Living in the Shadow of the Cross

There are some really important things going on in the Anglican communities which surround us at the current time. The Parish of Kingsley-Woodvale is about to undertake a major discernment exercise.

Trusting in the work of the Holy Spirit amongst them, they will be calling members of the congregation to leadership positions (both lay and ordained) in their Ministry Team in a few weeks time.

Next door to us on the other side, the Parish of Hammersley-Balcatta is in the process of searching for a new Priest to join their Ministry Team, that has been an ongoing search since May.

And just down from us towards the coast, the Parish of Carine-Duncraig will beginning their search for a new Priest following their Rector’s appointment that he is moving to a new post. So all around us Anglican communities are trusting in the provision of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to raise up new leaders for their ongoing mission.

It was in this context that my eye was drawn to a story on Friday about the work of a search committee somewhere else, I wondered what lessons both we and the parishes around us might learn from their experience. After many months of waiting for a new priest, and having difficulty making a decision about who was to be called, one member of the Search Committee, who was admittedly tired of the whole process, offered one last letter of introduction from a potential candidate. The letter read like this:

“To the Search Committee: It is my understanding that you have a vacancy in your parish, and I would like to apply for the position. I can’t say that I preach too well. In fact, I tend to stutter when I speak. I do have a lot of different experiences I could share with you, since I am over 75 years old. I have only just recently had an encounter with God and, despite my initial resistance to the idea, I heard a voice which told me personally that I was the one to do the ministry for you. One never knows when God will appear right before your very eyes. As far as people skills go, I do tend to lose my temper every once in a while. I also tend to want things done my way, and can get violent if things are not taken care of immediately. Once I even killed somebody. But since I know that you are gracious people, I know you will believe me when I say that’s all behind me now. I will come to visit you in a few weeks time, there is no need for you to respond to my letter. When I arrive I will lead you into a brighter future. Be assured that although I was reluctant to work with you at first, I still feel called to be with you nonetheless. I hope that all this fills you with a sense of excitement.” And so the letter concluded. The committee member who had read the letter, (so the story goes,) glanced up at the rest of the group. “Well, what do you think?” she said. “Can this person be our new parish priest or not?” The rest of the committee was horrified. Have an old, arrogant, temperamental, obviously neurotic, ex-murderer as their priest? Was this committee member out of her mind for even suggesting it? “Who was this letter from?” they demanded to know. The committee member eyed them all keenly before she answered, “It is signed simply, ‘Moses.’”

We meet Moses, (God’s unlikely choice as an ambassador) in our first reading this morning, far off from the Hebrew people who are in slavery in Egypt. He is in the land of Midian living as a shepherd having escaped from Egypt after launching a one man crusade against the Egyptian oppressors by killing one of their soldiers who was attacking a Hebrew slave. A truly incredible encounter unfolds as we heard. A bush is on fire, but the fire is not consuming it. And from the bush comes a voice, the call of God to Moses, telling him to give up his peaceful life in Midian and to return to Egypt to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery. It is little wonder that Moses begins to come up with excuses about why he is not the man for the job! When we sense that God is calling us to do something which will unsettle our comfortable lives we can normally find very good reasons why God has got it wrong! It soon becomes clear as the story unfolds that Moses wants the Hebrew people to be freed from slavery, but he doesn’t want to have to lead it himself.

In our Gospel reading we hear a similar story in the life of Peter. He has just been the first of the disciples to affirm that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” but now he seeks to prevent Jesus completing the task which is ahead of him. In the verses before this morning’s reading Jesus has called Peter the “rock on which the Church will be built,” but now Peter pleads with Jesus to find another way. He wants the Kingdom which Jesus has been teaching about to come fully, and he wants to be a part of it, but not if it means that he will have to risk persecution, and not if he will have to see Jesus die. But Jesus calls Peter back to the heart of his message for the world – that it is through love and truth that things will be accomplished, and not through violence. What Peter sees as defeat will be, for Jesus, the ultimate victory for all humanity. If you want to follow me, he says to Peter, you must take up your cross, as I will take up mine, and you must follow despite the cost.

Moses wants the Hebrew people to be freed, but he doesn’t want to risk his own life to be a part of God’s plan. Peter wants to follow Jesus, to be the first of his disciples, but he wants the Kingdom without the consequences. These seem unlikely men for God to choose, and yet they – like us – are the ones that God chooses to be the messengers that God’s liberation and love are at hand.

