A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 30th August 2020
I read a book last week about a friend called Jayne. Jayne is a big character – a tall, striking woman, a big personality, a high-achiever with a glittering early career. She moved from a Cambridge Maths degree – one of the first women mathematicians at her college – to a career in industry, where she was well on the road to a stellar career before she was 30 (she tells in the book of the attempt by the security service to recruit her, but that she was not good at keeping secrets!), and then into a prominent marketing role at the BBC.
Jayne was a stellar Christian too: she was a big figure in the Evangelical Charismatic part of the church; she is an impressive networker with the knack of getting to know prominent people and working alongside them. These included Baroness Cox, the campaigner for persecuted Christians, and Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad. Jayne was a founder member of the Archbishops’ Council, where along with the now senior Labour MP, David Lammy, she played a key role in setting its direction. She was well-connected in parliament and the church; she went on to take a postgraduate degree in international relations at Oxford. She was and is a bag of energy, driven by her faith in Christ.
But Jayne had a secret, which at times was even a secret to herself. It was a secret with which she battled for many years, which she tried to suppress to such an extent that she came to the verge of a breakdown. She spent time in The Priory Clinic, attending to what presented as an addiction to her work, she spent time and money on therapy, sought the counsel and prayer of many prominent people in the Evangelical world, even trying various forms of exorcism. The stories she recounts in her book are sometimes horrendous. People will do cruel things in the name of Christ.
The breakthrough for Jayne came when she fell in love for the first time. She fell in love, however, with another woman. That was her secret, the part of herself that she tried to run away from for decades. Today, Jayne has abandoned a glittering career. She lives a hand-to-mouth existence as the most prominent campaigner for LGBT rights in the Church of England. All her energy, all that capacity for hard work, even to the extent of continuing to battle ill health because of her struggle, has been turned towards the cause of preventing people being damaged by the way in which some conservative Christians treat people who are LGBT in their churches. She listens to horrendous stories, counsels people away from self-harm or even suicide, and holds before the Church, including the gradualist reformers like me, the danger that bad religion presents to people in our churches.
Jayne carries the cost of discipleship in herself. But her great secret has become the source of her passion and ministry. It has become her vocation. The title of her book captures it all: Just Love.
Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?
At the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ lies a paradox. It’s a paradox that we see articulated in the life of Jesus: the Messiah must suffer and die before he is raised to eternal life. And those who follow him are invited into this same dynamic of death and resurrection, of losing in order to gain, of denying self to discover life.
It’s such a shocking paradox that Peter cannot comprehend it. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus cries to the one who has just confessed him as Messiah. The Rock on which Jesus will build his church has become now a stumbling-block. Peter had thought that Jesus was going to be a Messiah with strength, military might, and all the power that God could command. Jesus, however, knows that this is not the way he is to win the world, not the way he is going to command the hearts and minds of those who would follow him. He is going to do it through love. And suffering love at that. And those who would follow him are invited to do the same.
The writer Frederick Buechner once saw a graffiti on a wall: Jesus saves it said. And he winces at it in embarrassment, perhaps the way we do when someone makes a public declaration of faith. Buechner writes this: “I suspect that at its heart the painful wincing is directed less to the preposterousness of the claim that Jesus saves than it is directed to the preposterousness of the claim that people like ourselves are saveable—not that we are such sinners that we do not deserve saving, but that we are so much ourselves, so hopelessly who we are—no better, no worse—that we wonder if it is possible for us to be saved. I suspect the reason why the name “Jesus” embarrasses us when it stands naked is that it inevitably, if only half consciously, recalls to us our own names, our own nakedness. Jesus saves … whom? Saves Joe, saves Charlie, Ellen, saves me, saves you—just the names without any Mr. or Mrs., without any degrees or titles or Social Security numbers; just who we are, no more, no less. I suspect that it is at our own nakedness that we finally wince.”
This is the mystery of the Gospel: with all the baggage that we carry, what Buechner calls our ‘nakedness’, that we are considered worthy of being saved by Jesus. And that such saving is to be done by a suffering Saviour, whom to follow asks of us to lay down our lives as well, that we might find them given back again, in new and surprising ways.
The story of Jayne’s discipleship is but one example. She discovers – painfully, gradually, at considerable personal cost – that she is beloved of God, that she is worthy of God’s love, not just because of her considerable gifts, but in the darkest and, as she wrestles with acceptance, the most shameful parts of her identity. She learns, in the process, that the very thing that she thought incapable of being loved becomes, by the mystery of the gospel, the raw material for what God will do with her, her vocation. “What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” says Jesus. The cost of discovering the answer to that question, for her, appears to have been significant and, knowing her as I do, remains powerfully real. But it is the discovery of this belovedness – just love as she puts it, that becomes the source of her identity, her healing and her ministry.
And what about you and me? Have we learned to lay down our lives that we might gain them? How might we know? Well, perhaps the answer to that question lies in where you are your most vulnerable. What do you hide from the world, or from yourself, or from God? It could be something, like Jayne, to do with your identity. It could be something from your past that is a source of shame or trauma. Or it could be that there is simply parts of your life that remain untouched by the gospel of laying down in order to find. Money, status, ambition are three areas where we are so easily tempted to shy away from bringing to the foot of the cross. Whatever these are, Jesus invites you to bring them to him, perhaps because he can be trusted with them more than anyone else, but also because it is in our vulnerabilities that God can be seen to be doing his most powerful work. Imagine knowing yourself loved by God in these very places of apparent weakness. Imagine those things being used by God in such a way that, even as we continue to wrestle with them, they become a source of strength and service. Imagine how others might also find common ground with us when we allow our darkness to be brought into the light.
The Gospel isn’t about heroic self-assertion, battling on regardless, or ignoring the aching pain that is often within. It is just Love: first, to know oneself loved by God, even in the places we thought unlovable; and then, offering the whole of life – including those parts of our lives we thought beyond redemption – to become the source of our loving and serving. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. That is the Gospel’s mystery and its path through this life to the world to come. Amen.