This sermon was preached at the Good Friday Vigil at St Mark's on Good Friday 2010. It was preceeded by the following readings from Scripture:
1 Cor 1: 18-25
1 John 3: 13-18
1 Peter 2: 19-25
2 Cor 5: 17-20
There is nothing new about terrorism.
It’s almost as old as the human race. The country we now call Iraq, was once the home of some of the nastiest bully-boys in history - known as the Assyrians. When the Assyrians set out to conquer their neighbours, they needed to use a terror-tactic that would frighten those who had conquered...frighten them SO much they they would accept slavery. For many conquered people, death was a preferred option to slavery...so the Assyrians found a way of executing people that was so horrible, so painful, that conquered people would accept their new status as slaves, rather than have to die in such a horrible way.
It was called crucifixion - and it proved to be a very effective terror tactic indeed!
Then, centuries later, along comes the Roman Empire. It was the policy of the Romans to examine all aspects of a society which they conquered, and then adopt the most useful aspects into their own society. The Romans found that crucifixion was an excellent tool of intimidation - so they adopted it...and used it to threaten and maintain control over the nations they had conquered.
Crucifixion involved being stripped naked, and then being hung up to die a long, slow, painful death in a public place. For the Jews, the pain wasn't so much the issue. Pain is bad enough...but the humiliation of being naked in public for days on end was perhaps even worse. Jews were the people who gave us the story of Adam and Eve, whose first act on starting to think for themselves was to sew fig leaves together, to cover their nakedness. Jews hated nakedness. And perhaps we can sympathise with them. What would you feel like if you were stripped naked, and then forced to stand in the middle of North End?
Incidentally, crucifixion was deemed so horrible that Romans wouldn't use it on themselves. Roman law forbade Crucifixion to be carried out on a Roman citizen, even a traitor. It was reserved only for slaves and conquered peoples. Crucifixion was such a degrading, humiliating punishment that for centuries, Christians didn't use the cross as a symbol at all. It was so awful to contemplate, so humiliating. Early Christian pictures of Jesus showed him in the guise of a Shepherd, or as the King of Kings. Never on a cross.
Slowly, however, crucifixion fell out of fashion, and with the rise of the Christian Church as a power in the Roman Empire, it was eventually made illegal. Then, as the awful reality of crucifixion began to fade from the public consciousness, the image of a cross became somewhat less awful to contemplate.
Alongside that, the image of a cross itself was, in fact, a very old religious symbol. The Egyptians had used it, and so had many other societies. It was a simple symbol which demonstrated an intersection between heaven and earth - a simple way of demonstrating the notion that God is connected to us, and we to God. St Paul used a similar idea in our last reading, just know (2 Cor 5: 17-20) when he talked about us being 'reconciled' to God by the Cross. Sometimes crosses were used to illustrate the four 'elements' - earth, air, fire and water - a reminder of the way that all of life is interconnected.
So, Christians began to use that ancient symbol of God and of nature, and use it to speak of Jesus. In fact, throughout the centuries, the Christian Church, has been very clever at taking ancient festivals, ideas and symbols - and relating them to the life of Jesus.
Now, we see crosses everywhere. They are used as earings and jewellery, we see them on T-shirts and handbags, key-rings and tatoos...small signs of some kind of belief in God. They have lost that primal power as a sign of searing pain and torture. Which is perhaps a good thing. Instead of pain, the cross now represents hope to the modern mind. It is no longer a sign of humiliation and death, something to feel frightened and ashamed of. Instead it is sign of God, and a sign of hope. Perhaps we can even learn from some of those ancient societies - and begin to see the cross again as a sign of the way God reaches into human life and transforms it.
Last year, at this Good Friday service, we used a series of readings which helped us to get some idea of what the reality of Roman crucifixion was like. I'm sure that those of you who were here will remember the reading of a doctor's account of the pain - of how fluid would fill the lungs of the crucified victim, and the excruciating pain of the sagging weight of the body on the wrists, nailed into wood. That was fine. It was, I hope, both interesting and moving. I hope it helped us to realise what Jesus went through, unwillingly but obediently, for us and for all humanity.
