When we switch on the news on the Television and see all that is happening around the globe, it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that the World is in a mess. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse — War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death appear to be quite busy at the moment. Whilst there is a degree of truth in this line of thinking, it needs to be balanced by the fact that people have felt this way for a very long time, for several thousand years, in fact. The people of Israel looked for a Messiah, a leader of the House of David, who would bring them the peace and security they longed for. The first reading this morning comes from the prophecy of Zechariah, and was written perhaps as late as two hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ. At this time the Jewish people were struggling under Greek rulers who tried to abolish all that they held sacred. The prophet Zechariah looks forward to a messianic future:
‘And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.’ (Zech 12:10)
The mention of looking upon one whom they have pierced anticipates Christ and His Crucifixion, as noted by John’s Gospel: “They will look on him whom they have pierced” (19:37). Zechariah writes of the outpouring of a ‘spirit of grace’, just as we have seen at Pentecost. Here Jesus’ Death, Resurrection and gift of the Holy Spirit are clearly prefigured: God’s saving plan is announced in the words of the prophet. A few verses later, Zechariah prophesies:
‘On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse themselves from sin and uncleanness.’ (Zech 13:1)
This is what the Cross achieves for those who are washed in the Blood of Lamb, as we are at our Baptism. Christ’s death takes away our sins. Through Baptism and the Eucharist we share in Jesus’ Death and are raised to new life with Him. When St Paul writes to the Galatian Church, he stresses their common baptism.
‘For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.’(Gal 3:26-29)
St Paul is preaching a profound message: none of the distinctions which the world makes matter in the eyes of God. There is no difference. All are one in Christ. There is a radical equality in the Church: all are welcome to come and be saved. This was a revolutionary thing to say when Paul preached nearly two thousand years ago, and it still is today. We are all one in Christ: young and old, rich and poor. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we are from, or anything else. All that matters is that we find our true identity in Christ. This identity makes us heirs of God’s promise, to enjoy eternity in Heaven with Him.
In today’s Gospel Jesus begins by asking His disciples this question:
“Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Lk 9:18)
The people give a variety of answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, or another of the prophets. They recognise Jesus’ proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom and understand Him in terms that are familiar to them. Christ, however, presses the issue by asking His disciples the question,
“But who you say that I am?” (Lk 9:20)
Peter answers ‘You are the Christ of God’ (Lk 9:20). By this answer Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Anointed, the fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy. The disciple’s confession is also our confession as Christians, Jesus is the Christ, the Saviour, the Son of God. As we declare in the words of the Creed.
Jesus instructs the disciples that they should communicate this to no-one, and explains what is about to happen:
“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Lk 9:22)
Jesus tells the disciples about His Passion, Death and Resurrection, because it is His mission: to reconcile God and humanity, and to restore and heal our broken relationship. Christ then invites His followers to follow His example:
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Lk 9:23-24)
At the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus invites people to repent and believe. Now He calls us to self-denial, and to embrace the Cross. Christ asks us to embrace the most shameful way to die, a form of torture, used by the Romans to execute slaves. As those saved and made free by the Cross of Christ, we take up our cross and follow Jesus. We imitate Him, in selfless love and devotion, and we bear the weight of the cross in life’s difficulties and disappointments. Following Christ is hard, as we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake. It is a struggle, and we cannot just rely upon ourselves to succeed. Instead, it needs to be a corporate effort, something we do together, as Christians, trusting in God’s Grace to be at work in us, both individually and as a community.
Christ wants us to lose our lives for His sake, and find freedom in His service. There is something paradoxical in Jesus’ teaching: we find perfect freedom in obedience, in service of God and each other. We need to be humble enough to accept what God offers us, and be prepared to try to live it out together. It isn’t about us, but rather letting God be at work in us. When we co-operate with God, and live in love, and joy, and peace, we flourish as human beings. This is liberating, and it is what God wants for us. This is what true freedom is like, and we are called to live it together. So let us give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.