Today we’re thinking about something I’m calling the Cross-Shaped Life.
What does a cross-shaped life look like and what is it like to live one?
I’ve taken the phrase from the gospel today where Jesus warns his disciples he’s going to the cross. Peter, after scoring an A in discipleship last week, gets downgraded by the algorithm to a D, after clashing with Jesus over this.
Peter rebukes him: ‘God forbid that this should happen to you Lord.’ Basically he doesn’t want Jesus to suffer, but Jesus has to point out to him that the Messiah will embrace suffering in order to redeem it.
But Peter doesn’t understand, and none of the disciples really get it either. I’m sure if we had been in their shoes we wouldn’t have understood it. It’s only with two millennia of reflection on the cross and resurrection that we can even begin to spot what Richard Rohr calls this ‘universal and deeper reality at the heart of things’ (The Universal Christ, p.91).
Our reading from Romans is headed ‘Marks of a True Christian’. Sometimes it’s obvious that some of the things that apparently parade as true Christianity are not. One of the worrying things about the US Christian scene is the huge over identification of the Evangelical Right with the Republican Party, which tends to lead to a highly suspect kind of Christian Nationalism. Its general support for President Trump leaves many UK Christians totally bemused.
Conservative Christians in Korea, meanwhile, have been attending mass anti-government rallies and spreading the Corona virus as they do so: is this the mark of a True Christian? We might admire their desire to stand up for their beliefs, but are they just bringing the gospel into disrepute? It’s sometimes less easy to see what is or isn’t true Christianity.
So we have this morning a practical list in Romans of the qualities Paul assigns to a Christian fellowship, and in Matthew, we have the way of the cross that Jesus actively embraces; and not only embraces, but encourages all his followers to embrace.
What does it look like for us to live a cross shaped life, in the footsteps of Jesus?
- A cross-shaped life is one where we’re loving, but also canny about evil.
- A cross-shaped life is one where we’re open and undefended.
- A cross-shaped life is one where we’re willing to let go.
Loving AND canny about evil.
All you Scots out there will know that to be canny, means to be knowing: it can also mean pleasant or nice; but canny in the sense I’m using it means that we’re not simpletons about evil. Whilst we pursue goodness and peace and all the other qualities one would hope for from Christians, we also have insight into the things that are profoundly wrong in the world: ‘hate what is evil, hold onto what is good’.
There’s a balance here. There will be resistances to the love of God and some of them are violent. The Christian way, though, is to bless enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
With the advent of social media it’s become increasingly hard to resist the easy polarization of goodies and baddies. Putting people into camps is much easier than being honest about our own shadier side. To overcome evil with good, and to pray for enemies, is a very high calling, and somewhat marks the New Testament out from the Old.
But to save us all from becoming like the elder brother who felt superior to his younger prodigal sibling, being canny about what’s wrong should start with our own self-awareness. The person of faith, one would hope, puts their own house in order before starting to demolish other people’s.
That’s why we have a moment of reflection before the Confession each Sunday. I don’t know about other service leaders, but I never quite know how best to introduce this part of the service. There are official words of course, but you can invite people in your own words too.
Ideally we need a balance between being constantly reminded that we’re sinners, and being glib and shallow about confession, because the words are so familiar.
The trouble with a general Confession is that it is general. It’s designed to be said in community and that can be a powerful thing. But where does it leave us as regards to the specific ways we each avoid God and pursue our own programmes for happiness?
I think about the Epistle of James, where the faithful are encouraged to ‘confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed’ (5:16) and the Roman Catholic practice of confessing to a priest. Maybe we each need to find a confessor? How well do you know yourself that you might be able to notice an area of your life that has yet to be redeemed? It might be an uncomfortable thought. Perhaps you feel it wouldn’t be appropriate. Mostly we need other people to point out our failings, but who has the courage or the diplomacy for that?
I think of an unwelcome time in my thirties when a close friend and I fell out over something, and she told me, on no uncertain terms, that I was moody. I was horrified, and also surprised because I thought of myself as very sociable; but after a while I realised she was right. I had to re-think some aspects of my behaviour that I had not been aware of.
And there was an equally unwelcome time in my twenties when a work colleague whom I was supposed to be supervising told me I was bossy. I was horrified on that occasion as well; especially as she then went on to say she wasn’t the only person in the staff room who thought so.
