Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 17 September 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
From the Epistle to the Galatians: I have been crucified with Christ, and I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.
Thursday was Holy Cross Day, although its other feast day name, The Triumph of the Cross, is a better title for what I have to say tonight. The liturgical colour for the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross is red, a colour used sparingly in church. Red is for the Holy Spirit, red is for martyrs (as at St Cyprian’s feast day we attended on Friday), red is for Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and red is for the Triumph of the Cross. The Feast has a long and interesting history, which you can find out for yourselves, because I haven’t come here to give you that, but to tell you how the Cross triumphs in our lives.
I don’t think you would be at Evensong and Benediction in this church if you hadn’t wrestled, maybe for years and years, with the many questions raised by the Cross. Why did a good man have to die in despair? And that’s just one of many questions. In the end the Cross is a mystery we have to live out; it is the mystery which somehow makes a life worth living, and any technical or clever answer we might discover, or, more likely, that some preacher forces upon us, does not satisfy us, but serves only to reduce and devalue the mystery. The opportunity which the feast day, Holy Cross Day, gives to us, is a chance to see the cross standing here in our own lives, in our own narrative, not just on Calvary in Holy Week. But let me say first that you are not alone in finding the iconography of the cross, the liturgical use of a torture weapon, a difficult concept. The early Christians did not use it. They used the fish symbol, or the image of a young shepherd with a lamb across his shoulders. Only later was the cross adopted as a sign of the Christian hope of life beyond death.
Any mature religion is about human transformation, your transformation. You and I are the ones who must change. You will have resisted this all your life, and one of the reasons for this, I regret, is the way Christianity has been taught to you. Within Anglicanism there remains a strong Calvinist tradition, which still holds that in order to satisfy a just God, Jesus had to die on our behalf because we are too sunk in our depravity ever to change; God’s son was mangled on a cross to pay a price we could never afford. We can celebrate the quincentenary of the Reformation by changing our minds on this one. It is the old version of sacrifice, which Jesus came to change, because this doctrine of substitutionary atonement, as it is called, allows us to think that it is always someone else who has to die so that we can live as we want. So our lives become full of symbolic deaths, little things we do to stay on good terms with God and stay as we are, symbolic sacrifices, not real. Coming to church could be one of those little symbolic sacrifices we are making without knowing it.
Jesus changes our understanding of sacrifice by changing our understanding of who God is. The cross is how life is, the pain we cause, the suffering of the world we know all too well, the evil we encounter. It is real life, free from the illusions, the daydreams we use to soothe our unease. Jesus on the cross shows us God sharing the fate of the world. So, when we look at the cross, what we call sin, the sense of being separated from God through what we have done, is an illusion. The cross is an invitation to each one of us to lose our lives, our lives of illusion and fear, our lives of self-concern, the persistent false self we show to the world. We lose our lives, in order to discover real life. For the invitation to carry our cross, is not just the road to Calvary and to despair about the suffering of the world. For Christ went beyond Calvary, and was raised on the third day. The life that God offers you is not a happy life and your reward for being good, although happiness might well be yours. The life that God offers you is death transformed into life. Good Friday precedes Easter Day, and that is how it is to be for us. We can not have life without death; that is the biological cycle of the universe. It is the whole paschal mystery which we are invited to enter, not just dip into it once a year in Holy Week, but take it all on board as a way of life, and that means every bit of us. The Cross displays the offering of the whole body to God.
All this is heady stuff for Sunday evening, and if anyone has switched off their hearing aid half way through, I wouldn’t blame them one bit. The Cross is not an easy prospect; the dark cloud of Good Friday hovers over it. There is no dark place we can know that Christ has not been there before us. The Cross is not God demanding justice, but God offering us his love, and showing us the way to transform our lives so that we live with that love too. You can not make yourself more loved by God, and you can not make yourself less loved. Christ died once for all, including each of us. We can not save ourselves by avoiding that paschal path. Rather we must now rest, and I mean truly rest, in the knowledge that from every transformed death comes new life, and in every wound there is an opportunity for healing and hope, and beyond the crucifixions of our lives lies eternal life.