Tomorrow in the Church’s calendar we remember the beheading of John the Baptist, the first person in the Gospels who dies after proclaiming that Jesus is the Lord. After he has been imprisoned by Herod, John’s head is cut off and presented on a platter at a dinner party before the king, because he has spoken against the king in the name of truth. The stories of the saints of the Church are punctuated with accounts of martyrdom such as these. But lest we imagine that these occurrences are only in the ancient past, we do well to remember that this week (on Friday) we also remember in our calendar the witness of the Martyrs of Guinea. Not wonderfully super-human people on the other side of the world in a distant age, but normal Christians like you and I who were killed as a direct result of their decision to follow in the way of the cross, on our doorstep in Papua New Guinea, not hundreds of years ago but in 1942.

Christian missionaries began their work in New Guinea amongst the many different tribes in the 1860s, but because over 500 languages are spoken on that island their work proceeded slowly. When the Second World War threatened Papua and New Guinea, it was obvious that missionaries of European origin were in danger. There was talk of leaving. And in these deliberations Bishop Philip Strong who led the missionaries, wrote to his clergy saying, (and I quote him directly): “We must endeavour to carry on our work. God expects this of us. The church at home, which sent us out, will surely expect it of us. The universal church expects it of us. The people whom we serve expect it of us. We could never hold up our faces again if, for our own safety, we all forsook Jesus and fled.” So they stayed, and almost immediately there were arrests. Eight clergymen and two laymen were executed “as an example” on the 2nd September 1942. In the next few years, many Christians of all Churches were also killed.

On Monday we remember the beheading of St John many hundreds of years ago, and on Friday we remember the Martyrs of New Guinea who were killed very recently. And we know too, that Christians around the world in many different locations, will risk their lives today to worship God, and to pray, and to share the good news of Jesus. For many of our Christian brothers and sisters, (members of our family in faith) following Christ is very truly the way of the cross. The words of Paul in his letter to the Church in Rome, which we have heard this morning, remind us that that way is the way for each of us as well. Dying to self and living instead for Christ. Paul gives some very practical and challenging examples of how the way of the cross is to be lived out by each one of us. He says: “let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another… Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”

I don’t know about you, but that seems to me to be a life times work, to learn to live in the way of the cross. These are not ideas which we can somehow package away in a box marked “spiritual – do not open until next Sunday morning” the teachings of Christ, expounded here by St Paul, shine a spotlight onto every area of our lives, and cause us to question the values by which we live, in the light of the values of the Cross.

St Augustine of Hippo, one of the great shapers of Christian theology who lived in the fourth century after Christ says this in one of his sermons, “Who would not wish to follow Christ to supreme happiness, perfect peace, and lasting security? We shall do well to follow him there, but we need to know the way. “The Lord Jesus had not yet risen from the dead when he gave this invitation. His passion was still before him; he had still to endure the cross, to face outrages, reproaches, scourging; to be pierced by thorns, wounded, insulted, taunted, and put to death.” But Augustine continues with a word of re-assurance, “The road seems rough, you draw back, you do not want to follow Christ. But follow him just the same. The road we made for ourselves is rough, but Christ has levelled it by passing over it himself.”

Moses wants his people to be liberated by God, but he doesn’t want to have to be the one to tell Pharaoh how its going to happen. Peter wants to follow Christ, just as much as we do, but he wants Christ’s message of love for all to become a reality without the suffering of the cross. And yet God chose them both to be a part of his plan. And God has chosen each of us, along with the saints and martyrs of the church throughout the ages and in our present age. We may seem as unlikely as Moses and Peter to be the people that God wants to use, but nevertheless God has chosen us to share in the work of the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. There can be no greater challenge for us than this. We are not called to sit back and wait for God to act, as Moses would have preferred. We are not called to follow Jesus only in the good times as Peter would have liked. Jesus says to us this morning: “If any of you want to become my followers, then you must deny yourselves, and take up your cross and follow me. For if you want to save your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake you will find it.”

We are called to take up our cross, as Jesus took up his, and to follow him whatever the cost. I ask you this morning, as I ask myself – “what is our response?”