Moody AND bossy. It’s rather an unfortunate combination really. In my 40s I studied the Enneagram, and for those of you who have an acquaintance with Enneagram wisdom I can say that being moody and bossy just about sums up being a FOUR with a THREE wing. Although it was painful, those two observations by a friend and a colleague proved humbling, and I still remain grateful to them for their insight and courage.
Do you know which are your blind spots? The people who do know them, probably better than you, are the people you live with and work with, the people you spend the most time with (and especially your grown up children!) It’s rare to find someone who can tell you without losing you. But to be loved even when our faults are known, is the only love worth having at the end of the day.
So a cross-shaped life is about being loving AND canny, particularly about our own stumbling blocks. The genius of the Enneagram, for anyone who wants to look into it further, is that those very stumbling blocks can become your pathway into greater wholeness, as you allow them to come into the light of Christ.
Open and Undefended.
When we’re conscious of so much that is evil in the world, it’s often hard to remain open and undefended.
We’ve all met highly defended people. They’re like a fortified castle, prepared at all costs to defend borders. They’re difficult to get to know and wary of sharing themselves for fear of rejection.
Understandably, defences come up when we’ve been wounded or we feel our personal security is compromised. But in order to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep’ we need to remain open. It’s a very hard balance.
It’s never easy to walk a difficult path alongside someone who’s in pain or difficulty, and we see in the gospel the deep and understandable unwillingness of the disciples to identify with Jesus as he heads towards his Passion.
Peter is rebuked in the strongest words, for trying to prevent Jesus from suffering, words like those Jesus used to Satan in the wilderness: ‘Get behind me!’ He is told ‘you are setting your mind, not on divine things but on human things.’ Human things here, I presume, are the normal human impulses: to minimize pain and maximize happiness. That is the programme we’ve all been on in the West for at least the past 300 years. But the Christian is on a different programme.
Undefended people don’t plan to get back at those who have harmed them. They might distance themselves completely from the one who has done them harm (and it might even be vital to do so) but they don’t plan revenge; that would only eat them up from the inside. With a firm belief that justice originates in the heart of God, the Christian can know that justice will be done, but done God’s way.
There’s an interconnectedness in the Christian vision of humanity that acknowledges that everything we do impacts somebody else. Issues of climate and race are issues for all of us. There’s an African name for this interconnectedness: Ubuntu – everything you do affects me; everything I do affects you. It’s the opposite of the kind of zero sum games that students have been forced to play as they scramble for university places. It’s the opposite of how our parliament is arranged with one side versus another facing each other across the benches like adversaries trying to score points off each other.
During the Pandemic, we caught a glimpse of how life might be if we didn’t live as though there was only one winner, but if we acknowledged that we are all reliant on each other; on our delivery people, our shop assistants, our cleaners and our health workers, simply to navigate day-to-day life. We’ve realised during these times that the more a role is about caring for others, the less it seems to be paid.
So living a cross-shaped life means living an open life, an undefended life as far as it is possible.
Willing to let go.
In Jesus’ own words: ‘if any want to be my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’. It’s an important principle for individual Christians but we might try as well to think what this means for a church congregation – to deny itself, take up its cross and follow Jesus.
At this time, as we try and imagine what it’ll be like to go back to worship in the building it might mean we need to let go of certain expectations, and empty ourselves to receive whatever it is God wants to give us.
If you’ve visited the church on a Saturday for private prayer you’ll have experienced sitting very quietly, a little apart from anyone else, with your facemask on, and being still and prayerful. It’s actually been an experience that’s grown on me. Wearing a facemask tends to limit your speaking, and maybe we have to attend more closely to the other, as we cannot make out their expressions in the normal way.
My personal experience in shops has been that this doesn’t make people any less friendly. You can normally tell when someone is smiling, by looking at their eyes.
I can’t help thinking that less speaking and more paying attention to ‘the other’ might be a very good way forward for the Church of England. Jesus chose silence before his accusers, and his inner potency was not lessened because of it – rather it was increased.
If we feel, once we’re back in the church building wearing our masks, that we’ve been effectively gagged in worship, it might be an interesting reflection to consider what that means for our inward communication with God and for how well we listen, and for the state of our hearts. It will certainly not be the case that ‘the still small voice’ is in any way gagged in our midst.
As Jesus said ‘whoever wants to save their life will lose it; but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. That’s the ultimate letting go. And it leads not to death, but through death to life.
So, the cross-shaped life: Loving but canny about evil; open and undefended; willing to let go. May these qualities mark our church together life as we go into the months ahead.