Sermons & services

Sermon for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Published Sunday 13th Sept. 2020, at 3:48 p.m.

Now I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that we all live in a hugely consumerist society. Our wants and needs are being constantly stimulated by producers. Ever since Henry Ford started it, producers have been trying to convince us that our lives will not be complete without the thing they want us to buy. But this has created a kind of enslavement. As someone once said, In a consumer society there are two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy. Even in the midst of the pandemic, we’ve still been buying online, and now that the shops are open sales are bouncing back which, of course, on a number of levels, is a good thing. But the rise of our consumer society over the last century or so, has created a mental attitude of consumerism to which we have all succumbed to a greater or lesser degree. I know I have. Me, books and Amazon are not a good combo! The issue is this: no one part of our lives is insulated again other parts. All the bits of our life have an effect on the other bits. So our consumerism begins to seep into other areas of our life, including our church life. Many writers on modern Christianity have observed how, especially in the consumerist West, people go to church to get something. They’ve put something in: they’ve made the effort to schlepp into church: they now expect to get something out at the end of it. Church becomes a kind of consumer transaction. Many preachers today, particularly in the United States and parts of African, preach what’s been called a Gospel of Prosperity. Here’s the definition in Wikipedia: it is a “religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, He will deliver security and prosperity.” Now the issue here for me is a simple one: in this version of the Gospel, where is the Cross of Christ? Yes, God wants us to enjoy a good life, perhaps even a prosperous life. The Earth is good and God created it for us to enjoy. Poverty is not part of any divine plan I believe in. So is this Prosperity Gospel, Consumer Christianity, the Christian faith? And if it is, how does it square with the words of Jesus himself: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). Where is the promise of wealth and good health here? Christ didn’t become Incarnate so that we could live a comfortable life free of all illness or suffering. Christ didn’t come so that we could live a painless life. Christ didn’t carry His cross so that we would never have to carry a cross. Rather, Christ came that we might have life and have it more abundantly. And the heart of it all is the Cross: as St Paul put it, “But God forbid that I should glory, except in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me and I to the world.” -Galatians 6:14 The Cross of Christ is a paradox: it’s the paradox of us possessing life through death! It is in dying to ourselves that we are reborn. It is through dying to ourselves that we find our true selves, made in the image and likeness of God. It is through dying to ourselves that we are finally able to love God and others. It is through dying to ourselves that we finally find peace and true joy. It is through dying to ourselves that we are no longer obsessed with ourselves! But there are no short cuts: there is only the Cross. But if that all sounds a little scary, then bear this in mind. From a practical point of view, to die to ourselves doesn’t necessarily involve massive dramatic gestures. This ‘dying to ourselves’ involves dying every day in the little things of life: dying to the little acts of selfishness, the little acts of unkindness or harsh words, the little acts of careless talk, the little acts of untruth or betrayal. Always start with the little things. It means that we don’t have to be preoccupied with ourselves anymore. We don’t have to show the world how much harder we work than anyone else. We no longer have to try to get our way all the time or try to get people to notice how clever we are or how good looking we are (though some of us gave up on that one a long time ago!). We no longer have to insert ourselves into other people’s conversations or give our expert opinion on the subject of the day. We can be free from constantly seeking pleasure and comfort. We can be free from needing the approval of others. And as we die to ourselves, the “new man”, made in the image and likeness of God, can emerge and grow. And as all the selfishness and self-centeredness dies away, as we pick up our crosses, more room is made for Christ, for His love and for love of others. And remember, we can only love others with Christ’s love. We can finally put God and our neighbour first. St John the Baptist shows us the way: he must increase, I must decrease. And St Paul gives the result: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. We all missed Good Friday this year. It’s customary on that day to venerate the Cross: with a kiss, with a bow, with silence. But in order to truly venerate the Cross, we need to do more than just kiss it. We need to embrace it as a way of life. That’s what Jesus clearly wants us to do and calls us to do. He never said to us, “I’m taking up the Cross so that you don’t have to.” Rather he said, “If you wish to be my disciple, you must deny yourself, take up your Cross every day, and follow me” and “whoever does not take up the Cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” We’re here – I hope – because we want to be the disciples of the Lord, followers of Jesus, in our own day. We want to follow him all the way to heaven. But to do this, we need to follow him to Calvary; we need to learn to walk the Way of the Cross. Amen.