We have just heard a very tough Jesus upsetting Peter, who is then even more upset being put so firmly in his place. Jesus sets out with a firm and accurate prophesy of what is inevitably going to happen to him, and it is not nice. The followers of Jesus have to “renounce self and follow me”; the really important verb is “follow” not “renounce”, for the revoltingly pious it sounds much better and worthy of more kudos to talk about specific acts of denial rather than the much more comprehensive command to be a “follower of mine”. That can be, and certainly has been, explained in many ways, but if we are truly to follow someone then we have to keep them in sight, in our worship, our prayers, both public and private, frequently acknowledging our Lord and master.
So there are these two sections:- the first the list of horrible things that were going to happen to the Messiah which fuelled the anger of Peter, and then the really important instructions for all who would follow Christ. Sadly the details of ascesis have often down the years, become separated from the prime motivation for all Christians, following Christ. That must come first and the rest will inevitably follow. We do not “renounce self” or go without breakfast unless these actions, preferably invisible to others, are to enable us better to follow Christ, and the following of Christ will certainly make it a possibility that somewhere down the line of life, we too shall be privileged to endure suffering, rejection by those set above us, and a whole host of very nasty things. Read the biographies of many a cleric and we discover all of these and more. Michael Ramsey had a crucifixion, not for the first or the last time, when he visited South Africa at the height of apartheid with an interview with the loathsome Vorster, for there was no possible bridge between them, that was the big scene. Everyday all clergy receive messages or have encounters with big and often unanswerable problems and their intercession lists have to be often pruned, or shared when that is possible.
What is demanded of us, as baptised Christians is that we have to take up the cross and follow him, and it is in following him that we shall experience some small, though great for us, suffering. Self just has to be renounced, not all the time, but there are, have been and will be, those times when our attention is demanded by or for another. Priesthood is a singular way of following Christ, and I am not thinking of the alter Christus of the altar but the alter Christus of the sick bed, the prison, the home ruptured by broken relationships, the sheep without a shepherd.
This is the arena of pastoral ministry, costing grace indeed, and far removed from that pathetic excuse “I don’t say Mattins anymore because I have to take the children to school”. If I hadn’t heard this more than once I wouldn’t believe it!
I hope you will bear with me for bit of autobiography. It all happened about 2 months into an interregnum in the parish of my title and was just “one of those weeks” The sick seemed to have been more and sick and so taking up more time, there were three funerals, and so on. The sermon for the Sunday Mass was ok but nothing for Evensong and we used to have 70-100 to EP. So we got through the week-end, Sunday included three masses before breakfast, then a big Sunday School and then Baptisms and I still had a couple of hours to sort out my thoughts, at least, so thought I, for as I emerged from the church there in the porch were another young couple, “Can you come please, we think our baby is dead” so back to their house and the little mite was indeed dead. Remember this was before mobile phones but we managed to get messages to both sets of grandparents, I talked to the police and they would arrange forensic tests and such like, and it was now 6-40pm. So Evensong started 15 minutes late. (a choirboy who was about to say something on the lines of “whose late now?” told me that the look on my face told him that it would have been very much out of order, and then I found myself in the pulpit and I just told them about my week ending with the dead baby. The folk were genuinely appalled and many were the offers to help, but I told them, and would tell them now, just how important is prayer for your clergy.
In that account, and I guess that all priests experience something like it now and again, we have lots of renunciation of self, fasting-no time to eat, and encountering agony and bewilderment in a variety of situations and where and when the costing grace of trying to minister makes one realise just how real is our dependence on God and the suffering so often entailed.
Trying to learn pastoralia from lecture notes or even a book is no good, we have to keep close to the Lord in our frequent times of trial especially the unexpected tragedy of death, or even more painful, criminal behaviour, when it is not expected. Parishes “across the tracks” often have a lot of criminal behaviour, but they are our people and deep down like to have us around provided that it is in the hours of daylight, this is where the cassock helps for the bleary eyed addict is less likely to make a mistake over somebody wearing a long black frock! It is the first visit to the pub in a cassock that is the hard one –more suffering, but it can give some an opportunity to talk, for then we are on their ground and not ours and pontificating around will get us nowhere.
There are many other occasions when the sufferings mentioned by Jesus seem to make sense of trying to exercise a faithful ministry, today’s gospel emphasises the pain and grief, but we preach, much more by our living than our speaking, the triumph of Jesus at Easter towards which the slow, uncomfortable and bumpy train called Lent carries us.
Temptation, according to C.S.Lewis and “Our Father Below” aka Screwtape is organised “from below” This does not mean that all sinners are blameless, none is, but there is help for us in our need. A dean of a cathedral took me aside on the Saturday when I arrived for Holy Week, and proceeded to remove all the glamour which he thought I might still attach top cathedrals. In recent years there had been a case of arson, and very public adultery within the cathedral community, and these public sins did the place of the cathedral no good at all, and the dean, with considerable experience maintained that it was because cathedrals were intent on maintain regular daily worship, the doors were open for all and they were very much used. Therefore they were bastions in the battle against the forces of evil, and therefore much and terribly tempted. Think back to the bell ringers of York, the battle royal at St. Paul’s about the squatters in the church yard, which forced the resignation of a very good dean and one of the leading canons, whatever instruments are used below to celebrate, electric organs perhaps! Would be playing at full blast, to little avail.
It is not a matter of being on our guard, even religious communities are part of the enemy’s plan, look at the report on the Benedictine schools, and it is horrible. So what can we do? We must pray, and when we are horrified by what we are reading, then we must pray some more, praying for the perpetrators, not from some lofty ladder of imagined superiority, but with a bit more of “There but for the grace of God go I” Our Father below has been vanquished, but the death throes of a wounded animal are still lethal and the only protection is prayer, and for most of us that prayer which is required of us each and every day, the Divine Office, and in Mattins and Evensong and Compline we make the sign of the cross at the beginning of the climax of each office, the gospel canticle, putting ourselves into the way of the Cross so being armed and protected in the battle, and we need to remember that our foe is even more deeply offended by laughter than it is by prayer.
Another very recent revelation of the works of it that oozes sulphur is the behaviour of some of the employees of the major charities in the field. Destroying people’s faith in the organizations means that their financial support is being diminished when the needs gets noisier every day, and so their work is limited, how very satanic, more dying children and thousands homeless, and possible donors being put off; guns and knives in school it is all a mess, or so the press would have us believe, so let us remember that Lent is when we prepare for Easter with worship, penitence and prayer, for Easter is the time when we remember the destruction of the enemy, but the dying scourge has lots of poison left.
Right at the beginning of biblical time Eve told the Lord “The serpent beguiled me and I did eat”. There was, and still is, no change in the Lord, sin is sin whoever or whatever tempts us, forgiveness is always there too, but has to be asked for, there is no cheap grace about.