Sermon given by the Prior of Pluscarden
as invited Guest Preacher at the University of St. Andrew’s
St. Salvator’s Church, St. Andrew’s Fife
21 February 2016
Advertised Title: “Enemies of the Cross Answered”
Psalm 26/7; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35. Sunday Lent 2
“One thing I have asked of the Lord, that I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. That I may see the delight of the Lord, and visit his holy Temple.”
Surely there is nobody here today who doesn’t instinctively respond to these words from today’s Psalm! That ancient Hebrew Psalmist has spoken for us all, summing up somehow our deepest aspirations. We want God! We want to encounter him directly, intimately. We want somehow to touch him. We want God to communicate to us something of his own transcendent holiness, his own divine life! St. Augustine loved to quote this verse as an epitome of all human prayer. All human beings, for Augustine, ultimately need, desire, seek, only one thing. If we have God, we have everything. If we don’t have God, we are wretched indeed! So at the beginning of his Confessions, Augustine cried: You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you!
I thank Reverend Donald and the Chaplaincy team of St. Andrew’s University for inviting me to speak to you today. I’ve no idea why you invited me, but I feel confident at least that you did so in full knowledge that I am a Benedictine monk. So it’s as a monk that I stand before you now. As a matter of fact, it’s quite a rare event for a monk to go out to preach. We normally prefer to witness to the truth of our faith through our daily public worship, and our communal living. We also hope to bear living testimony that God is very good, and his merciful love is very sure. You can give up many things the world values for love of him. You can live according to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience: and the result is the opposite of a frustrated, miserable life. On the contrary: we find by experience that the Lord super-abundantly rewards those who truly serve him, and he bestows riches and happiness, even in this life, of which the world knows nothing.
The Psalm I began with was composed long before the time of Christ, but Christians have always loved to shine the light of Christ onto the Old Testament Scriptures. Allow me then on behalf of us all to make the beginning of our Psalm today specifically Christian. The Lord - that is, Christ Jesus - is my light and my salvation: whom then shall I fear? Let me go on now to make that even more specific: perhaps especially in these days of lent: Christ’s Cross is my light and my salvation! ... Even if all the hostile forces of the world gather together against me I will not be afraid. Why? Because by his Cross Christ has already won the victory. I will not be afraid, because the Cross of Christ is the definitive, totally convincing, incontrovertible proof that God loves me. Because of Christ’s Cross I know that God has the desire and the power to save. From Christ’s Cross Divine Mercy is poured out. There, in Christ’s Cross, sinners are reconciled, washed clean, and made holy. There, those who deserve only punishment receive forgiveness. There, the impassable barrier between heaven and earth is swept aside. There, those formerly in slavery to the devil are welcomed into the liberty of the children of God. There, in Christ’s Cross, death is finally swallowed up by life.
No wonder, then, that St. Paul was brought to tears when faced with Christians who would undervalue, or even marginalise the Cross of Christ! Unfortunately it’s impossible for us to know what exactly lay behind the indignant outburst we heard in today’s reading from Philippians. Almost certainly though, those whom Paul labels “Enemies of the Cross” would have identified themselves as Christians, not pagans or anti-Christian Jews. Surely their rejection of Christ’s Cross was more practical than theoretical: but perhaps all the more sad, and dangerous for that. No, says Paul! If we can be saved by any other means than Christ’s Cross, then Christ has died in vain, and our faith is vain, and of all men we are the most to be pitied!
Yes, of course Paul understands our natural revulsion in face of the Cross: in face of pain, and humiliation, and death; none more so than he! Yes, he knows Christ’s Cross seems at first a scandal, an embarrassment, a baffling paradox. Yet here, above all, and supremely, as St. Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians, we see the power of God and the wisdom of God. So Paul boasts of the Cross; he glories in it; he holds it up as the sign of hope, and the pattern and model for all Christian living.
Earlier in his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul had spoken of how Christ Jesus emptied himself of his divine nature, taking on our human form, and becoming obedient even to the death of the Cross. Now in today’s reading Paul holds up the other side of that coin. As Jesus Christ once made himself one with us, in our deepest wretchedness, so when he comes again, when all things are finally made subject to him, then he will make us one with him, in all his glory.
Like St. Paul whose disciple he was, St. Luke strongly insists on the centrality of the Cross. In the passage from his Gospel we heard today, Jesus himself confronts an invitation to avoid it. Some Pharisees come to him with a warning about Herod. St. Luke, who always depicts the Pharisees negatively, cannot have intended us to understand this as good-willed or honest. These Pharisees hope to scare Jesus back into obscurity, and oblivion: out of their way, and out of their lives. But Jesus insists that he will not waver in his mission, and above all will not be deflected from fulfilling his destiny in Jerusalem. Here St. Luke uses a favourite word of his in such a context: it is necessary. It is necessary that Christ should suffer, and so enter his glory. It is necessary for him now to heal and cast out demons, but then to go to Jerusalem, and suffer, and die. Then immediately, as in the Philippians passage, we have a cry of lament over those who will not accept this offer, this means of salvation. In a beautiful image, Jesus says that he longs to gather his people to himself, as a hen gathers her brood. But as a matter of fact, he will do so by his Cross. In words we read in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus said: when I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself. And again: Jesus died in order to gather together in one all the scattered children of God.
Today, as we know, there are many declared enemies of the Cross. All over the world Christians are being persecuted for their faith. Sometimes the persecutors are religious, sometimes atheistic. We all know this, and regret it. But we read our scripture passages today not primarily to refute Islamic Jihadists, or New Atheists, but in order that our own hearts might be pierced. So today we ask if we are not ourselves in danger of becoming practical enemies of the Cross, especially when we unthinkingly conform ourselves to the mentality of modern secularism. That urges us to live with our minds set not on heavenly but on earthly things. It advocates not self-giving love to the end, but rather an individualism that demands pleasure, and possession. It does not accept and embrace the Cross as our means to union with God, but rejects pain as an absolute evil that cannot, that should not be tolerated.
Against that, St. Paul insists on the power of his own example, and that of his co-workers. We know that St. Paul was a very moral people, and that is very admirable and excellent. But he was conformed to Jesus Christ above all through his sufferings, and the persecutions he endured for Jesus’ sake. And he regarded these as his honour, and the greatest source of his joy.
One thing I have asked of the Lord, that I will seek. I want to see God. I want to see Jesus. Today we are reminded that it’s often through suffering, and through humiliation, and ultimately through death, that God comes close to us, and touches us, and draws us to himself. When we are in pain we are comforted to look at the Cross, and to see that God there is with us. But also when we look at the Cross, we see that he asks us, invites us to be there, with him.
What though of the objections raised by the enemies of the Cross? They have their answer. We shall be proclaiming it especially in five weeks’ time, on Easter Day: it’s the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.