Sermon at All Saints Coddington for Good Friday 2016
It’s virtually impossible to say anything new about the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s the most thought about, and talked about, and written about, and depicted in art, and sung about single event in the whole of human history. Which of course indicates that it is also the most important and significant happening there has ever been since the creation of the world.
And there are reminders of it almost everywhere – crosses and crucifixes, from massive ones atop mountains, through simple or bejewelled ones in churches, to tiny ones worn on necklaces. And millions upon millions of catholic and orthodox and other Christians regularly sign themselves with the sign of the cross.
Yes, the cross of Christ is something we Christians are very familiar with; probably too familiar, for we can easily forget the sheer, gruesome horror of it. Crucifixion is an extreme way of carrying out a sentence of death. It takes a long time; it is excruciatingly painful; it is utterly degrading. It was chosen by the Romans as the ultimate deterrent for those who were not citizens of Rome: it was too extreme for even the worst of their own nationals.
Crucifixion. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” To be present at any crucifixion would, I’m sure, cause us to “tremble, tremble, tremble.” Well, we don’t want to dwell on that, but at least on this Friday morning we shouldn’t gloss over it.
And why did it happen? Why did God let it happen? Or even engineer it? What was its purpose?
Over the centuries – twenty centuries – there have been many theories put forward, and probably most of them have some truth within them. It remains though unfathomable, like God himself. And in these few minutes I can only say what seems to me to be the most helpful explanation.
First, I should say that I don’t find at all helpful those theories which suggest that it was a God versus Jesus conflict, Jesus standing in for us as our substitute, with God exacting a vengeful recompense for all the sins of humankind past, present and future. Nor was it a matter of Jesus down here, on a green hill without a city wall, and God up there in heaven, a distant witness. No, God himself was totally involved, in all of it.
Jesus was a man, with all the attributes and also all the limitations of human body, mind and spirit. He was a man through and through. But in him, in a unique way, was God; so completely that what Jesus said and did, God was saying and doing, and what happened to Jesus, happened to God.
Do you remember that Sydney Carter song which had one of those crucified alongside Jesus saying to him: “It’s God they ought to crucify instead of you and me, I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree.” God was there – in Christ – on that cross. God in Christ doesn’t just know about suffering: he knows it intimately, personally: he has experienced it, to its extremity. So, by the cross, he can share our suffering, and all suffering shared is at least a little easier than suffering borne entirely alone.
Well, what brought Jesus to the cross? It was in a word love – his love for others. In his life he had astounded people and alienated the religious leaders of the day by his friendship for people of doubtful character, fraudulent tax collectors, prostitutes and so on. He talked with them; he shared meals with them. He was Jesus, the friend of sinners. He put people before religious rules. And it was this popular undermining of the authority of the authorities that more than anything made them want to do away with him. So it’s an historical fact that he died for sinners. It was his love for them which he wouldn’t give up that brought him to the cross.
He could have escaped. Time and again he could easily have slipped away into obscurity and given up his troublesome ways. But that would have been a betrayal of all he had stood for. So, courageously, he went on: he loved his friends to the end. And that’s not just his friends of 2000 years ago: his love projects onwards and outwards like ripples on a lake to include all his friends today.
But why did Jesus, Jesus good above all other, have to die? His death on the cross was totally undeserved, a complete miscarriage of justice. But it was only by dying in that way, a self-sacrificial way, that he could prove to us and that we can believe, that he loves us and loves us without limit. In effect God in Jesus said: “I love you so much, I would even die for you.” And not only did he say it, he did it.
The church of St John the Baptist in Swindon, where I was vicar in the sixties, was a new stylish almost Italianate building. It had a tall red-brick separated tower, which tapered slightly toward the top, and it was surmounted by a simple concrete cross, 18 feet high and painted white. You could climb to the top of the tower by a series of rung ladders within it, and if you opened the trap door you could come out onto the flat roof which was only about 6 feet by 8 feet. And there was no parapet, just a sheer drop all round. I’m not worried by heights, but I just had to hold onto the cross, and I thought of that line from Rock of Ages: “Simply to thy cross I cling.” It was my only security: it saved me.
Today on Good Friday, we all embrace the cross of Christ, for in the words of another hymn: “Inscribed upon the cross we see in shining letters: God is love.”