How to get rid of stumbling blocks preventing you from following Jesus

When I started to look at today’s readings I also looked to see if I already had a sermon from a previous year. I had been on retreat and came back on Wednesday afternoon to 2 funerals pending so have been busy. I wanted to still have a day off on Friday. However when I started pray through the passages an image came to mind and I quickly sketched it in pencil in my prayer and painting journal. This afternoon, having preached the sermon that the picture reflects, I turned it into a colour version that you see below.

Pick up your cross having got rid of stumbling blocks in your way

This is the text of the sermon, which I preached with a powerpoint presentation using images rather than my own work. I didn’t have time to do my own painting and photgraph it in its various stages to illustrate the sermon. (I hope this makes sense). Here’s the sermon:

Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-28

It’s always good to come home when you’ve been away.  If only for the comfort of your own bed!  I had a very good retreat and am so grateful that it went ahead.  I hadn’t realised till I got there just how tired I had got. Not just tired, but spiritually dry.  Or as St Paul would say, my spiritual fervour had gone.  I was running on empty, was how I put it. 

You will know yourself that when you’ve had extended periods of stress that it affects the whole of you.  Shoulders and back ache as well as difficulty concentrating, the joy of life goes and your patience is short….. not to mention all the other things Paul wrote to the church in Rome that we heard in our first reading…… or is it only me???

There’s a lot in today readings. As always, there isn’t time to say all that could be said.  But I noticed one thing that seems to be key and unlocks the rest.  I hope you will see what it is by the end.

We have two phrases in the gospel that are often misquoted and misunderstood:

“‘Get behind me, Satan!”  – I am guilty of saying this when being offered a tasty treat and I’m trying to lose weight.  Temptation in the bible isn’t about chocolate etc, but about being distracted from following what God wants.  And in the case of Peter it was with sincere and caring motivation but misunderstanding Jesus’ words.

take up your cross”  Taking up your cross is nothing to do with putting up with an illness or difficulty in life.  Taking up your cross is about deciding to follow Jesus no matter what the cost or difficulties that it may bring.

Another way of saying following Jesus is to be a disciple.  Someone in a relationship with Jesus.  He doesn’t want anonymous followers like someone on Twitter or Facebook friends he’s never met.

Jesus wants us all to come to him and be close and personal.  Open up like a true friend.  That was a big part of my retreat – getting closer to Jesus.  As soon as I entered one of the small prayer rooms and saw an icon of the Beloved Disciple I was drawn to it.  I wanted to simply rest my head on Jesus’ chest:  to be close to him, as I realised that I wasn’t feeling particularly close.

The Beloved Disciple

 Jesus wants us all to be beloved disciples. To know we are loved by him.  To know that he accepts and loves us no matter what, no matter how feeble our efforts at following him and putting into practice his teaching.   There is no failure, only failure to try.

Once we have decided to follow Jesus, to become a disciple, he wants to have a high priority in our life.  The words in French on the icon say: ”I have betrothed you to myself with tenderness”  (Hosea) Just like a lover or husband – as members of the church we are the bride of Christ.  What groom doesn’t expect his bride to put him first? 

That’s what Jesus meant when he said:

‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it”

In other words, our priorities need to change from My Way to His Way, from putting self first to putting God first…. and in putting God first usually also means putting other people first.  Not being selfish.

Easier said than done.  Most of us, if we are honest, think of ourselves, our well being, our needs.   But I know there are some people who find it easy to think of others before themselves, to serve others freely.

But often we are like Peter, with good intentions but missing the point of what God wants as we are so full of good ideas of our own about how to organise our lives.

We come up against stumbling blocks to following Jesus or knowing Jesus at a deeper level.  St Paul lists many of them

  • insincere love
  • not caring about evil or wrong doing
  • not being devoted to or honouring other church members, how we live together as a church community is important.  this isn’t a social club or individuals coming to a building to pray without any concern for the others.  We are a family of brothers and sisters.
  • loss of spiritual zeal and fervour, joy and patience
  • prayer life gone to pot or never established
  • not sharing with others or being hospitable
  • revenge – or vengeful thoughts…. cursing rather than blessing our enemies, ie,  how we deal with those who annoy us or irritate us or do wrong to us
  • pride, envy, thinking we know best
  • fear of failure (not on Paul’s list but can be something that stops you trying)

That’s quite a list of possible stumbling blocks to our being better disciples, or I should say more effective disciples.  How do we deal with them?

If you have already decided that God is No.1 priority, then the best place to start is prayer in your following Jesus.

But – how, when, where, what?  I don’t want to teach my grandmother how to suck eggs.  I know many of you have been faithful in prayer for many years.  However, some of you may need a refresher.  I know I did.

I didn’t learn anything new on my retreat.  But I was reminded of things that I’d let slip.

1.  Set aside time and space.   5 mins…. 10….15…. whatever you know you can do.  And stick to it… perhaps 2 short sessions rather than one long one: morning and evening perhaps.

2.  light a candle, have an icon or a cross or something to focus on.  Have a set start and end to the time.  And if you run out of words or things to say, sit in silence for the rest of the time.  You have offered it to God.  Let him have it.  He may speak to you in the silence when you’ve run out of words. Listening is a vital aspect of prayer. Often we are so busy talking to God that he can’t get a word in edge ways.

3.  Stick to it….. determination…. perseverance….  overcome the apathy, distractions, procrastination… I’ll just do this or that first…. On retreat I had agreed with the person I spoke with each day that I would focus that day on a certain way of prayer.  I couldn’t settle into it…. I really didn’t want to – even though I knew it was what God wanted. However I stuck at it, praying in tongues helped enormously and enabled me to break through the barrier.  In the end I didn’t want to stop, but it was lunch time so I did. I felt so peaceful and close to Jesus, so glad that I had stuck to it.

4.  How to pray – what to pray? Lots of things…. set format/free conversation.  Lord’s prayer is a good basis. There are various books (eg Celtic or Common Worship), lots of apps, websites etc.
The important thing is to read the Bible. There are reading plans and notes or just sit with the bible passage and see what comes to mind.   Highlight + make your own notes of what you feel is important and/or answers to prayer.

Teaspoon prayers: TSP = thanksgiving, sorry, please

Beginning of day – offer yourself and the day to God.
End of day – swifts’ vesper flight (Sue’s daily reflection yesterday was very good).

‘vesper flights’ they soar to dizzying heights cresting the atmospheric boundary layer. What they are doing is flying so high that they can work out exactly where they are, what the weather is going to be like so that they can keep ahead of heavy rain. They find out what they should do next.

This reminded me of a way of ending the day traditionally called the Examen – Sleeping with Bread is a book that explains it very well

I’ve done a video on our YouTube channel which I will share again on Facebook. Here it is: Examen explained

 I include a very short version with the night prayer when I lead it.  What are the blessings of the day – what are the not so good bits where forgiveness is needed – and look ahead to tomorrow and place it in God’s hands.

We need to bring our everyday lives to God and find out what we should do next, like the swifts. 

When we put God first, and establish good prayer routines and habits – persevering when the going gets tough – we will find all the other things fall into place.  The stumbling blocks to our following Jesus will fall away.

We will be able to pick up our cross and follow Jesus, asking God for the Grace to forgive, for the Grace to love those who irritate or annoy us, the Grace to do His will…. live our lives His way not My Way.

And then we will also find that we are more joyful in hope and patient in affliction.  Our stress will be so much easier to handle.  And we will become more spiritually alive and feel closer to God and Jesus. We will be able to persevere.

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