So here’s the question: What have you given up?

As Easter approaches, many people will be looking forward to the end of Lent so they can give up giving up! As is the custom in many parts of the world, some will have stopped eating cakes or chocolate, while others have stepped back from their use of social media. In the midst of all of this, there is a danger that our actions become trivial, yet millions of believers use the act of giving up as a spiritual discipline. This practice heightens our awareness of a holy time. I thought I could give up coffee – but I’m not sure that would do much good to me or, perhaps even more so, for the people around me! I have decided to track the value of my coffee and I’ll make that an extra gift to my self-denial.

The act of giving up, sacrificing something, is at the very heart of the Easter story. Those of you who have read my Easter message will recall that I explored the links between the ultimate sacrifice made by Christ on the Cross and the benefits brought about by this utterly selfless act. ‘The punishment that brought us peace was on him,’ as we read in Isaiah, ‘and by his wounds we are healed.’ It is amazing that we can have peace because of Christ’s punishment; that his injuries bring us healing. It doesn’t even seem fair!

The world understands the idea of sacrifice that leads to our own benefits – people work hard so they can play hard; they scrimp and they save so they can buy something important; those who work out in the gym go through pain so they can gain better health and the feeling of wellbeing. But great sacrifice in order that others can benefit? Well, who would really do that?

I have led a blessed life, but not without sacrifice. Like all Salvation Army officers, I have given up control of where I live and what my role might be; I’ve given that into the hands of The Salvation Army. I don’t lack for essentials, but my giving up of control has led to one significant sacrifice – I live thousands of miles away from my family and along with my children and grandchildren we live in three different parts of the world. That separation sometimes creates some hurt and longing, and sometimes a deep heartache and yearning. When things go wrong or, equally, when there are times of celebration, I really do want to be there. I don’t just want to be aware!

Yes there are times, when I am aware of my physical separation from my loved ones, but nothing could compare to the dynamic of separation that helps me focus on Jesus crying out on the Cross – ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ If I feel the pain of being separated from my family, how much more did God experience pain in being separated from his Son, with whom he has shared a deep intimacy for all of eternity. The ultimate sacrifice was made and, amazingly – heartbreakingly – it was made for me. It was made for you, whoever and wherever you are. In comparison, there is surely nothing we could give up to make things square with our Creator.
The joyful reality, of course, is that he doesn’t ask us to make a great, painful, significant sacrifice. Instead, he asks us to follow his simple instructions – to love God and to love one other. Doing this fully will involve sacrifices on our part. We can’t ever ignore the appeal to ‘take up our cross and follow him’ So we give of our time, our wealth, our talents. We explore what it means to surrender to him knowing that we will give, and he will use what we give.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus explains to his followers that when they give food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, when they take in the stranger or clothe the destitute, when they look after the sick or visit the prisoner, they are doing all these small acts of sacrifice for the one who gave up everything for them. Because each of these endeavours has a cost for the person giving help, whether that is through giving up of time or attention or through paying for food, drink or clothing. It’s crystal clear that this is God’s way’s selfless giving in order that others can benefit.
So I’m asking you. I’m asking you again – what have you given up? And what will you give, so that God’s way can be followed?

My Salvation Army uniform, like that worn by hundreds of thousands of Salvationists around the world, has an ‘S’ on each lapel. These letters remind me every time I put on my tunic that we who follow Christ through The Salvation Army are called to ‘Save to Serve’ Recently, while traversing a border entry into a country, the attendant shared with his colleague for all to hear…’Salvation Army – Saved to Serve.’ Upon inquiry he noted his ignorance about us but knew we were a ‘Serving’ Army. Saved, Serving and familiar with Sacrifice.

This Easter Sunday, as you celebrate the glorious victory over death of our risen Saviour; as you emerge from your Lenten life adjustments and happily dive back into the cake and the chocolate, or log back into your social media, I pray that this spirit of sacrifice will stay with you. And as Christ calls us again to give of ourselves to help what he called ‘the least of our brothers and sisters of mine’, I pray that you will follow his lead in selfless giving and living so that others may have life in all its fullness every day.

May God bless you.