Reflection and Prayers
What are we willing to let go of so the mission will continue?
This morning, we come to the fourth of our seven searching questions for our churches today. To recap then, we began by asking ‘why do we exist?’ and suggested it was something about shining with God’s love. We then considered ‘what might be lost in our communities if we ceased to exist?’ before considering about ‘what purposes and principles must we protect as central to our identity?’ Today, we ask ‘what are we willing to let of so the mission will continue?’ But before that, let’s listen to a few difficult verses from Psalm 68.
Psalm 68 (Selected verses from ‘The Message’)
This past week has been a somewhat hectic one for me. There was the General Assembly to enjoy and endure, followed by a diverse array of other zoom meetings, clergy catch-ups and garden gatherings which often saw me hotfoot from one event to another with a few seconds in between to catch my breath, unmute myself or simply attempt to remember where, when, or who I was! Indeed, this afternoon continues in that vein so apologies in advance when, immediately after this service, I hotfoot it to Castle Square to conduct a wedding before getting back for that story-telling Communion!
However, I can’t complain…I remind myself…because even with such commitments, I was afforded the time to enjoy the hospitality of church members as we ate, drank, talked and even bought budgies together! On Wednesday afternoon, at one such occasion, with La Marseilles playing and the tricolor flying, we marked Bastille Day and toasted liberté, égalité et fraternité! It was a lovely hour or so…though it made me somewhat envious. You see, the French have a patriotism and a flag which speaks of values congruent with the gospel. The Welsh have such which nod to an incredible heritage, culture and a refusal to be oppressed. The English, however…well, even when the flag is daubed on my two youngest nephews, as it was on Sunday night when they – and I – hoped for an England win…I just can’t shake off a shudder of unease or the spectre of imperialism. Perhaps it’s because of its association with the horrors of our colonial past. Perhaps because it’s been hijacked by the far right and its current strand of jingoistic jesters. Or perhaps – I wondered this week – it’s because it has a cross on it.
The history of the depiction of the cross is, of course, a fascinating and complex one which we don’t really have time to go into right now but let’s just say that after early unease at the use of embracing a symbol of torture and even of God’s curse as the central emblem of the new religious movement, by the fourth century of the Common Era, the cross had been adopted by the Empire, shining bright and glorious on the armour of Emperor Constantine’s Roman guard. Since then, variations of the cross have accompanied various conflicts, crusades, and conquests, as armies have declared that the God who was killed by an Empire on the cross was also the God who would drive them to victory on the battlefield…or even sports pitch! And so it was, before a certain football match last weekend, that talk of past military victories resurfaced as across the English media came the refrain – ‘Cry ‘God’ for Harry, England, and St. George’. And so it also was, just a couple of nerve-jangling hours later, that three English-born footballers were subjected to horrific racist abuse when their penalties led not to glorious victory but crushing defeat.
Now whilst we all, I believe, would immediately condemn such social media vitriol as cowardly, cruel and the antithesis of Christ-like behaviour, I wonder if, alongside the repeated call for us to reflect on the privileges and prejudices that we might still have, if there is some unspoken theology to unpack regarding the use and view of the cross – in flags or otherwise – that might be relevant to our own beliefs and actions today. And if I’m beginning to lose you, then strap yourselves in for I’m about to unleash some Latin on you!!!
Theologia gloriae. Got that? Theologia gloriae. Now even those of you who aren’t Latin scholars might be able to guess that theologiae gloria translates into English as ‘theology of glory’. It was a term used by German priest Martin Luther to denote a dangerous type of faith that he thought was prevalent back when he was doing his reforming thing. Essentially, a theology of glory is an outlook which assumes that there is continuity between how the world seems to work and how God works. For some would say that we live in a world in which strength is shown in military power; in victories, riches and success; in Prime Ministers and Presidents who dream of Earthly kingship as children and denounce democracy when it threatens their rule. A theology of glory suggests that God works in the same way, showing strength through victories and power; crushing any opposition and blessing the faithful with wealth and large congregations in grand Cathedrals and mega-churches. It’s the kind of ‘Up with God! Down with his enemies!’ outlook that Psalm 68 espouses.
