The preaching of the Cross [No 3 of 3]

Saint Barnabas Downham

29th September 1991

Year B Week 26

"God forbid that I should glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ".

On these three Sundays we have been thinking about the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Last week I explained why (as Saint Paul says) the preaching of the cross only makes sense to those who are being saved; and that word "being" is all-important because it implies a process or a progression rather than a once-and-for-all thing that happens at the font in Baptism.

A fortnight ago when I explained how, although a person might have several worthy "ends" towards which he was striving in this life personal success, a career, happiness or security, or his sense of fulfilment among them, it is in practice impossible to have more than one chief end. And the Chief End of Man (for which God created us) is "to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever".

Take a closer look at the idea of "being saved" as consisting not just as a one-off event but as a process of continuous progression which goes on throughout life.

A good parallel is the phrase "being married". Think of three different things which it describes. One is contained in the sentence "John and Sharon were married at St Barnabas Church Downham on September 29th, 1941".

The second says "John and Sharon are now married and living on the Downham Estate."

The third says "John and Sharon have been married for 50 years today and we give them our heartiest congratulations."

Now all of these uses of the word "married" are quite correct they all say something that is true. But they are all saying different things.

The first describes a one-off event. They got married which can be proved by looking up the Register. The other two depend for been true upon the first one being true, so it's not a question of their importance. If John and Sharon hadn't got married but had simply lived together then neither of the other statements would have been true.

The second describes the state or relationship into which they entered and answers the question "How are John and Sharon related to each other?" answer: they are husband-and-wife in other words they are related not by being brother and sister or father and daughter but by a relationship nonetheless.

The third use describes what has happened to them during that 50 years. It describes, if you like, their matrimonial progress or curriculum or career. One thing is certain: they are neither of them the same people who made the vows which turned them into husband and wife in 1941 they have both changed quite dramatically both since and because of the fact that they got married.

"And a good thing too!" as their friends say. "Just look how much more responsible John has become since he got married; who'd have thought that young tear-away would settle down. Sharon's turned out to be such a lovely girl (at least that's what Sharon's family say John's family take rather a different vision of the same matter!)

A whole career of children, and jobs, discoveries, sorrows and joys have combined together to make what we would call their "married life", or "being married". If they hadn't worked on it to make it a success then it's quite possible that it would have ended in the divorce court and we shouldn't be congratulating them today.

I hope by now you can see how clearly this applies to our salvation. We were saved at the Font by our baptism, just as John and Sharon were married in 1941. We are living as people who are saved, just as John and Sharon are living as people who are married. But at any given moment we are progressing (or failing to progress) along the road of salvation, just as John and share Rom are still working together at the process of being married. And that proxwaa or progress if God's word is to be trusted and will continue to happen through death and into eternity. We shall go on "being saved" until God has turned us into the kind of people he intended us to be. Like an architect or builder he doesn't rest content with a building that is mealy "habitable or useful". He goes on working until, in the words of Jesus as he hung upon cross "it is finished".

I want now to turn to some of the reasons why people stop "growing into Christ" and why all of us know people whose relationship with his Church has, so to speak, ended in divorce. For let's not make any bones about it, the world is littered with unfinished Christians, not in the sense that God's work on them is not yet complete, but ones that have simply stopped being built. It's as if we're surrounded by a lot of windowless, or roof is houses which have been abandoned. Not like that rather messy but quite exciting phenomenon when a on a new housing estate where you can see progress being made every day as you pass by it but more like those deserted buildings which have been started but then the builders ran out of cash or the foundations subsided and they've simply been abandoned, gathering moss and lichen as the years go by.

Well one reason I suppose is the one I've already hinted at: their foundations weren't properly laid. The only foundation for the Christian is Jesus Christ himself as St Paul said. For too many people encounter "Religion" but never meet Jesus Christ himself. Those people will try to tell you that "being a Christian" means no more than "following Christ's teaching" have got it quite wrong: being a Christian is not a matter of following a set of instructions but following a person who died and rose from the dead.

Secondly, people stop developing or being built up as Christians for the same reason they stop doing anything else. It gets hard or they get bored or they find new interests which distract them. In this respect it's no different from people's reason for giving anything else from career, or education, or marriage.

Of course it's a tragedy; but don't imagine that it "can't happen" to you or me. It's fatally easy to think that our Pilgrim's Progress is going to be a smooth path all the way especially if the going is easy at the present. But the way of the Cross is a "steep and rugged pathway" and the going can be difficult. Thank God for our fellow Christians who can and will support us in times of difficulty.

But now a word of warning. These selfsame fellow-Christians, some of whom can be so helpful in times of adversity, may include others who, unintentionally, put obstacles in the way which trip up (as Jesus said in today's gospel) "little ones who believe on me".

It's fatally easy for grown Christians to give offence to those who are young or new in the faith. If people are hear us back-biting each other or passing on scandal or incessantly grousing about the way we've been treated they're going to say to themselves "what is all this? - why! these Christians are no better than the rest of us! I'm not going to waste my time (and my money) on something which does its followers so little evident good."

Well, they'd be right and they'd been wrong. Right because it is a stumbling block to belief that you and I fail to practise what we preach; wrong because they are judging a whole building by its worst or least finished part, as if someone were to say "Huh! I don't think much of that house - it hasn't even got a front door, when the truth of the matter is that the door is still in the process of being made, and they've only got to look at the house alongside it to see that it already has a door and its owner has learnt when to keep the door of his lips closed and when to open it.

How much better it would be if outsiders and the young in the faith were to hear you and me habitually praising each other rather than running each other down, and hear us apologising and asking forgiveness rather than blaming other people for their faults whilst making excuses for their own.

Jesus seldom blamed people. His attitude was usually "let's see what sense we can make of this mess together". And "making sense of this mess" led him to Calvary for our sakes. But that was his glory. So God forbid that we should glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by which we are crucified to the world and the world is crucified to us!"

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