Sermon for High Mass – Lent 3 Sunday 4 March 2018
1 Corinthians 1.22 We preach Christ crucified.
I would rather freeze than unpack the mystery of the extra boiler controls in my flat. I would rather starve than discover how to clean and operate a grill which is inside an oven. And I – and maybe you – would rather see Christianity as a great unknowable mystery, so we can’t get into it fully because we don’t understand it. But it won’t do; we preach Christ crucified. We preach, we live Christ crucified because there in that image is the clue to who we are and what we can become. Understanding has little to do with it; that would be the wisdom of the world of which Paul speaks, the pros and the cons, working it out, taking sides, never reaching a conclusion. No, we do not understand Christ crucified. We preach Christ crucified, we proclaim Christ crucified, because his life, death and resurrection, are the way we have chosen, once and for all, to understand our lives, and to accept the joy and the sorrow, the death and the resurrection which life brings us. Christianity is not a mystery, it is reality, it is what we’ve discovered works for us.
We preach Christ crucified. This is a proclamation which only makes sense, as Paul saw, to those “who are being saved”, that is those who are committed as best they can to what the Cross means. In the Orthodox Church this Sunday, the third Sunday of Lent, is the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, or simply Holy Cross, to remind us that our salvation is not going to be a result of our Lenten efforts, but is already the consequence of Christ’s victory. Lent began on Ash Wednesday with ash on the forehead, a crazy sign in many ways, but there could be no clearer symbol imposed upon each of us, showing that what we are about is a matter of life and death to us. But that ash had a form. It was the form of a cross which touched each forehead. So the ash was more than a sign of the reality of death. It was the sign of the crucified and risen Christ. It speaks to us of glory and victory. It is also the sign of the outcast, the one who does not really fit in, the one who will not give in to the compromises demanded by the world, like the Jesus who casts out the Temple traders in today’s Gospel. We Christians are not superior to those who have no beliefs, we just don’t play that game of who’s best at all, because we know what we’re like, and that our own attempts to save ourselves never work. So we preach Christ crucified. Why Christ crucified, why that offensive Cross, why keep coming back to that, why not the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ the Teacher? I think it is because we recognise in that crucified figure two emotions, two experiences, two facets of ourselves we know well: despair and love.
I choose to talk about this now, because we are, more or less, half way between two crosses; the dust cross of Ash Wednesday and the wooden cross of Good Friday. The one was our commitment to the other, and I would not like us to lose our way as we walk between the two. It is best to be prepared, for the second cross is the greater, more dangerous reality. We know that God was there, not because we understand it, but because we are drawn, against our better, more worldly judgement, into an experience of despair and love, from which we arise liberated at Easter. God’s grace flows from the heart of darkness. God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, writes St. Paul, and he insists that the Cross stands alone in its power to save; he says he is not going to make use of eloquent wisdom to explain it, although you and I might say that that first chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians is one of the greatest sermons ever written.
Where is this Lenten path taking us, or to put it more bluntly what does all this Christianity do to us? I think that if we stay the course mindfully we begin to see the form of Christ taking shape in our lives. Just as the ash took the form of a cross, and as the crucified One took the form of God, so you and I find our egoism dissolved and replaced by the power of God’s life, a Christ life within each of us. We do not imitate Christ, that was not the New Testament message, and it would be impossible anyway. Yet what happened to Christ happens to each of us. Paul was able to claim, “I have been crucified with Christ. I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” [Galatians 2.20; 6.17] How can this work for us? As I see it, just as God was shown to us in the despair and love of Christ on the Cross, and in the joy and new life of Resurrection, so in our own situations, however desperate, however hopeless, however uncomprehending, God enters our world and transforms the space we inhabit into a place of healing. This can start in Lent. Lent is not a time for making life hard for ourselves; it is a time for healing, for forgiveness. A new hope rises within us.
So we can be crushed yet not despair, we can be struck down yet not destroyed, because what we as Christians are called to do is to make the life of Jesus visible in the world, in our own way, whatever happens. There is a purpose to our lives after all, and that is God’s gift, and that will be God’s glory; we can preach Christ crucified.