Sermon at the Eucharist in honour of St Alphege of Deerhurst
The Priory Church of St Mary at Deerhurst
Friday 20 July 2012
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Take up your cross”, says Jesus to His friends, “and follow.” (Matthew 16.24) What is it that we take up? What is it that we carry when we start walking with Jesus Christ? Sometimes we talk about everyone having their ‘cross to bear’, usually when the car breaks down or when we have a minor disappointment about arranging our holidays; sometimes, more seriously, when some really trying, testing time arrives for us; sometimes just in a general way, acknowledging that life is not all we want it to be. We all have our cross to bear.
But it falls just a little bit short of what Jesus meant, and what His friends would have heard. At that time, ‘taking up your cross’ meant accepting that you were going to die the death of a slave, a terrible and painful fate. It meant accepting that your future was out of your hands; accepting that humiliation, as well as pain, was going to be your lot. It’s a very frightening command indeed, seen in that light. To be a follower of Jesus Christ means letting go of what you think is yours, the life you’d like to own and organise, the life you’d like to be the sort of life you’d like.
So the basic command and invitation of Jesus is: let go of that dream of being in charge of your life. That is a very counter-cultural message these days. We are told, a lot of the time, that the great thing is that we should take charge of our lives; that what we really want is autonomy and freedom and choice and all those other things. And it’s not terribly welcome to be told that what Jesus is inviting us to do is to let go of all that. If that were all there were to the Gospel, it would be rather hard to see why it could ever be called ”good news” if Jesus is simply saying to us “Get used to a future completely out of your hands, and don’t come running to me for help.”
But of course that’s not the good news, or anything like it. And when we think about the life of Saint Alphege, and the life of many of the saints and martyrs of God, we begin to get a glimpse of the other side of the coin. Saint Alphege, just to remind you, was kidnapped by the Vikings. Of the many fates that Archbishops of Canterbury have had over the centuries, I guess that was one of the least attractive. Kidnapped by the Vikings and held hostage. Demands were issued for a massive ransom. Saint Alphege refused to be ransomed, because he refused to buy his life at the expense of his impoverished and oppressed flock. He didn’t want to play the Viking game. He didn’t want to play the game of setting himself up as someone whose life was more important than the lives of those he served. He carried his cross by carrying his people. That’s what he carried – he carried the needs and concerns, the sufferings, of those he’d been called to serve. He carried other people.
And, no doubt, in those terrible long months of his captivity before he was at last brutally killed, his people were carrying him as well. In their desperate plight, attacked by the raiders, poor, downtrodden and helpless, they carried him in their prayers. They must have prayed for him at every mass. They held him in their hearts while he suffered, as he held them in his heart.
And so we begin to get a glimpse of something a bit different, and a bit more hopeful, than just that austere command to ‘carry your cross’, to put up with your helplessness. What we carry is one another. In the body of Christ, in the family of the Church, we carry one another. We bear one another’s burdens, as Saint Paul puts it. We carry one another in prayer – quite simply, we remember the suffering of our brothers and sisters in our minds and hearts, day by day and week by week. And we depend on the prayers of others. We know that we live and we flourish as believers, our spirits and hearts come alive, not because we’re wonderful but because other people are praying for us. And we may never know quite what that means in practice and in detail.
Bishops and archbishops get prayed for quite a lot – and doubtless in varying tones of voice! But occasionally, when people sympathetically say to me “We’ve been praying for you”, my first thought is “Goodness, just think how much worse it would have been if they hadn’t been praying for me.” And that sense – that our health, our life and our welfare is in each other’s hands – that’s the other side of the coin. “Yes”, says Jesus; “Let go. Empty your hands. The future is not yours to control. You don’t own the world, and you can’t organise it.” But in the very moment when you let go, it is as if somebody else takes your hands, and says “I’ll carry you.” I have no power over my future. But someone else – indeed the whole family of Christ that I belong to – is holding me and helping me along. And that’s my task, as I try to let go – not simply to sink into apathy or despair, but to let go and say to God “Use me for the welfare of my neighbour.”
In this family of Jesus Christ, the cross we carry is one another.
It doesn’t mean, of course, that other people are consistently and invariably a source of pain and suffering to us – not even in the Church! The French philosopher was wrong when he said “Hell is other people.” For the Christian, heaven is other people. The family of God, the other people God gives us in friendship and fellowship, they are our Heaven. And woe betide us if we forget that responsibility for one another and that willingness to be carried along by one another. The willingness to ask one another for help, to ask one another for prayer, for nourishment, so that we may grow.
So the saints and martyrs are not there just to say to us “Look how wonderful and heroic individual Christians can be.” They are there to remind us that holy lives are lives in which people generously, trustfully, let go of their fears, their anxieties and their longing for independence, and let themselves be carried by the prayer and love of others, and above all by the love of God. And in our church, our task is that carrying of one another. It’s because of that that we are able, in the words of the prophet that we heard, to pass through the water, through the fire (Isaiah 43.1-7). It’s because of that faithfulness to one another that we are able to live and to grow. The greatest task given to us in the Church is to be faithful to one another. We know we have to be faithful to God, and this is the way we do it: by being faithful to one another and carrying one another along.
