In her sermon this week (21 June), Bishop Cherry examines the pressures of modern discipleship.
'Jesus urges us not to be afraid but to trust. For it’s only as we let go of everything and lose the life we might think we want - the life we think is best for us - that we find the life in all its extraordinary fullness that Jesus offers to all who love him above all others.'
Trinity 2 Sermon: 21st June 2020
One of the roles I held when I was Archdeacon up in Manchester was to be one of the bishop’s examining chaplains; meeting with people who were deemed ready to go to a Bishops Advisory Panel, commonly known as a BAP, for a final and rigorous set of interviews and group work. Many had already been on a long, sometimes years‘ long, journey to get to this point; a journey which had included interviews with various vocations officers and placements in different churches. When I met these potential ordinands for this, their final interview before their BAP, almost all of them would talk about a sense of call that wouldn’t go away; a feeling inside that this was where God was leading them and what God wanted them to do for him.
One interview stands out in my memory. It was with an Iranian woman who had fled to this country as a refugee with her husband and children. Her husband had converted to Christianity whilst in Iran and so his life was in danger. Not only that, their families had disowned them and he’d lost his job. Eventually, they came to the UK and made their way to south Manchester where there's a growing Iranian community, many of whom are members of the Iranian church there. Whilst in Manchester, after years of struggle within herself, she too became a Christian. And there began her journey towards ordination which led to her conversation with me. Although speaking in her second language, the way that she was able to tell her story and articulate her faith in Christ was striking. The family had lost everything and left everything. They’d had to start again from nothing in a foreign country that is often less than welcoming to refugees. And yet her face radiated joy and her desire bring others to experience the life-saving love of Jesus that she had come to know was palpable. There was no doubt in my mind that God was calling her to ordination.
In these Sundays after Trinity, the church focuses on Jesus’s teachings and miracles, and the Kingdom of God that is being brought in. We learn what it is to be a disciple, to be called to follow Jesus, and what it means to pattern our lives on his. And we don’t have to read too carefully to learn that it’s tough. Jesus regularly warns his followers about the cost of discipleship. It requires us to take up our cross and be prepared to be hated and persecuted for his sake. Many of our brothers and sisters across the world can testify to this. Some Christians will, today, be meeting in secret for fear of arrest and imprisonment. Others will be meeting in church buildings knowing very well that they are targets for bombing and gun attacks. Individuals turn to Christ knowing that they will be denounced by their family as a result. One story I heard was of a man whose brothers tried to murder him because of the perceived shame of having one of their own become a Christian.
Why do they do it, we could well ask. How do they do it? Where do they find the courage? The only reason there can be is the compelling call of Christ on their lives and the difference that knowing him makes - a difference that makes them prepared to sacrifice everything else to keep. The pearl of great price comes to mind.
In our gospel reading today, the warnings are clear. If Jesus, the master, is himself deemed to be Beelzebub, the devil, then how much more will his household, his followers be maligned. And again, in words that we might find quite shocking, Jesus warns, ‘don’t think for a moment that I've come to bring peace because I’ve not. I’ve come to bring a sword and to set family members against one another. But have no fear. Do not be afraid. Everyone who loses their life for my sake will find it.’ My Iranian candidate would certainly say a resounding Amen to that.
So what of us, here in Wales? We don’t have to fear persecution for our faith nor risk losing our lives or our freedom if we go to church. Indeed, compared to many of our sisters and brothers across the world, our discipleship here in the west might seem rather comfortable. Apart from the church finding itself the target of occasional ridicule and sneering, we’re able to practice our faith without any difficultly. Nevertheless, we are still to remain attuned to God’s call on our lives and to keep the flames of faith alive. This, not only so that we continue to grow in faith and love, but so that we're ready and prepared to give an account of ourselves when the opportunity presents itself.
If we’re honest, it’s easy to shy away from talking about our faith. That might be because we’re simply not used to doing it and we don’t feel equipped to do so. But it might also be out of fear of what others will say or think, or out of sense of embarrassment or not wanting to make others feel awkward. It might be our own sense of inadequacy that we don’t feel able to speak about our faith, or simply that British sense that religion and politics are taboo and not topics for polite conversation.
But we're living in an increasingly secular society where most people are now ignorant about faith and religion and there’s a growing number that are positively hostile. We’re seeing it in the workplace, we’re seeing it in schools and the push for an increasingly secularised curriculum. Religion is being silenced and sidelined. Talking about faith and its place in our lives, never mind the compelling call of God to love him above all else and everyone else, is getting more not less difficult.
In our gospel today, Jesus invites us to consider how ready we are to acknowledge him before others and how prepared we are lose everything for him. Whether with a family member, a friend or a work colleague, how ready are we to share that compelling love of God in Christ that draws and holds us, even if it risks being met with mockery or hostility? Jesus urges us not to be afraid but to trust. For it’s only as we let go of everything and lose the life we might think we want - the life we think is best for us - that we find the life in all its extraordinary fullness that Jesus offers to all who love him above all others.