And whilst we might well cringe at the more obvious outworking of this worldview today– as seen in the worst of flag-waving English nationalism or in a state church that will bless warships and nuclear weapons but not certain kinds of loving relationships – I wonder if a theology of glory outlook might feel natural, attractive even, for many of us. After all, wouldn’t it be nice to have an increasing congregation, a hefty bank account, a bit more power and control of how we do things? And who would choose to actively pursue a path of poverty, vulnerability, defeat? Perhaps we might sympathize with Peter and his suggestion that Jesus rethinks his mission.
Mark 8:27 – 38
After several ‘successful’ months with Jesus during which Peter has seen him heal the sick, still the storm, bring those who were dead back to life, suddenly Jesus is talking about suffering, crosses and death and Peter doesn’t want to hear it.
“Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says in response. “For you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Ouch! Jesus goes on to say that whoever wants to be his disciple must also walk that way of the cross – a way of vulnerability, loss, even death. All of which brings us to our second and last bit of Latin for today –
Theologiae crucis. Or in English – the theology of the cross. This is what Martin Luther saw as the centrality of Jesus’ teaching, and the antithesis of the theology of glory that we see in the world. A theology of the cross tells us that God’s ways are not our always our ways. A theology of the cross tells us that God can be found in the weakness of suffering and death. A theology of the cross tells us that ‘the Church is not Christendom, faith is not certainty…and love is not painless’.
I don’t know about you, but I find this outlook as frustrating as I do fantastic; as wearisome as I do wonderful. For life could be so much easier, safer, glorious if God smote our enemies, filled our churches, and led our football team to victory. Well, England, sorry. And – for you – Wales. And France, of course. Only, I guess we can’t all win, can we? So maybe if God just worked for me – smote my enemies, filled my churches, led my football team to victory…
And there’s the rub! For very quickly, it becomes apparent that we want to reduce the God of all creation into a tribal, transactional god who rewards his favourites with wealth and power and glory. Very quickly, it becomes apparent that we have in mind not even general human concerns but me and my own concerns and preferences. Very quickly, we look to gain the world…and forfeit our very soul.
So after two Latin phrases, two Shakespeare references and a whole lot of English football nonsense (Yeah, the brain’s a little scrambled this week!) what does any of this mean when it comes to today’s question of what are we willing to let go so our mission will continue?
Well, allow me to suggest three quick-ish things before you have a much-deserved break from my voice!
Firstly, our mission – the sharing of good news, the shining with God’s light – cannot be separated from the way of the cross, however much we might wish it were otherwise! In Jesus, God eschewed success, power and might, showing that the way of love is one that will involve vulnerability, loss and death. So if we catch ourselves doing whatever we can to avoid such experiences, that should give us pause for thought. If we catch ourselves thinking of our own survival, focusing only on our needs, even talking about ‘our’ church…we might want to take notice and pray.
Secondly, we might want to take particular notice of Jesus’ words that in grasping tightly to life, we might lose it and in losing our life, it might be saved. Yes, I know the wording is a little reminiscent of some riddle a troll might ask you in order to cross a bridge (or is that just me?!) but Jesus seems to be saying that death and life are closer bedfellows than we might think. In other words, the death of one thing can lead to life for another. We most clearly and magnificently see that in the promise of life with God beyond physical death…but it might also be true in our daily living. So, as we continue to reengage with society a bit more, it’s an opportune time to ask – Are there things that you could let die which might lead to new life? Are there obsessions, grudges, privileges, activities of which if you let go, you would find new life? Are there burdens, expectations, activities that we must allow to die as churches for God to bring new life?
And finally, when losses do come our way; when we experience failure, when we face suffering, loss, even death, we might well find out that we’re closer to God than ever. God promises to be with us in the crucifixions of our lives. In those times when our bodies tremble and our souls ache; those moments when we falter and fail, whether at the penalty spot in front of an audience of millions or hidden from public view; in those days when we feel exhausted, ashamed or unsure, God promises to be with us; to hold us, strengthen us, to love us back to life and perhaps then, to paraphrase the words of Marcus Rashford – the faith-filled footballer who showed remarkable grace in defeat – we might truly know ‘who we are and from where we have come’.
So what are we willing to let go of so that God’s mission will continue? What aren’t we? Amen.
 Small, J. D. (2008). Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 2, p. 72)
 For anyone who hasn’t read it already, Marcus Rashford’s statement in response to missing a penalty and receiving racist abuse, is a masterclass in honesty, dignity and grace – https://www.manutd.com/en/news/detail/man-utd-and-england-striker-marcus-rashford-posts-statement-after-euro-2020-final
Jesus called his friends and the crowd together and told them, “If you want to be my followers, forget about yourselves, shoulder your cross, and do things my way.
(From Mark 8: GOOD AS NEW).
Dear God, we acknowledge that Jesus has told us, his friends, to each carry our cross. It is our cross we have to carry and not his, nor that of Simon the African who had not only to share the weight of carrying of Jesus’ cross, but also of its humiliation. We thank you that we have been spared the extreme horrors of that day.
All humans have to suffer somewhere along the line, as do in fact animals, all life and all creation. But for each it will be different. It is OUR cross we have to carry, though scripture also tells us to share one another’s burdens. We do not have to impose suffering on ourselves, much less impose suffering on others. Suffering will come. And Christians seek the Jesus way of accepting it. We are not talking about minor aches and pains. We are talking about serious suffering.
So we pray for all those who suffer today, or ‘feel the cross too heavy they are called to bear.’ Those millions throughout the world who daily know the pangs of hunger, including new victims as a result of the cuts that are going to be made. And we are ashamed also that hunger pangs are now known frequently in our own land, and the humiliation that goes with it.
We pray for those who suffer from the evil of war and local conflicts, the suffering of sorrow, the suffering of maiming, the suffering of fear. We pray for those who suffer from torture as a result of government policy and regular police practice, and pray that this may not happen again in our land as it did in times past.
We pray for those who suffer from long term illnesses and disabilities. We pray for those who suffer mentality, emotionally and spiritually. We mention quietly in our hearts by name those known to us.
We pray for those who suffer from debilitating guilt, maybe from things they have done in the past, or constant behaviour they cannot control. Some suffer from guilt continually because it is imposed on them by their religion. We would wish them to know the message of the Good News that You, God are a forgiving God, and that as far as east is from the west, so far have you removed our transgressions from us. Jesus did not die to make us feel guilty, but to remove the suffering of our guilt and shame.
We pray for those who are born with personalities that give them perpetual problems they have to struggle with constantly and bravely. Sometimes they triumph wonderfully, and sometimes it is touch and go. And there are very few people who understand what they suffer.
We pray for perfectionists who suffer because they want everything to be perfect and they are constantly disappointed in themselves and others. Teach them that nothing and nobody in this life is perfect, and that they can strive for excellence without making it into a burden. When Jesus told people to be perfect he meant that they should do everything in love.
So we offer ourselves to you dear God, not dodging our cross nor imposing one either on ourselves or on another. We ask for grace to bear the burden we find ourselves having to carry, with perseverance and if possible, a happy heart.
We pray in the name of Jesus who ‘for the joy that was set before him, bore the cross and made light of the shame’ . We are that joy. So let his mind be ours. Amen.
Go out into the world in peace, and in Christ’s name be –
the humble who make others proud, the poor who have riches to share;
the weak who help others be strong, the empty who overflow with loving kindness.
and may the love of God, Creator, Son & Spirit, be with us all this day and always. Amen.