Curate's Sermon, 17th September 2014 - Holy Cross.
May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count as loss, and pour contempt on all my pride”.
Most of you I am guessing know these opening words from the famous hymn by Isaac Watts – a stirring anthem written some 300 years ago and yet thanks to its usual firm attachment to Good Friday still well known even today. And I would say, and I think we would all agree, that these are still rather apt words to hear so many years later and on this day especially, given that this is the day that the Church of England keeps as the feast called Holy Cross Day. And I certainly should agree I suppose given that I chose this particular hymn to open the service of Holy Communion that I have just attended at St Mary’s Church in Whorlton just along the road from here.
And yet I know just from comments made to me in recent days that for many people the sentiments expressed in this hymn and especially in the opening line just do not sit right. I know from words said directly to me that just as some see Good as a bizarre description for the Friday that we remember during Holy Week, so too are some people incredulous that the words wondrous and cross can and are connected in this hymn – and indeed are connected in any way at all. And unsurprisingly then the whole concept of Holy Cross Day is also one that some dismiss totally. And perhaps the reason is most simply summed up by a statement that goes something like this - “why on earth should we be venerating a lump of wood – and especially one used for such a barbaric act?”
Why indeed – and I agree that on one level this would appear to be a very good point.
Because yes, the cross upon which the Prince of Glory Jesus died was certainly like all other crosses at the time, a brutal and hideous method of killing criminals used by a coldly efficient military regime. More than this it was purposely a very public and slow method of disposing of those people who opposed the might and rule of Rome in the first century. A visual warning to others that if you try anything or do anything against the superior strength of Rome then here on a lump of wood with your life slowly slipping away from you will you find yourself.
And death was most certainly slow if you were crucified – it was due to your own weight crushing the wind from your lungs that you eventually died thanks to suffocation. And even if you were lucky enough to have your cries for mercy heard by the soldiers down below, the method of speeding you to your demise was through them breaking your legs so that the terrible pain would see you being unable to hold yourself up, bringing suffocation on more quickly – some merciful act.
Crucifixion was and is then a truly terrible end – and not quite the doddle that the old man in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian claims that it is if you have seen that film. And this is a fact brought home by the iron constitution you need to be able to cope with watching the crucifixion scene in any modern film or TV adaptation. And if you haven’t seen the worst of the bunch Mel Gibson’s gore fest The Passion of Christ, I advise you not to do so on a full stomach – or at all if you are below 18.
Seen in these terms then I would agree that this event, this cross is hardly the thing of wonder this Feast Day would suggest and certainly not a thing worthy of veneration. And also is it any wonder then that people like Terry Jones, one of those Python’s responsible for The Life of Brian could express the view that for them to wear a cross around your neck seems almost as macabre as wearing a guillotine or an electric chair.
But this is of course the point. As Paul suggests in his first letter to the Church in Corinth taken and thought of simply in these terms the cross is anything but wonderful and Holy – indeed it actually appears foolish, pointless and wasteful. Also as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, the cross is not only foolish but also shameful.
Christ then through His being placed upon the cross is undeniably enduring both a painful and shameful death – the death of a criminal. And here again we find perhaps an argument against this feast today. Isn’t the injustice of the cross alone a reason to sweep it under the carpet, to forget it and ignore it. Christ faced all this pain, all those things so hideously described in glorious Technicolor by Mel Gibson and others and He didn’t even deserve it! As the Bible makes clear it was on the false testimony of Judas and others driven by their own self interest that Jesus was found guilty – and then thanks to political scheming and blackmail that this most hideous of death sentences was passed and carried out. A huge miscarriage of justice, then.
And can any rational human being accept such a thing – surely not, it offends us and disgusts us. I don’t know about you but my heart burns inside me still when I think of those times in my life – usually way back in my school days I want to make clear - when I was accused of something that I hadn’t done, or even punished for something without cause.
And our sense of injustice for others can be just as strong as well. The fabulous film The Shawshank Redemption with its slow passage of time for the prisoners in an American jail in the last century is all the more pointed because all the way through as 10 years, becomes 20 years, becomes 30 years you know that the main character is facing this trial, is having his freedom taken away for this huge length of time when he is not even guilty of the crime he was imprisoned for.
And yet I cannot help but think that actually this injustice, this wronging of Jesus, highlights exactly why in one sense we should certainly be surveying the cross – wondrous or not – today and indeed much more often. Because even if Christ Himself is guiltless, the cross is still an event that takes place because of and for the guilty.
Our gospel passage today mentions Moses and the bronze serpent that this great leader of the Israelites held above his head, and of course our Old Testament passage tells very story being referred to. And as we hear in that reading from Numbers, when the people of Israel looked upon the bronze snake held high above them, they may well have seen the route by which God was saving them from the jaws of the serpents that were killing so many of their number daily but also they were faced with the truth that it was because they had turned from God that these snakes were sent upon them in the first place. What was lifted up freed them – and yet it also reminded them of their acts that led to this snake needing to be held up in the first place.
And yes should the cross be the true end of the life of Jesus and should it be the true end of the story that we Christians follow and believe, then yes undoubtedly all we are left with is injustice, stupidity, waste and shame. The injustice of a world that has taken and destroyed the innocent for centuries - the stupidity of a world that can treat people in this barbaric way – the waste of a life lost tragically young in such a pointless manner – the shame of those who can hold the gift of life so lightly that they can treat one another so abhorrently. If the cross is the end of the story we are most certainly faced with our injustice, our stupidity, our waste, our shame – the injustice, stupidity, waste and shame that has and does mark humanity and its history. And perhaps that in itself could be why we have this day today to think on why Christ a human being was lifted up, and as a result of this why maybe we need to change – personally and together.
However for me that would most certainly not be enough – and neither is it for God and Jesus. The cross is not and never will simply be God showing us or telling us that we have done wrong – even if this is true. And our passage is in agreement with this, for as it makes clear today the Son was not sent by the Father to condemn us but to love us. But still we may ask how is this true? And still we may wonder why today, why this feast, why is the cross Holy, how can the cross be wondrous?
Well because of course the cross is not the end of the story, the Holy story within which the Holy Cross is located does not end with this – and that is of course also the point. Because this cross we remember on Holy Cross day is Holy because it is Christ upon it, lifted up as our gospel passage says for our sake, for those who believe in Him. For those who as our passage also says will receive eternal life because the cross is not the end, but just a part that comes before the resurrection, when Christ cheated and defeated death and won for us this most wonderful of prizes.
A prize won because God did not and will not condemn the world as He should, but instead used a terrible sign of condemnation and pain created by us as part of the route to this freedom and eternity in His presence that we really do not deserve.
When we survey that cross then as the hymn suggests it is most certainly wondrous – not because of what it is physically - simply wood and nails - not because of what it was used for actually – to slowly and shamefully destroy life – but instead because of what God and Christ used it for – used it for despite the bloody, painful human things we perhaps rightly and reasonably find ourselves attaching to this.
Because they used this cross as the way that Jesus would take our place, because they used this cross as the manner by which He would briefly enter death, because they used this cross as a stepping stone on the way to the defeat of death and His glorious resurrection, because they used this cross most wonderfully and wondrously as the route to our eternal life. Eternal life won then thanks to the glorious lifting up of the Prince of Glory that we recall on this Holy Cross Day, the day that we recall the Holy Cross upon which He died. Amen.