Paradoxical freedom: sermon for 29 September 2014 (St Stephen’s communion)

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 28 September 2014

SERMON
Texts:  Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Paradoxical freedom

A few years ago, former Pope Benedict XIV, pondering why is Christianity is so unpopular in Europe today, said that he thought many people were put off Christianity because they think that, he said, that ‘Christianity is composed of laws and bans which one has to keep’ which is ‘something toilsome and cumbersome’ I didn’t often agree with Benedict, but I think he was right that time. Many people do think that Christianity- in its Catholic or Protestant forms- is cumbersome. I happen to believe that believing in Christ sets us free. But that is not always how it is seen.

Even those of us within the Church are in danger sometimes of seeing our faith as something cumbersome, rather than something which really sets us free. Indeed, you could argue that today’s scripture readings seem to bear that out. Jesus gives us a rather frightening image of what discipleship might be about: ‘If anyone wants to come with me, he must forget self, carry his cross, and follow me’. Peter and the other disciples were startled when they heard those words- ‘God forbid!’ says Peter, when Jesus speaks this way. For they would remember in their mind’s eye condemned criminals they had seen dragging their crosses on the way to the place of execution. Very soon, indeed, that would be Jesus’ own fate. For this passage is the turning point in Matthew’s Gospel- the point at which Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, where he will meet his doom. Jesus’ comment about carrying a cross foreshadows what lies ahead for him.

And those who would follow him? They are to carry a cross as well? It seems as if they are to become criminals, outcasts from society, objects of scorn and derision, who have only a slow lingering death ahead of them. Other faiths might offer enlightenment to their followers- Christianity speaks to be about carrying a cross. Our contemporary world seems to offer freedom from rules and morality. Christianity offers the seeming ‘burden’ of carrying a cross.

It is amazingly easy for Christianity to be turned into a set of rules. Sometimes Christianity has indeed seemed like a burden, squeezing life out of people. In the Highlands we remember joyless Sabbaths, imposed on everyone. Until recently I assumed that the tales I’d heard of children’s swings in public parks being chained up on Sundays was a tale put about by secularist- but no, apparently it’s true, that used to happen in Inverness. No wonder many people react strikingly against a religion of joyless, burdensome, stupid rules.

People today who are brought up to believe that there are no rules, or only those that suit you, have a deep-seated suspicion of Christianity, because too often it has seems like too much of a burden. They say they are going to choose to do without the burden of religion, that they will make their own way in life without it, that they will choose freedom. And yet, this much vaunted freedom we are supposed to have… I wonder about it. Tell me exactly- what exactly did sexual freedom do for poverty-stricken single mother and her fatherless child? Or that wonderful idea that developed in the sixties, that mind-altering substances would free our mind- how exactly has that contributed to making our communities safer and happier? Where exactly is the freedom for someone who works long hours and suffers from stress in our 24 hours a day society? Just how do the binge-drinkers of a Saturday night expect to find ultimate fulfilment? Pope Benedict also had something to say about that as well. He said, ‘Freedom is not simply about enjoying life, but rather about living by the measure of truth and goodness’. Benedict XIV- Joseph Ratzinger- was never going to be my favourite theologian- but he was on to something here. Freedom is nothing, unless it is in service to truth and goodness.

Even when people say they are free from the constraints of religious ethics- is that really true? A generation or so ago, marriage was the norm because, well, that’s what most people did. Today, marriage customs have changed. It is perfectly respectable to choose to have create a family without getting married. It seems to suit many people very well. But I suspect that few who go down that road do so thinking through the moral implications. Instead, they have learned from their friends, from the media, that it’s okay to have a family without being married. No-one will condemn you for making that choice, because it is respectable nowadays. But I doubt if many people decide that as a moral choice. Peer pressure has replaced priest pressure. Even in a secular society, it’s hard to be a real nonconformist, because most people tend to do as everyone else does. And so often people keep to the rules simply out of fear- because they feel they have to conform.

For it cannot just be about rules. Christianity is also about hope, and faith. In the passage we heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans, the apostle gives the Christians of Rome a long list of things they should do- love each other, work hard, share their belongings, bless your enemies, share each other’s joys and sorrows. You could do all that, and it might kill you, for it’s hard to be nice all the time. Paul realised that, and one of his major teachings was that Christian faith was not about trying to be good. So included in this passage are these words: ‘Let your hope keep you joyful’. For there is nothing worse than someone who tries to be good all the time, but who has no joy- the do-gooder who seems to have not joy in life. But if you have hope, you can do these all these things with joy. You will love your neighbours and your enemies, not because it’s your duty, but because God loves you- and them! It’s not just because you have to conform.

