8th March 2009 - "From Life to Life"

Usha Hull - St Mary's
Gen 17 1-7, 15-16
Mark 8 31-end

When it first appeared in 2004, the movie ‘The Passion of the Christ’ by Mel Gibson was widely criticised on two main counts. Firstly, it was condemned by many as being anti-Semitic, portraying the critics claimed, classically stereotyped images. Whether this is true or not, is still debatable. Secondly, the film was widely criticised on account of the extreme violence it portrayed.  In his defence Gibson was to say: ‘I wanted the film to be shocking; and I wanted it to be extreme ... So that people see the enormity of that sacrifice; to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule. The actual crucifixion,’ he said, ‘was far more violent than what was shown on the film.’

It’s true that over more than 2000 years much of the actual horror of crucifixion has been toned down or often presented in aesthetically acceptable ways in art. The reality was very different. In the ancient world, between the 6th century BC to the 4th century AD crucifixion was the most cruel and horrifying method of punishment widely used not just among the Romans, but among the Persians, the Carthaginians and the Macedonians. The Romans reserved this form of punishment for slaves, resistance fighters and what to them were the dregs of humanity, with the intention to degrade and humiliate in the process of death.

This then was a horribly brutal and ever present reality for Jesus and his disciples. As they travelled around Palestine, they would have seen naked, bloody and pitiful processions of the condemned dragging their crossbars to the place of execution. For Jewish men this mode of execution was particularly horrifying since the divine law of Moses had pronounced a special curse on those who died hanging on a tree.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus speaks frankly about his death and resurrection. He knows he is going to die and how he is going to die. And he wants to prepare his disciples for this. The disciples, however, at this point have their hearts and minds filled with thoughts of a Messiah, with power, with grandeur. The Gospel of Mark records that not so long ago they had seen demons cast out, a deaf and dumb man healed, the blind given sight, thousands fed in the desert with just a few resources. So they must have been riding high on a wave of euphoria and power.

And they just don’t get it when Jesus begins to talk of dying and not just dying, but of dying in the most shameful way possible. Not for the first time, Peter is the spokesperson for the rest of the disciples and takes Jesus aside to chide him. ‘You mustn’t say things like that,’ Peter says to Jesus. Peter wants Jesus to be king and not the suffering servant portrayed in Isaiah. Peter wants the glory of following the Messiah, but not the persecution. Peter is like many of us. He wants the easy road to success, one that we can understand, we who live in a world brought low by the credit crunch, where culturally we have been promised a great deal for very little and where the promise of easy gain for the few continues to cause great suffering for the many.

As a man, Jesus knew what it was to be tempted. But because of his integrity he also knew the path he must follow. This knowledge must have brought loneliness and fear. Which one of us is not afraid of pain, of suffering, of humiliation? So when Peter urges Jesus away from the road he must follow, his response is vehement. ‘Don’t put temptation in my way,’ is his reaction. And Jesus goes on to use the terrible image of carrying the cross to illustrate the ultimate submission to God that is required of his followers.

Priest and poet Michel Quoist was to write, ‘The way of the Cross winds through our towns and cities, our hospitals and battlefields, it takes the road of poverty and suffering in every form.’ And I take this to mean that it is here, at the heart of our pain, in our day to day lives, in our sickness, our loss, our bereavements and anguish, in the places we call failure, it is here that we encounter the God of love who himself suffered for us and died for us, a God who knows what our suffering is all about because He himself has borne it.

So our Lord urges us to take up our cross and to die to self. But Jesus also promises us that when we die to self we will receive new life. So how do we die to self and receive new life our own daily lives? Through the example of his own life our Lord taught us that when in our day to day lives people ignore us, when they neglect, insult or ridicule us, when they deny us our rights because of age, or gender or race and we can bear it all without returning the hurt, the insult, the slight, then we receive new life.

We receive new life when we are content with the things that God has given us, the circumstances of our lives whether we are rich or poor, when we stop trying to go one better than our neighbour, when we cease to strive continuously for the things that really don’t matter in the end, but instead focus on what really is of value such as the love of friends, the beauty and joy of the world around us, the goodness God sends our way in the form of little acts of kindness, the decency of ordinary people, the simple pleasures of a life peaceably and in harmony with the spirit of love that underpins the universe.

We receive new life when we never cease to strive to be the person God would like us to be, when we can accept correction for our wrongdoings with humility, no matter where or from whom it comes, when we can acknowledge before God that yes we have done wrong, yes we have failed, yes we are far from perfect but that the places where we fail are also places of opportunity from where we can begin to transform and change our lives.

And we receive new life when we can truly seek the good of another without self gain and work tirelessly towards this, when we can put someone else first, above our own opinions and desires, when we try to see people as God sees them and are not envious of their possessions, their success, their merits.

The way of the Christian, of the Cross is never an easy way. The concept of the Cross is failure to the world, says St Paul. The world would also have us believe that failure is the ultimate evil. But what if God chooses to meet us in the places where there is failure? What if he wants us to realise the reality of his love through the circumstances of our lives with all its joy and love but also its loss and suffering? We live in an age where success is measured by our houses, our cars, our jobs, our holidays. But what if God created us for an existence where instead love is the ultimate reality? We are often preconditioned culturally to believing that we need to be self sufficient, secure, independent. But what if God needs us to realise how utterly dependent we are on him?

In death, each one of us here will fall into the arms of a living, loving God. In both life and death we are utterly dependent on his mercy. Throughout our lives he continues to give to us yet in his mercy never seeks from us like for like. We have only to look at the stories of the Bible, at today’s story from Genesis, to realise that the blessings God bestows on us far outweigh anything he asks of us.

God promises Abraham heirs, property, power and wealth. In return, Abraham was asked to believe in God and obey him, leaving a known and secure existence to set out into the unknown. When you consider what Abraham gained, this was a very uneven transaction you might say. After all, we live in a world where everything has its price and we are brought up to expect that when we give something we do it in order to receive something of equal value.

But God doesn’t think like that and his values are not our values. And as he gave to Abraham, God gives us love through all the days of our lives, ever forgiving, ever merciful. And knowing our humanity, knowing our weaknesses, all he asks in return is our will to love and obey and our will to follow in his way.

The theologian William Barclay once wrote that the person who accepts Jesus enters into a relationship with God that neither time nor eternity can sever. Such a person goes not from life to death but from life to life. The Lord came to call us to life, not to death, to know what it means to really live. So let us make this Lent a time of new life, of growth, of reconnection with the life of God deep within us all.

I leave you with two little verses by Isaac Watts who lived 1674 to 1748 and who wrote a hymn that is venerated and loved by Christians through the ages:

‘When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.’