Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed by the Nazis shortly before the end of World War II, once wrote that "When Christ calls a man to follow him, he calls him to die". Those prescient words are an echo of what Jesus himself says in this morning’s Gospel reading: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Bonhoeffer literally gave his life for his beliefs. He’d been imprisoned for his outspoken opposition to Hitler’s regime, and for his involvement in the failed bomb plot to assassinate him. And just a few days before the Second World War ended, it was a special order of the Fuhrer that ensured his death.
Death: we may not like to think about it, but it lies at the heart of our faith. The cross in our church is a sign of death, of a particularly shameful death - that becomes a sign of life only because of what Jesus secured there. And he says to us: “Take up your cross, and follow me.” So faith is about dying: the way of faith is to die to our old self, to our old way of living: to die for Jesus, as Jesus died for us.
We die to our old self in order to begin afresh, and to take on the new life that God desires for us, and that only Jesus can secure. But it’s a hard word, all the same. Our natural view is that death is bad, something we don’t like to think about, and we don’t like to talk about. But Jesus talked about it quite a lot.
The way of the world is focused on preserving life, on keeping ourselves safe and secure. So to protect ourselves is a priority: we strive for good health, we want our income and our savings to be healthy too, we look for status and security. It’s natural to think that your life is more important than anything else. But however much we do, and however much we worry, all of us, old or young, are a day closer to the end of our lives than we were yesterday.
Jesus turns us away from the way of the world. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me,” he says. There’s something more important than mere life, and it’s this: life lived how God wants us to live, life lived in a way that brings peace and wholeness to others, and establishes these things in the world around us, life that bears living witness to the sacrificial love of God, life that is cross-shaped.
In other words, life in the kingdom of God. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” says Jesus to us. He challenges us by saying: Follow me, not after you’ve got everything else nicely sorted in your life, but before you do anything else. Take up your cross and follow me.
So what in fact will taking up our cross require of us? First, that we surrender our own selves to God, that we “let go and let God”, as the bookmark in my Bible reminds me. What we surrender is a way of thinking and acting as though God doesn’t matter. John Ruskin once wrote, “He who gives God second place in his life gives him no place.”
So in the Gospel we find Jesus rebuking Peter, saying, “Out of my sight, Satan; you are a stumbling block to me. You think as men think, not as God thinks.” We too need to give up thinking according to the way of the world, and to begin to think as God thinks. In this morning’s reading from Romans Paul writes about what this new way of thinking, and of living, might look like. It happens when we no longer seek to save our own lives by the ways the world teaches, but choose to live by faith in God, trusting him to provide what we need to serve him well.
It was our wedding anniversary last week, and yesterday I took part in a wedding service at Leighton yesterday. So marriage has been a bit on my mind, and marriage is a good example of what we’re talking about here: losing your life so that you find it. I often say to people that marriage is an act of mutual enslavement. They usually smile at that. But it’s true.
For in the vows, each partner gives himself, herself, totally to the other. It’s not, “You can have fifty percent of me and what’s mine,” but “All of me I give to you.” The introduction to the marriage service says that the couple, once married, begin a new life together in the community. In marriage you give yourself completely to your spouse, and from that mutual giving of self comes a new life, a new way of living. It’s no surprise that in scripture our relationship to God is described as a marriage, and the Church as the bride of Christ.
If surrender of self to God is the first mark of what we might call living in the Kingdom, alongside it we place humility: not a false humility that denies the gifts we have, but the genuine humility that recognises that they are gifts - things given to us to be used well, humility also that enables us to delight in the gifts of others. The gifts we have are given by God, so each gift brings with it a new opportunity to serve him. To believe that is to believe also that every person is special in the eyes of God.
So we should use what God gives us in the service of each other. As members of God’s family, we’re called to use our gifts in ways that help the whole family prosper and grow, and to do that cheerfully and generously. That’s not the kind of charity that’s gives away a bit of what’s left when we’ve finished spending on ourselves, it’s something altogether deeper and more sacrificial: cross-shaped. An acknowledgement that in Christ we belong to one another.
Lastly, we need to take seriously the words with which Paul starts the passage from Romans we heard this morning: “Love in all sincerity, loathing evil and holding fast to the good.” This is about being connected to God, so shunning all that opposes his love, and delighting in what his love can do within our own selves and within the world around us.
So, to paraphrase Paul’s words: be zealous always, be joyful in hope, be patient when things go against you, and be faithful in prayer. To be connected with God means to pray sincerely and regularly, to listen attentively to his word, and to do with a willing spirit what he asks of us.
In other words, to follow: to follow the way of Jesus, taking up our cross, turning from the way of the world, choosing not to go along with the crowd, choosing not to care about our own popularity or status, but trusting in God’s provision and care. In sober assessment of what we are worth in ourselves, we’re called to use all that God gives us - time, talent, opportunity, and wealth - in ways that will serve and benefit others. Dying to the old life, taking on what’s new.
Tall order? Yes, but this is where the Church began, this is what motivated its every revival through the centuries. This is how we proclaim the kingdom that we pray will come - by living today in that kingdom, connecting ourselves firmly and sincerely to the God in whom alone we find true life, the God whose Son gave his life for us on the cross. Put simply, we’re called to live as though we belong no longer to ourselves but to Christ, hating what is evil and clinging to what is good, and allowing his life-giving love to flow through us into this needy world.