Jesus went to the cross because he would not conform. He said things that upset both Jewish leaders and Roman rulers. But he chose freely to take up his cross, and to go to Jerusalem. He was free, because his mind and thoughts were focussed on God’s kingdom- not on his own comfort or popularity. He never did give in to peer pressure. He was his own man, because he was the servant of God. And there is a paradox which many of our contemporaries find hard to understand. The person who puts God before all else is the person who is really free.

And for we who try to follow Jesus? The fact is that disciplined Christian discipleship brings other kinds of freedom. What used to be called ‘consolations of religion’- worship, prayer, scripture, the sacraments, preaching- these require a kind of discipline. For example, if you really want to benefit spiritually from worship, you should attend worship as much as possible. That’s not a harsh rule, but a thoughtful discipline, based on experience- it’s good advice. Here at this table is the Bread of Life, food for our eternal journey.

St Paul advises Christian disciples, ‘Let your hope keep you joyful, be patient in your troubles, and pray at all times’ (Romans 12.12). This is not the ‘crutch’ which many people dismiss religious observance as. If you have hope, you will be joyful. There is something beyond your next pay day to look forward to. You can be patient in your troubles, and avoid anger, because you know that God goes with you. Joy, our contemporaries think, has to do with enjoyment- party-going, winning the lottery, having a baby. But Christian joy is something much deeper, something that remains a deep, deep level even when we hit hard times. It is a joy which can only come from knowing that there is a God who will not, ultimately, let you go.

You know, one of the worst things about that image of carrying a cross is the destination. When Jesus talked of having to carry a cross, the disciples knew where to. People in Roman times who carried crosses were going to their death. That’s one of the reasons that seems such a terrible image. Well, I have news for you. Even if you throw away your cross, you are still be walking to your death. In our secular world, death is still the big taboo. Secularists deny death as much as possible, or make light of it. When it finally bursts in, death is the one thing our secular society simply doesn’t cope with.

Oh, there are a few heroic and true atheists who will tell you that they accept that there is nothing beyond death, and they work hard at life as a result. But most of the rest of the population are as fearful as ever. And so when tragedy strikes, they want the churches opened, and they lay flowers and light candles and do all kinds of basically things to comfort themselves- but without the traditional consolations of religion. For in their eagerness to be free, they have left that behind. Their secular peers have told them that there is no God, and so there is no hope. And so their joy is shallow, for their lives are basically hope-less. Secularism, or humanism as it is often misnamed, is really a religion. But it’s a pretty rubbish religion, for it offers no hope.

But we who follow Christ can gather around a table. This is a table of hope, even although, and in fact because, it takes us back to the cross- to that Last Supper before Christ went to the cross. For what the disciples did not know that night, and what we now know, is that Christ’s the way to the cross would be a way of hope. For the cross is followed by resurrection. God will not let us go- not now, not in the future, not ever. That’s why the cross has become the universal symbol of Christianity. We often think of it as a sign to remind us of Christ. But whenever we see it should also remind us of our own responsibility and joy- Christ’s call to us to shoulder our cross and follow him. Another Christian paradox- this instrument of execution has become a symbol of hope. For the cross reminds Christians that death has been defeated, that death has no sting, that resurrection follows death. Suffering is the inevitable lot of all human beings. Our secular world tries to deny this, for it has no answer to suffering and death. But the cross takes confronts suffering head-on- faith does not try to avoid reminders of death, but faces up to them head on.

And so the paradox that the cross- a stark reminder of death- stands as a symbol of hope for Christians. ‘For whoever wants to save his own life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’, says Jesus. To be really free, we are to take up our cross and follow Christ. For the cross tells of God’s presence even in suffering, and points towards the joy of resurrection. And so those who take up their cross and follow Christ are truly free, for they are free of the fear of death.

Ascription of Praise
Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who by his great mercy
in raising Jesus Christ from the dead
has given us new birth into a living hope:
the hope of an inheritance reserved in heaven for us
which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither! Amen!

From 1 Peter 1.3-4

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo