Rev'd Carol Hennessy
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable, O Lord, my strength, and my Redeemer.
A businessman boasted to his local Rector, ‘I would like you to know I am entirely self-made man, Rector’. ‘I am glad to hear you say that replied, the Rector. ‘It absolves God of a load of responsibility’. You know, we do concentrate an awful lot on that four-letter word ‘self’. We all know people that have a smart phone that can take ‘selfies’ which many young people engage in with their friends. Of course, it is good to be self-controlled, self-possessed, and self-reliant. One of the most popular books in the nineteenth century was Self-help, by Samuel Smiles, recommending working class people to labour at self-education, so that they could climb up the economic and social ladder.
People are now well educated and have social skills but we also need to be self-confident, self-assured, with self-esteem and a good image, with a proper sense of self-worth – though that is a gift that other people must give to us when they praise us for our selflessness. Self-confidence helps shy people not to be self-conscious. But we need not to be self-absorbed, self-assertive, self-centred, self-congratulatory, self-indulgent, self-opinionated, self-pitying, self-righteous, self-satisfied, or self-seeking!
So, we can see, when Jesus tells us that anyone who wants to follow him must deny themselves, there are a few things about ourselves we must affirm – our self-confidence is good if it comes from a certainty that God loves and enables us – but there is an awful lot, too, that we need to deny. We must deny that concentration on self which thinks that we are the most important person in the world and forget the needs of others. Deep down within our being is a longing to be accepted for the people we are, and nothing gives us greater pleasure than to hear it said that we are popular, well thought of, highly regarded and good company. Sometimes we wonder what friends are really thinking of us. Are we sending out the wrong signals? There is the temptation to behave in a manner that makes us more acceptable in the eyes of others. The great news of the Bible is that God accepts us as we are, with all our faults and failings and we do not have to pretend.
On the road to Caesarea Philippi Jesus puts the question to his disciples: ‘Who do people say I am?’ They come up with various suggestions ranging from John the Baptist, Elijah, to one of the prophets. On posing the question for a second time Peter, who shared Jesus’ life intimately, spoke up and said, ‘You are the Christ’. Peter may have got the answer correct but he had no idea of the humiliation involved in being the Messiah. When Christ went on to state that he would have to suffer and be rejected, Peter would have none of it. This ran contrary to his expectation of the Messiah as a spectacular figure wielding military might, who would be strong and victorious and crush Israel’s enemies. His reaction was to try and talk Jesus out of journeying to Jerusalem.
The sharpness of Christ’s rebuke must have taken Peter by surprise. It was like a door being slammed in his face. Jesus did not want Peter’s clouded understanding to lead the other disciples astray. His mission on earth was to restore a broken world and that meant journeying on the rough road to Calvary. Nothing would prevent him from following God’s way of doing things. God’s plan for the salvation of the world would only be reached through the suffering and the death of Jesus on the cross. To suggest otherwise was to forsake his ways.
Peter strikes a chord within our hearts because we do not want to get all that close to suffering and we tend to avoid pain at all cost. We are inclined to run away from the harsh realities of life, to escape into a dream world, to opt for the comfortable and avoid getting caught up in difficult situate ions. However much as we try, we cannot keep running through life pretending that troubles are not really there. Eventually suffering catches with us and there is nothing for it but to face the trouble we never imagined would come our way. The pain may be the loss of a family member or the mental anguish that stems from a broken relationship. In our distress we voice the inevitable reactions. Why me? It is so unfair. What have I done to deserve this? We all have tried to live a good life.
Human suffering remains an enigma. No situation in life is more certain to focus our minds than the presence of suffering. Down the ages, thinking minds have agonised over the problem, but to no avail. We are all baffled because there has been no world created and loved by God. The only explanation that makes sense comes from looking at the image of the dying Christ on the cross and knowing that he was victorious over death. His cross is a reminder of his willingness to share the pain and grief that afflicts us and it teaches us that, out of the most terrible situations, God can draw goodness and new life. In our darkest moments, it is important to follow in the footsteps of Christ who gave meaning to suffering by filling it with His presence. No situation, no matter how bleak, is beyond hope for the followers of Christ who by His suffering, death and resurrection made all things new. What is important is our attitude towards pain as it can make or break us. Borne with faith, the trials that life brings can become a blessing and help us to see ourselves more clearly. Sorrow and suffering can fashion us into people who are more compassionate and understanding that we had ever dreamt possible. Perhaps it is best summed up by the beautiful words penned in prison by Oscar Wilde: ‘Where sorrow is, there is holy ground. How else but through a broken heart may the Lord Christ enter in?’ We must accept that God’s way of doing things runs contrary to our expectations. Our Lord’s teaching is for real life and real life can be extremely difficult. Amen.