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14th Sunday after Trinity Year B

Eucharist – 13.ix.2009
(Isaiah 50.4-9a; James 3.1-12; Mark 8.27-38)

The words of Jesus we hear in today’s Gospel could not speak any more
powerfully about the centrality of the Cross in our Christian faith: “If anyone
would be a follower of mine, let him take up his cross and follow me.” This
is at the heart of Christian vocation. To know that the decision to follow
Jesus cannot be taken without the readiness for sacrifice. And it shouldn’t be
a hollow choice. You can take that decision only after you’ve recognised
who Jesus is. St. Peter says it for all the disciples. Jesus has asked the
disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they do a bit of hedging
about as they give their answer: “Well… some people say that he’s John the
Baptist come back to life, other people say that he’s Elijah come back to life
from even longer ago, other people say he’s some sort of prophet whoever
he is…” Opinions, but no commitment. They don’t want to have to make up
their minds. Ask people today what they think is the significance of Jesus –
teacher, healer, good man, madman, prophet, they’ll say. But in our Gospel
reading we see someone who’s quite definite: Peter says, “You are the
Messiah.” “You are the Christ!” Unless Jesus is recognized as the one who
can make a change in every part of our lives, then there’s little point in
following him.

But even Peter doesn’t take in all the implications. Jesus is the Messiah,
God’s chosen one. But he’s not the Messiah that people had expected. The
Jews, when they spoke of the Messiah, looked forward to the coming of a

military leader who would come at the head of an army and bring about
victory over their enemies. But Jesus comes as the Son of Man - and he tells
the disciples that his way is going to involve suffering. There’ll be
misunderstanding, rejection… and finally he will end up being put to death
on a Cross. It’s not what Peter wants to hear. Our Bishop of Durham, Tom
Wright, says it’s like the captain of a football team telling his side that his
tactics are going to involve letting the opposition score 10 goals against
them right at the start of the game. The way of the Cross is not what we
might call winning tactics. And yet, says Jesus, the Cross is a reality on the
journey we are called to make with him, whether it’s carrying that cross,
stumbling over it, or knowing it as a potential final destination for the
disciple as well as the Master.

The Cross is central in Christian faith - and it’s not there only to cause fear
and to remind us of the reality of suffering. Tomorrow we celebrate the
Feast of the Holy Cross. On Holy Cross Day the Gospel reading is from St.
John’s Gospel Chapter 3: … “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the
wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in
him may have eternal life.” This is the hope of salvation which we recognise
when we look on Jesus. And this is the message to be proclaimed in faith.
The crosses in our churches are not a mere matter of decoration. The huge
cross over our chancel screen looms there to tell us, “Look up, and see that
Christ is lifted up and dies to bring us life.” It’s the message that needs to be
proclaimed by not only by preaching in church – but by all of us in the way
we live. Elsewhere in St. John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I, when I am lifted up
from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” St. John tells us, “he said this
to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” But it’s also, I think, a rather

wonderful image which speaks hope to the world that all people might be
drawn by the love of Jesus who so allows himself to be lifted up for the
world to see…. If only we would look! But where?

We could start by taking a look at each other. That’s one of the things that
I’ve been trying to do as I’ve worked with the present restrictions which
have been advised as the Church has responded to fears about the
transmission of swine flu. Possibly the official guidelines have gone too far
in removing the chalice from the people and advising that people shouldn’t
exchange the Peace with a handshake. But we’re stuck with them for the
moment - and they also offer opportunities. Particularly to notice the people
around us. Not just to rush around shaking hands at the Peace. But to
recognise Christ in others - and not just in the people we always sit with and
feel comfortable with and can feel happy to hug and kiss, but also in those
people we don’t know: people who may be more reserved, visitors to the
church, those we’re not really sure about… Over the next couple of weeks
we’re offering a challenge: who could you bring along to St. Cuthbert’s for
“Back to Church Sunday” on 27th September? They don’t have to be people
who we think will simply fit in. What we need is a sense of who may be
drawn by Jesus to be his people and to know his love?

People find themselves drawn to Jesus for all sorts of reasons. The slogan
that’s appearing on “Back to Church Sunday” material this year is “Come as
you are.” And that’s important. Not just because you like wearing the big
hats and Sunday suits which have stereotyped Anglican church-goers (and
I’ve nothing against either!). Not just the middle-aged and elderly. Not just
the middle-class and educated. But all to whom Christ calls. Young

people… including long-haired, short-haired, multi-coloured dyed-haired,
the jeans-clad navel-barers, the ring-pierced and the wearers of tattoos - and
that’s just the clergy... Those who are still younger: the babies who add their
voices to our offering of worship – and the parents who feel self-conscious
as they struggle with them (but don’t need to). Those people who just turn
up for Baptisms or weddings and don’t know what to do in church. People
who talk throughout the Communion or who sit at the back of the
congregation and could be doing something else, except something draws
them along. People who know they’ve got some sort of need but can’t put it
into words, and people who wrestle with questions and problems and the
needs of loved ones.

Jesus calls to us all, “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.”
Look to Christ, and see how already he is calling you.

If today were not a Sunday, it would be celebrated as the Feast Day of St.
John Chrysostom (but you all you knew that anyway?…). In a way he could
be the patron saint of preachers. The name Chrysostom itself was a sort of
nickname, meaning “golden-mouthed.” Because he was famed for his
oratory. He wanted to lead the simple and austere life of a hermit-monk in
his home region of fourth century Asia Minor. But the people wouldn’t let
him, and by popular acclaim he was made Patriarch of Constantinople, the
leader of the Eastern Church. He was renowned as a theologian and
preacher, he’s commemorated now as one of the four “Doctors” of the
Eastern Church, he lived a life of prayer – but above all he knew the way of
the Cross. It was the faith which he preached. But that preaching finally had
to go further than his skill with words. He saw that faith had to be put into

practice. And his integrity in preaching made him enemies not only amongst
the clergy whose laxity he rebuked, but finally also at the imperial court –
including the Emperor. Preaching the faith for St. John was not simply a
matter of using a silver tongue or – in his case – a golden mouth. It was
living with the consequences for what he said. And twice he was deposed
from his bishopric, and finally he died as a result of a forced march into
exile. Perhaps his grim fate is why he isn’t much mentioned these days.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, writes in an Epilogue to the

book, “Praying for England,” that “the role of the (Christian) community in
the world is to inhabit the place where Jesus’ priesthood has been
exercised.” We begin to understand our calling when we recognise that who
and what Jesus is cannot be separated from his journey to the Cross. Our
calling is to follow him: “If you want to be my follower, take up the Cross
and follow me.” That’s to allow for the possibility of failure, need and
vulnerability - but it’s also to recognise at the same time that this is where
God in Christ is to be found. As Archbishop Rowan puts it - in words that
are not easy, but are full of meaning - “For human beings, priestliness is
bound up with faithfully occupying the area where divine and human action
decisively overlap in Jesus, and making sure that the human world knows
there is such a place.”

That’s not to say that we’ve got all the answers sewn up and ready. It is to
say that God touches our world in Jesus who calls us to be his followers
even when the odds seem stacked against us. And if we do that then our
churches will not be cold buildings which alienate people, but places of
welcome, warm with the love of God.