Reflection for Sunday 28th February 2021

By Rev Christopher Gray on February 28, 2021


I remember vividly the first time that Viv and I first saw the film version of “Billy Elliott” at the cinema. I remember being hooked by its potent mixture of beauty and ugliness, violence and grace,
humour and sadness. It is set in a Durham coastal mining village during the time of the miners’ strike of the 1980’s. Billy’s discovery of dance as a graceful, poetic and powerful way of
expressing his emotions is contrasted with the violence and brutality surrounding the strike.
There is one scene in the film in which riot police are pictured getting ready to protect strike breaking miners as they go to work. The police look like American footballers or ice hockey
players preparing for a match, putting on pads and helmets, gloves and special outer clothing. Only this wasn’t a game. In the mining communities of the time this was real. Missiles would be thrown. And as someone who lived in a Derbyshire mining community through those times, I well remember the prevailing atmosphere of tension and anger.

More widely in human experience, in any situation of living under occupation, or living under a dictator’s or a single party’s dominating control, or being part of a minority group, it is always dangerous to step out of line, to protest or just to think differently. Witness the crushing of opposition that happens in
places like China, Myanmar or Russia.

The friends and followers of Jesus were also well used to living in a constant atmosphere of danger and tension. They too lived in perilous times. Galilee, their home, was a place from which revolutions regularly began. Holy people, hoping that God would act and deliver them, would lead some sort of rebellion against the Romans, and end up getting crucified. Indeed, in Galilee, any new leader, any prophet, any teacher with something fresh to say was likely to go the same way. Consequently, the disciples must have known that by following Jesus they were taking risks. After all, they had just seen Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist, beheaded for criticizing King Herod. Nevertheless, in spite of all this, Peter and the others had just declared Jesus to be the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living
God. They believed that this time things were going to be different. Yes, there would be risks. Yes, they might have a few things thrown at them on the way. But they believed that Jesus
was going to lead the people to victory over their Roman occupiers and bring freedom from oppression. It would all end in triumph and glory. So how startling, how confusing for the disciples when Jesus
begins to teach them something new. And the new lesson wasn’t just that there might be danger ahead, a few rocks and missiles thrown in his direction. The new lesson was that Jesus had to walk straight into danger itself. Nor would it be some sort of risky gamble that might just pay off. It would be certain death. This was what he had to do. (V31) He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered
over to human hands. He will be killed…

Now, this was not what Peter and the rest of them had in mind. Whatever they imagined Jesus was going to do, they certainly did not think of him as going straight to his death. No wonder Peter reacts as he does, takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. True Messiahs don’t get killed by the authorities.
True Messiahs lead people to victory and freedom. A dead Messiah would be shown to be a false Messiah.
But Jesus reacts with fury:
(V33) He rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but merely human concerns.”

And then Jesus makes it worse! He invites his disciples, and us, to come and be losers alongside him.
(V34) Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

All this is madness from a human point of view. Who wants to set out on a cause that you know will end in disaster, defeat and calamity? It’s all madness. But from God’s point of view it is absolutely right, for this is the way in which the Kingdom of God will come. In fact, it is the only way. The Kingdom of God challenges and overturns all normal human assumptions about power and glory, and about what is
really important in life and in the world. The Kingdom of God comes through sacrificial self-giving love. Through the suffering and death of Jesus would come resurrection. Through the sacrificial, cross-carrying love of his followers, will come the new life of God’s kingdom on earth. The call to follow Jesus is always a call to sacrifice. There is always a cost involved in being obedient to God; something that
Peter had clearly not understood.

We all know what sacrifice means in daily life. I remember speaking to a young mother in a toddler group who by nature is not at her best in the mornings. But she knows that when one of her children cries in the night, she is up and out of bed and with them, feeding them, comforting them, whatever they need and whatever the personal cost to her in terms of cold and discomfort. She does this without question and because of her relationship with her child. She knows you cannot have blessing without cost.

And, of course, we have all made huge personal sacrifices over the last year. We have denied ourselves touch and close contact with friends and loved ones, even in times of acute distress. We have accepted restrictions to our freedoms. And we have watched the enormous personal sacrifices of those in the
medical, caring and service professions for the sake of the wellbeing of others. For we know that you cannot have blessing without cost.

I suggest that Christian sacrificial living in response to God has the same feel to it. We may not have to die for our faith, nor indeed do anything dramatic, (although there are many across our world who do), but there may need to be countless daily sacrifices of our own comfort and security for the sake of the
gospel. There may be many times when our own preferences cannot have priority. There is no blessing without cost and no kingdom of God without sacrifice.

I cannot tell you what taking up the cross should involve for you. Only you can answer that. However, I can guess at some of the sacrifices many of you make: of time, energy and finance for (y)our church, for example; or the determination to build a relationship with God through saying your prayers or reading the Bible when frankly you just don’t feel like doing it; or the willingness to follow the way of Jesus and speak truth openly and honestly when it would be so much easier to stay silent; or the sacrifices you make for your families, friends and marriages; or the sacrifices you make for the charities and causes you support.

All of this is Christian obedience. All of this is part of following Jesus along the way of the cross.
But here comes the surprise. This is the way of total freedom. (V35) For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. If you clutch your life wholly to yourself, protecting it against all others, asserting your rights, needs and privileges, you lose it
because it isn’t yours any longer. If, however, you acknowledge that life is not yours by right, that it’s a privilege, a gift from God, and that it is to be lived in the love that the gospel story reveals – self-giving love – then you possess it wholly. There is now nothing to lose and everything to gain. Supposing you gain all the world’s riches, says Jesus, and lose the inner freedom of loving and being loved by God – what then?

What will you give in exchange for the knowledge of God living in you? This is the choice being offered by Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man. To return to Billy Elliott: hours of practice, hours of foolishness in the practice room, hours of ridicule from those who knew him, hours of personal discipline – what is the result of all that sacrifice? The glorious liberty and total fulfilment of the dancer!
The news of the cross, the way of the cross, the way of obedience to which we are called, is actually the way to freedom and fulfilment. Let us walk that way with courage and with hope.

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