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In October 1987, Women’s Own magazine did an interview with the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in which she said the following:

“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women,

and there are families. And no government can do anything except through

people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after

ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbour.”

Now I’ve never been too sure as to what Margaret Thatcher meant by this, but one of the probably unintended consequences of her saying, “People must look to themselves first” was that people began to talk about a “Me first”generation. It spawned comedians like Harry Enfield with his “loads-a-money” character. I was the most important person in my life, and life was all about what I could get out of it. As much money as possible; the best job, even if it meant crawling over others to get it; the biggest bonus at the end of the year.

I wonder if any of you saw the television adaptation of John Lanchester’s novel, Capital, a few months ago. If not, I can thoroughly recommend the book. There are several strands to the plot involving a group of people who live along the same road in suburban London, but one story line is of a couple, Roger and Arabella Yount: he’s a senior trader in a big investment bank and it’s approaching bonus time. He’s expecting a bonus somewhere between one and two million pounds, and his shopaholic, social climber wife has been planning how the money’s going to be spent. Roger gets called into his boss’s office to be told that, because of the banking crash, his bonus will be a few thousand pounds, and he’s being made redundant. There’s a wonderfully funny moment where he’s told his wife, and all she can do is stand and scream, “What are we going to do?”

Me first. That was seen as almost the hallmark of the 1980s and 90s. I wonder if you know which is the single biggest source of charitable giving to which people contribute: it’s actually the National Lottery. The money which goes into the National Lottery good causes pot is more than is given to any other single charity. If you give to Tear Fund, you get nothing back, but if you buy a lottery ticket which contributes to good causes, you just might win the jackpot! Now, of course, that doesn’t paint the whole picture, because we do give generously to big appeals like Children in Need, Red Nose Day, Sports Relief and Christian Aid. But the “Me first” culture is still pervasive in our society, and the area of government expenditure which is always top of the list in any poll about where the government should make cuts is overseas aid. In other words, “Us first.”

In contrast to that, in the upside down kingdom of Jesus’s, we are called on to deny ourselves and take up our cross. Paul put it very clearly when he wrote that it was no longer I but Christ living in me: it’s what Jesus wants and expects rather than what I want, and it doesn’t stop there because Jesus goes on to say that we must take up the cross. Now I think that’s an image which has been hugely watered down over the years. We can use the phrase, “We all have our cross to bear” to refer to often quite trivial things which are no more than mere irritants. Not so to a first century Jew! Under Roman oppression, it would have been a familiar sight for many Jews, especially those living in Jerusalem, to see people literally carrying their crosses to the place of crucifixion where they would be subjected to the most agonising death yet invented by man. To the first century Jew, carrying your cross was no mere irritant: it was associated very clearly with real suffering. Following Jesus was not going to be a bed of roses, and it was going to involve sacrifice. It’s a scary image.

Now I have to say, telling someone to deny themselves and take up their cross doesn’t exactly strike me as the good news of the gospel! But, once again, as I’ve often tried to emphasise when I’m preaching, there’s a bigger picture than we get from just picking out one verse, and I want to put alongside these verses in Matthew, the verse in John’s gospel where Jesus says, “I have come that you might have life, and life in all its fullness.” So, in this topsy-turvy kingdom of God, how do I bring together life in all its fullness with denying myself and taking up my cross?

Let me tell you about two real people whom I’ll call Mary (a committed Christian) and Jane (perhaps a more nominal Christian) – not their real names. After 30 years of marriage, and with grown-up children, Mary’s husband left her for another man. After a very unpleasant divorce, for the next 30 years, Mary held on to unforgiveness and bitterness; she became reclusive, she stopped going to church or socialising with anybody, even refusing to open the door to her children, and refusing to speak to them if they had contact with their father. Her world was narrowed down to a tiny one-bed cottage, then finally a depressing hospital ward where she spent her final miserable months before dying. A frail and embittered woman.

Jane’s husband, too, left her devastated when he went off with another woman, and years later she still experiences some of that pain of rejection. But she refused to be defeated by her experience. She continues to meet with her circle of friends, with whom she can enjoy a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc; she travels the world, visiting her son who lives in the easternmost part of Europe, and all sorts of strange and interesting countries, and goes to Africa regularly where she volunteers to help in a school in a poor part of the country which she visits.

Two people who have shared a common cross, the cross of painful rejection and loss; but one who was so self-obsessed that she stopped experiencing anything of the fullness of life which Jesus longed for her, whilst the other, still bearing her cross with all the pain which it brought, living life fully, denying herself at times so she can think more about others who are far more needy than she is.

Do you have a cross which you have had to take up? I know the crosses that one or two of you have to bear, but there are probably many that I know nothing about at all, and maybe no one does except you yourself. How are you dealing with them, and are you still able to live life in all its fullness? Here are just three thoughts about living as disciples from day to day:

  • Your cross does not come from God

You and I live in a fallen world in which bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. If for one moment I thought that the God whom I worship deliberately gave you the crosses you have to bear, I would not be standing here encouraging you to trust him, because that would not be the God of love in whom I believe. No, God does not give you your crosses, but he does promise to be with you and to give you his strength to bear what this fallen world has given you.

  • You have to love yourself in order to love others

Part of Jesus’s great command to us is to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. If we love our neighbours, then we want the best for them, we want them to be happy, we want to care for them in any way we can. So what does loving ourselves look like? Well, it means accepting ourselves as we are, because that’s how God accepts us; it means enjoying ourselves, because there is so much in this world which is there to enjoy, from the beauty of the natural world, to the brilliant creativity of playwrights, authors, artists and musicians. Life in all its fullness means having fun and enjoying ourselves. The word recreation is actually the word re-creation, because it’s part of the process of renewing us, perhaps to enable us better to deny ourselves and carry our cross.

  • You are subject to God’s grace, not God’s law

Paul’s letters nearly all begin with commendations and praise for the love or faith of the folk to whom he’s writing. However, his letter to the Galatians is quite different in that he launches straight into criticism of them for distorting the truth of the gospel. His criticism was that, so soon after receiving the gospel, they had started to impose legalistic rules, contrary to the gospel of grace. Sadly, this kind of legalism of which Paul was so critical still exists today, as a result of which one of the most common feelings which many Christians experience is guilt: I haven’t prayed enough, I haven’t read my Bible today, I missed church because I overslept after being on StreetSource. When I was a young Christian, it was also about all the things I shouldn’t do: go to the cinema or theatre, listen to rock music, play cards etc! Now don’t get me wrong: prayer, Bible reading and fellowship are all important, but the quality of your discipleship is not defined by whether you did or didn’t read your Bible today. It’s defined by how much you put your trust in the Father who loved you enough to send his Son to die for you.

I’m currently reading a book with the intriguing title, The Sin of Certainty. In it, the author, Peter Enns, looks at the history of reading the Bible, and he points out that, before the Reformation, the Church as an institution decided what the Bible meant and that was communicated to the people through the priests. Then along came Martin Luther, whose mantra was sola scriptura, only Scripture. So it was not the church but scripture alone that determined the truth. The problem then was, who decides what the truth of the Bible really is? What happened was that the post-reformation church split and split and split into what are now thousands of denominations and groups all purporting to read the Bible correctly. So how do I know if I’m on the right track in my walk with God and my growth in discipleship? Peter Enns quotes a prayer by the American Christian mystic, Thomas Merton, and I’m going to close with this:

                        My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see

the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am

following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.

And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road

though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you

always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave

me to face my perils alone.

Amen

  • Psalm 119:160

    “All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.”

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