In this sermon preached at the beginning of Lent, Ruth Bond unpacks ‘three steps to heaven’ in the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark.
Two weeks ago the gospel reading was about Jesus healing a leper. The leper asked Jesus outright: “If you wish to, if you choose to, you can make me clean.” Jesus said, “I do choose to”. The week before that, the gospel reading showed Jesus again, choosing to heal Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. He hadn’t gone to there specifically to heal her but, while he was there, he did choose to make her well.
But today’s gospel has the story a different way round, for it is us who have the choice to make. A major choice, a life changing choice. A choice only we can make, no one else can do it for us.
But the main thrust of this choice is a complete transformation from what we are now to a new us. And I mean transform; the new state means we become something far stronger than being different.
And there are three steps to transformation: there are three steps to heaven, quite literally, as Eddie Cochran wrote and Shawaddywaddy sang; and Jesus was telling us when he told Peter.
Peter was prone to putting his foot in it, saying the wrong thing, getting the wrong end of the stick. My, aren’t we thankful for Peter! For here was someone even more gormless than me, than us, long before we were thought of. Don’t we see ourselves in him so often? Hardly a role model, but a model of how not to do things, and what not to say.
Here, of course, when Jesus was so angry with Peter it was because he was trying to stand in the way of what Jesus knew he had to do, almost trying to gainsay God – We see ourselves in him so often; well I do.
But yes, three steps to heavens – BUT, there is a cost, as today’s gospel tells us and that cost is, first and foremost, about losing our lives so that we might find them.
How do we do that? What are those three steps to heaven?
Well, verse 34 is the answer “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
The first one, self-denial, denial of oneself. In other words, don’t put yourself first; that way leads to self-fulfilment. I think marriage is a good example: each person vows to put the other person first and to depend upon that other one. That state is a blessing to each party.
I don’t know about you but I always think I can do twenty things in a day when in reality if I manage three things it’s been a good day. But when there really is something that you just have to do, but you get a phone call, say, the response to which has to be, “I’ll be there”. Reluctantly you leave whatever it is that had to be done – the hoovering, mowing the lawn – and go, perhaps regretting that this job will never be done – but once you have accomplished whatever was needed for that other person, the smile on their face it presents and the sense of fulfilment that would not have come forth from filling a washing machine or pushing a lawn mower is worth a month’s washdays and at least three mowings. A simple example, but we have to put others first.
Of course, in our culture we are always bemoaning the fact that we don’t have enough ‘me time’. Nowadays, self-denial can so easily go against our culture, but the rewards of self denial can’t shake a stick at society’s norms.
The second thing is to take up our cross. How often do we hear the phrase “we all have our cross to bear”. So many people see the “cross” as a burden they have to carry in and throughout their lives: a job that’s boring, an illness, an awkward relationship. But that’s not what Jesus meant when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.”
When Jesus carried His cross along the via dolorosa and up Golgotha to be crucified, all people thought was that he was going to his death in the most brutal and painful way they could imagine. I doubt if many, if any, thought of the cross as symbol of a burden to carry.
Christians see the cross now, of course, as a symbol of forgiveness, grace, and love. We know the story, we have learned from it.
“Take up your cross and follow Me” means being ready to die to follow Jesus; “dying to self.” Complete and absolute surrender. He said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9: 24-25) . That call can be extremely hard, the reward is priceless.
Are we willing to follow Jesus if it means losing some of our closest friends?
Are we willing to follow Jesus if it means being estranged from our family? if it means we lose our reputation?
Are we willing to follow Jesus if it means losing our life?
“Are you willing?” That’s the question. Following Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean all these things will happen, but are we willing to take the chance, to take up our cross? Will you make the choice to take up the cross? Faced with a choice – Jesus or the easy life – Which one will it be? But remember, the reward is as nothing else in this life.
And now step three – Follow me.
On the Jeremy Vine show last week he spoke of the death of Billy Graham at 99 years of age who, for almost eight decades, led people to Christ. I saw him in Ipswich Town football stadium. Graham might have led them to Christ but each individual had to knock on Jesus door and then make the choice to go in and to become a follower of Christ.
As Christians we claim to follow Christ wherever He leads, and He may lead us into some very difficult places and circumstances. Jesus didn’t say, “Accept me” or “Let me into your life,” but his desire is for us to show our love by following Him. We can lead horses to water but WE cannot make them drink. The horse itself has to decide to drink. We might realise it is thirsty but we can’t drink for it.
No one is ever saved by walking down to the front and receiving prayer. Salvation comes when God forgives and they learn to trust in Jesus – implicitly.
Those three steps to heave then – put yourself to one side, pick up the cross and follow the master. And when we do pick up that Cross, yes, it might be an instrument of torture – but it is also a huge plus sign.