I first met Graham Turnbull in 1994. In the previous couple of years he’d felt God calling him to work in Rwanda. He’d left his job as a solicitor & trained to teach English as a Foreign Language. He left the UK in 1994 to travel overland to Rwanda – taking a landrover to the place he’d be working there.
As he was travelling, the genocide started in Rwanda and many people were killed. Graham was unable to enter Rwanda and I shared a house with him for two weeks in Kisoro in Uganda.
When the troubles subsided, he taught for 2 years in a place called Cyangugu in Rwanda. But he began to feel that he should be working for the UN as an ‘observer’. Observers travelled round Rwanda ensuring a visible international presence and so keeping violence to a minimum, a risky venture. His friends and family prayed it through with him, and in spite of the dangers agreed that God did seem to be calling him to this role.
Less than two months after he joined the UN there was an item on the BBC evening news – 5 UN observers had been killed in an ambush. Graham was the one Briton in the team. He was 37 years old when he died. …………..
God called Graham to Rwanda and led him to work with the UN. Graham gave his life in God’s service.
I wonder, is this what Jesus means in our Gospel reading when he says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Is he calling us to his kind of sacrificial lifestyle?
For many Christians around the world, this does indeed seem to be the case. The majority of saints who fill the Anglican calendar were martyred for their faith. There were more Christians tortured and killed in the 20th Century than throughout the whole of the history of the Church before that. But is Jesus calling us to that level of self-sacrifice?
Last week (on Sunday 23rd August 2020) those of us following the Anglican lectionary heard Peter acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. Now we hear Jesus talking of his death, placing the Cross right at the centre of what it means to understand him as Messiah. Jesus is saying, very clearly, that his disciples, that we, will not understand him unless we understand the cross, and in some incomprehensible way take it on board for ourselves. In this passage, Jesus isn’t calling us to martyrdom, but rather to making the Cross central in our lives.
Why is the cross so important, so crucial in our understanding of Jesus as King, as Messiah?
Lesslie Newbigin says that the Cross “is the supreme parable: the kingdom of God, both hidden and manifest in the dying of a condemned and excommunicated man.”
Jesus says: “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die it will bear no fruit.”
Paul talks of the cross as demonstrating God’s weakness, a mystery that shows that God’s weakness is stronger than our strength.
The cross was the place where sin was defeated, where redemption was won, where Jesus opened a door for us back into God’s presence. The Bible claims that at the place of seeming weakness, the greatest victory was won.
So what does Jesus mean when he talks of us taking up our cross?
Let me suggest three different things: the Cross is about identification, about self-denial/sacrifice and about weakness.
In Phil. 3:10, Paul says: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Graham, whom I mentioned earlier, and others like him have paid the ultimate price for commitment to Christ. Persecution continues throughout the world and we are called to ‘identify’ with those who are experiencing Christ’s sufferings. To read their stories, to pray for them, to write to them and to their persecutors, to demonstrate Christ’s love in action.
Do we really understand as individuals and as congregations, what Jesus means by self-denial? Is there any evidence of the Cross in our life together? Are we prepared to make ourselves vulnerable so that others might know God’s love? Are we willing to let our guard down – let others see our weaknesses, our fears, perhaps let others know about how God has helped us? Perhaps, for us, self-denial means giving time or energy to serving Jesus in different ways in the Church family.
Some of us are very conscious of our weakness, conscious of pain, and of suffering. The Cross of Christ, the Cross we are called to take up, makes it clear that Christ identifies with our weakness and pain. It promises that in facing our weakness we will find God. Not when we are strong, not when life is wonderful, but most clearly, most real-ly, when we are at our point of greatest weakness, when the night is dark, when everything seems to be destroying us. Then, when we are weak Christ not only walks alongside us, but in the words of the poem ‘Footprints’ so loved by many, it is then that he carries us.
The Cross shows us a God: “who comes to us from beneath. He enters our world through its weakness, its wounds, its places of rejection. He shares our emptiness. He enters the absence of all we long for and becomes it. He makes it his own. He enters our desolation so completely that he makes our deepest cry his own, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?'”
The cross is central. We are very unlikely to be called, like Graham Turnbull, to sacrificing our lives for the Gospel. But in the Cross, Jesus calls us to service, to self-denial, to sacrifice – and with every fibre of his being, Jesus understands and identifies with our sense of weakness.