Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, 30th August 2020
Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27
In communist Poland, the government of Prime Minister Jaruzelski ordered crucifixes to be removed from all public buildings. The ban stirred waves of anger and resentment all across Poland and the bishops condemned it. Ultimately the government relented, and said that though the law must remain on the statute books, it would not press for removal of the crucifixes, particularly in schoolrooms.
But one zealous Communist school administrator in Garwolin decided that the law had to be followed and he removed seven large crucifixes from lecture halls where they had hung since the school had been built. A few days later, a group of parents entered the school and hung up more crosses. The administrator took them down as well.
Then two-thirds of the school's 600 students staged a sit-in. Heavily armed riot police arrived and evicted them. They then marched to a nearby church with the crucifixes held high and were joined by 2500 other students from nearby schools for a morning of prayer in support of the protest. Soldiers surrounded the church. However pictures from inside of students holding crosses high above their heads spread around the world; as did the words of the priest who declared: “without a cross, there is no Poland.”
Those students followed the instruction of Jesus literally: they took up their crosses. The bravery of protesters who stand up to oppressive regimes is impressive. They risk beating, imprisonment and torture in standing up for what they believe to be right. It takes a brave person to stand up to a dictator; the solidarity of a crowd can help stiffen resolve.
Jeremiah warned the people against idolatry and of the perils facing Jerusalem, and after its fall to Babylon he was forced into exile in Egypt where he continued to reproach his countrymen for their idolatry. Jeremiah expresses the dilemma that faces the prophet: to speak out or remain silent. The prophet who tells people what they do not want to hear will not win friends. Jeremiah was made miserable by derision and insult. He resolved to remain silent and say no more for the sake of an easy life, but when he decided not to think about God or speak in his name, he could not contain himself, he burned with the zeal of the Lord, and could not resist speaking out. Prophecy was the cross that Jeremiah had to bear. He had to be the spokesman of God. He tried to resist picking up that cross but he couldn’t.
We all have our crosses to bear; we often say that when trying to put our own suffering into perspective. Our cross is particular to each one of us, dependent on our circumstances. Some crosses, such as those of illness, we may have no choice over; others we can either receive or reject. Whatever those crosses may be, if we can embrace them willingly, difficult though that may be, and ask for the grace of God to help us bear them we stand a better chance of thriving rather than just surviving.
The cross and suffering loomed large throughout the life of Jesus as the inevitable consequence of his ministry. He sharply put down Peter after he said that the Messiah should not suffer. It was as though St Peter had touched a nerve, that Jesus was back in the wilderness facing the temptation to seek worldly glory and fall under the devil’s sway. Hence the retort ‘Get behind me Satan.’ He would again face the temptation to turn away from suffering in the garden of Gethsemane, where in anguish his sweat fell like drops of blood. He asked that the cup of suffering be taken from him, before resigning himself to the will of the Father.
Jesus gave no illusions to those who would be his followers. To be a Christian would not bring them glory and praise but hardship and suffering. Not a great selling point for a religion, it must be admitted.
But there is great peace of mind from knowing that you are acting in accordance with what you perceive to be God’s will. If you get that right, and answer that big question everything else will follow. St Paul recommends that we offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice, and not conform to the changeable and fickle ways of the world, but to hold true to higher ideals. By raising our minds above the mundane we can better discern God’s will for us.
And sometimes that might mean going against popular opinion, challenging injustice, standing up to mistreatment and bullying behaviour, putting others first and ourselves last. That can be difficult and leave us isolated, but often by making a stand like those students in Poland, we just need to make a stand, and others may join us.
As Christians we never lead, we simply follow the Master along the path he trod, the selfless way of the cross.