up our own lives to follow the real Jesus - the suffering Jesus - then our lives are actually saved. If we commit to costly discipleship, to following him daily, to carrying his cross, not in our own strength but in his, then we will find that we have all we need. If we respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, we can be very sure of one thing - that he doesn’t say, ‘There’s your cross - pick it up and off you trot’. He walks with us every step of the way. ‘I am with you always’, he said, ‘to the very end of the age’. We consider and weigh the cost that is rightly ours to bear - the call to ‘follow daily ‘- and then we trust God to provide all the rest. Saint Paul says:

I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Christ, and him crucified.”

As we commit again this Lent to follow Jesus daily, we know that in ourselves we have nothing - and yet in Him, we have everything.