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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Mark 7: 34-5
Today our lectionary brings us to the point in Mark's gospel where Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem, where he will be arrested and killed. At precisely this point in the gospel Jesus is recognised by Peter for who he is - the Messiah, the Christ - and the implications of following Jesus are made crystal clear. The path of Christ is the path that Jesus himself follows, a path of suffering and self-renunciation.
What should we make of this; does God want us to suffer? Is there something good about suffering; is it something we should seek out? Of course not. Sometimes in the history of the Church, unhealthy and masochistic spiritualities have seemed to suggest otherwise. Against these, the gospel is quite clear: God calls us to a fullness and richness of life, as John's gospel has it "to have life, and have it abundantly".
The problem is not with God, but with a world that has a hard time living life in its fullness. That life, after all, is a life of love, and love is a frightening thing. Love involves vulnerability, an opening up of ourselves, and the ending of our fantasies of self-sufficiency and control. And that can be extremely threatening. As a consequence, when we see love, we are constantly in danger of responding not by welcoming it, but by hitting out.
The world hits with its most deadly spite by crucifying Jesus. Those who follow him can't expect to be free from similar reactions. At various times and places the Church has been persecuted. Now, it is absurd - in spite of the efforts of some prominent Christians to the contrary - to claim that the Church in contemporary Britain is in any way persecuted. None the less, we may sometimes be given a hard time for being Christians. We may sometimes give ourselves a hard time for being Christians: at war with ourselves, there are parts of us that prefer that old way of cold invulnerability to the way of love.
Either way, what is going on here is the tension between the reality of God's redemption and the persistence of sin, of the refusal of love. Herbert McCabe put it like this: "if you don't love you will die, if you do love, they will kill you".
We are called to love. We may not be killed, but no authentic life of love will be free from trouble. And yet there is no other way we can be genuinely fulfilled. So, by God's grace, we persist, in the hope that the final victory of love over death, that hard won joy of Easter, may be ours.