16 September 2018 Sermon for Proper 19, (St Nicholas, Great Wilbraham & St Vigor, Fulbourn)

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

May I speak in the name of the (+) Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It was my great fortune, or possibly misfortune, to discover one day on the Internet a sermon by the great American preacher and theologian Fred Craddock. That sermon, on the passage from Mark’s gospel we heard today, shook my beliefs and in particular my view of the church and the church’s mission. One line struck me in particular:

“It is faulty thinking that says the death of Jesus is the life of the world, and the death of the church is the end of the world.”

So much to think about. Is the death of the church a possibility? What would that even look like?

Looking at the news recently, things don’t look all that rosy. Less than two weeks ago we heard in the papers that the Church of England is facing a generational catastrophe. Only 2% of young adults identify with it, and 70% of under-24s say they have no religion.

Could we be seeing the beginning of the end? Whether it is that or not, we seem to be firmly set on playing the numbers game in the church. Every new central initiative now seems to be about boosting numbers: “going for growth”, “reform and renewal”, “raising the spiritual temperature”.

This all feels some way from the words spoken by Jesus in today’s gospel reading “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If we are involved in a quest to save the Church of England from collapse have we taken Jesus’ message seriously? “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

The 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: “a church which fights for its self-preservation, as though it were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world”. In other words, a church which fights for its self-preservation can’t preach the gospel.

And at times, it really does seem that the way the Church of England approaches its mission aims as self-preservation above everything else. If we do enough stuff, if we put on interesting activities, if we get enough people in, we’ll be OK. The church will be OK. The church will survive. We want to save our church so much, but could that desire be sucking the life out of it?

We will never be the ones that give the church life: only Christ can do that. Our work, our mission, in the church involves being sent by One who is faithful, and remaining faithful to Him. In Matthew’s gospel, think of the Great Commission where Jesus sends out the disciples, saying “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”. Or in John’s gospel where Jesus after he has been raised says “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

We are sent by Jesus, because he was sent by God the Father. We are missionary people, we are a mission-shaped church, only because God is a missionary God. The only mission possible for the church is the mission that God has already begun by sending His Son.

If we are to continue in this, then our mission must be Christlike, it must be Jesus-shaped. No aspect of Christ’s mission can be ignored, so the mission of the church will necessarily draw in Christ’s Incarnation; His Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension; the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; and then Christ’s second coming when his mission will be completed.

In today’s gospel, Jesus talks about being killed, and on the third day rising again. The crucifixion and resurrection are both in view. But it is the horror and shame of crucifixion that really looms over us here – deny yourself and take up your cross.

Who in the church wants to hear that? Peter certainly didn’t sound very keen.

When Peter recognises that Jesus is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, Jesus first tells Peter to keep his mouth shut, then tells him that he must be rejected, suffer and die. Oh, and Peter can tell as many people as he wants about that. Then, when Peter acts all concerned, Jesus calls him Satan! It only gets worse: not only must Jesus die, but his followers must give their lives as well.

Of course, Peter panics. He runs from the idea of a dead Jesus, just as he denies Jesus three times and flees before Jesus is led to his death.

Peter here takes the role the church has filled ever since: running from the idea that self-sacrifice and self-denial are needed to partake in God’s mission. Denying that there is a cross for the church to take up and bear.

“It is faulty thinking that says the death of Jesus is the life of the world, and the death of the church is the end of the world.”

I think of that line from that sermon every time I hear of a new initiative.

Or if you prefer the words of Jesus to those of Fred Craddock:

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Does “going for growth” sound more like a survival exercise, or losing our life for the sake of Christ and for the gospel?

Focussing on the cross does not mean we have forgotten the resurrection, but one cannot happen without the other. There would be no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. We do not know what resurrection may look like for the church in the 21st century, but as long as our survival instinct denies the need for the cross we may never know.

What might a church bearing its cross actually look like? It was former Archbishop William Temple that said, “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” So, in one sense it would look like a church for others, not for ourselves. Who does the church use its time, its people and its money for? Itself, or for others?

Are we in the business of saving our lives, or giving our lives? What does that mean, give your life? I turn again to Fred Craddock:

“What does that mean, give your life?
I think it means being able to empty your pockets for someone else’s children.
I think it means to treat as mother and father those who are not really your mother and father.
I think it means to claim as brother and sister people to whom you’re not kin.
I think it means to reach out and touch untouchable people as far as our society is concerned.
I think it means to sit at table with people who live far outside the tight social circle of some of your friends, and break bread together.
It means to continue to give money to others, even when the paint is peeling in the sanctuary.
I think it means that…”

I think so too.

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