Because that, of course, is the underlying truth of the cross of Jesus. How and why does Jesus carry the cross? Because He is faithful to those God has given Him. He knows that for them to live and flourish and rejoice, He must risk everything. And He knows that if He is to be faithful to what He alone can do, if He is to be faithful to the God who has called Him, then He must be faithful to the path of risk and the path of suffering. But before we get too focused on the suffering, let’s remember the faithfulness. It’s because God is so passionate about us, so devoted to us, so consistent in His love and promise to us, that Jesus goes to the cross.
And we heard again in the Old Testament lesson something of God’s passionate enthusiasm for His people. In the terms of the Old Testament, it was about how God is willing to give anything and everything to rescue His people from the ends of the earth. But in the New Testament, we have just that crucial extra: God is willing to give anything and everything, including His very life, His divine glory, His divine distance, His divine safety. He gives it all away and puts Himself in our hands, so that He may take us in His hands and teach us that our life together as Christians is about carrying one another in our need.
So, dear friends, as we think about what it is to be baptised, as we celebrate this evening the meaning of the fact that we’re baptised into God’s family, into Christ’s body, perhaps that can be at the centre of our thought and prayer. We’re involved with one another now. We’re summoned to carry one another, to be there for one another’s need, to help one another grow. We’re here, ambitious as it sounds, to be God’s gift to one another. Not in the sense we sometimes use those words – “He thinks he’s God’s gift to mankind” – but, quite literally and seriously, to be the way in which God gives hope and life and growth to the person next to us, and next to them, and to the people we’re never going to see or meet. The people we hold in our hearts, and carry in our hearts and in our prayers.
At the very beginning of our service sheets this evening, you’ll read the paragraphs about the Diocese of Western Tanganyika and about the health project in Sierra Leone. We’re reminded by those paragraphs of what it means to be baptised. To be baptised is to carry the cross of faithfulness. These are people, these are friends, brothers and sisters that God has given to us – and we are the gifts God has given to them. We exchange the gift of our prayer, our love and our faithfulness. We carry one another in the family of God. And that’s how we carry our cross: by being faithful to what’s given to us, by being faithful dispensers of love and hope to one another.
That is, at its most dramatic, the mystery of martyrdom, when people like Alphege really do let go of control and safety, and really do lay down their lives. There are martyrs who still to it today in parts of the world, in those persecuted churches where confessing the name of Christ really and literally puts your life at risk. They do it because they want to be faithful to the God who’s been faithful to them, and because they want to be faithful to all their fellow Christians too, and not to let them down. And we, in our prayer and support, have to be faithful to them in their suffering.
That’s the most dramatic example. But think of all the undramatic examples. Think of all the local, prosaic, domestic ways in which we’re called to carry one another – in a single congregation, in a single community, in a diocese, in the Church of England, in our nation – to carry one another, and so carry the cross of Christ’s faithfulness. If that’s what our baptism means, let’s take it up. Take up its cross. Not with a sigh, not with reluctance, not with trembling, but with a serious sense that God is asking us, in the community of baptised people, to carry each other in our need; to be the means by which God will help our neighbour grow and live and flourish. If we are truly able to carry one another in this way, well, believe it or not, we will give as much glory to the name of God in Jesus Christ as did the martyr Saint Alphege in his terrible and dramatic end.
Remember, God doesn’t ask each one of us to be the same kind of saint. Otherwise the history of the Church would be very boring indeed – and whatever you think of the history of the Church, boring it isn’t, any more than the present reality of the Church is boring. No, we’re each of us asked to glorify God, and to reflect God’s gifts in a unique way. And, as has often been said, at the end of the ages we shan’t be asked, each one of us, “Why weren’t you Saint Alphege?” We’ll be asked “Why weren’t you you?” “Why didn’t you carry what I gave you to carry?” God will say. But I hope that by the grace of God, shared with us in community, shared with us in the family of Christ, we will indeed be able to become the person God wants us to be. Not Saint Alphege, not Saint Peter, not Saint Teresa or whoever else, but the particular holy person God wants each of us to be. The way to it is to be carried and to carry.
Christ Himself, we’re told in the letter to the Hebrews, carried this burden because of the joy that was set before Him. And we shouldn’t ever for a moment forget that joy that is before us, carrying one another in this way, letting go of our defences, letting go of our fears so that we can carry one another’s need. That is the way to life and the way to joy. Not the kind of joy we might have ordered for ourselves from the mail-order catalogue, but the kind of joy that God Himself wants to give us, and wants us to share with the world. May we be such a sharing, joyful, caring community.