But this year, I'm inviting us to move away from focusing on the horror of the actual event, and to focus instead on the meaning of that event. We've heard four readings, from different New Testament writers - each of whom was attempting to grapple with the meaning of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Every story has meaning, and every good story can have multiple layers of meaning. Our task as 'theologians' - people who talk about God - is to grapple with those layers of meaning.
We started with Paul, writing to the Corinthians, who commented that the Cross is what he called 'foolishness' to those who are perishing. Paul is saying, effectively, "Look, I know that it doesn't make any sense. How can putting the Son of God to death have any effect on us? To any normal person, the Cross looks like a defeat for God - not a victory. And yet," Paul is saying, "what appears to be foolishness to ordinary people, is in fact wisdom."
Throughout his letters, like other New Testament writers, Paul uses many different images and phrases to try to get a handle on the meaning of this particular story. He talks about 'redemption' - the idea that somehow Jesus' death has purchased us - like redeeming a sort of promise, a kind of voucher that has been held in trust through the centuries. Elsewhere he talks about Jesus death as being like a ransom paid to a terrorist - buying us out of the hands of danger (or in Paul's mind, the power of Satan). Other writers, especially, John, talks about Jesus' death being punishment that we deserved, which because of his love for his earthly children, God decided to inflict on his own Son, even his own self.
But, all of these ideas - and the many others that the Christian Church has grappled with over the years - all of them are just trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. As Paul himself says in the passage we heard, "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength" (1 Cor 1:25). Anyone who tells you that they understand exactly what the significance of the Cross is...they are a fool. Don't listen to anyone who pretends to themselves that they are wise enough to know the mind of God. Don't listen to anyone who says they are wise enough to have understood all the intricate details of what took place on that Good Friday.
Instead...let the story speak to your soul. Grab hold of some of the ideas...ransom, redemption, paying the price, signing a new covenant in blood, Christ the sacrificial lamb, Christ the supreme moral example...take them all, and let them sink into your soul. Let them speak to you of a God who will go to the very end of life for you. Let them speak of a God who is prepared to be tortured for you. Let the stories shriek about the inhumanity that human beings are capable of...human beings who are prepared to murder someone whose only crime was to call us to love God and love one another. Let the story inspire you, let it sadden you, let it outrage you...let it stimulate you to lead a life that is like that life...a life of total self-emptying. A life that looks for the good in others, and draws it out. A life that is given, continually, daily, in service of others.
In a moment, the Choir are going to sing the Lenten Prose - an ancient song of mourning for the way that our lives are so often less glorious than Jesus' life. Its a song of lamentation - of sorrow for the way that we have lived, and which asks God to forgive us, and give us what the Prose calls 'loving absolution'. After that, I'm going to invite you to come forward and tie the red ribbon you've been given to this ugly, wired covered cross. As you do so, let me encourage you to pause - take a moment to re-commit yourselves to the central message of the Story of the Cross - re-committing yourself, your energies, your resources, your money, your time, your talents, your skills to living the life of Christ.
In the last of our readings, Paul taught us that somehow, mysteriously, we are 'in' Christ. Somehow, mysteriously, God's foolishness on the Cross, foolishness that is higher than the greatest heights of human wisdom - that foolishness reconciles us to God. Christ is in us. We are in Christ. By his death, Jesus somehow absorbs us into himself, he 'reconciles' us, he heals us. The Orthodox Church teaches that he somehow deifies us - helping us to live as we were created to live...as people who were created in the likeness of God.
Let that be the picture that you take away with you today - the picture of your life being joined inextricably to God's life. Let God be the first breath you take in the morning, and the last breath as you lay down to sleep. Begin to live as people whose whole existence is infused by God, and with the things of God.
Then, together, we might really begin to know and comprehend the power of the Story of the Cross.