At the Foot of the Cross 2008

Today you will be with me in heaven

Solders are the scum of the earth but where would you be without them? You're ready enough to hang medals round the necks of our commanders but treat us little better than slaves, doing society's dirty work. You want quiet streets, to keep the barbarians out, criminals despatched, send for the soldiers. As you can see, I am here on your collective behalf, nailing three men to crosses. The first one is an easy enough case; he's a danger to society and isn't sorry for what he's done. The second is a bit of a wimp; he says he is sorry and deserves what he's getting; But the third one, the one in the middle, is a basket case and should have been sent home to his mother. If you put Jewish scruple and Roman ruthlessness together you get harsh decisions but this is one of the worst I've ever seen. But I'm only a soldier, not a judge, sent to align the cross beam, knock in the nails and then just hang about until it's all over.

They all take it differently; I think if I was nailed up there I would want to think long and hard about how it happened and whether it could have been different; but these three start talking. The first man is wasting his time, just foul mouthed; but the second one, who is still going on about getting what he deserves, asks the middle one for forgiveness. And the middle one simply says: "You will be with me in heaven before the day's out." I don't know what that means really but forgiving people, particularly when you're in such a mess, seems noble to me, the sort of thing that we learned about in the stories of the Republic before the Empire. After that, they went quiet and all I have to do now is wait until it's over.

Here we are, soldiers of Christ, waiting at the foot of the cross, waiting until it is over. Not for the first time today, we are in a compromised position because we have knocked in the nails but continue to claim that we are soldiers of Christ. This is the supreme paradox of the death of Jesus and trying to untangle it has led his followers into some of their most convoluted and subtle thinking, so let us go back, as the soldier would say, to the training manual. Jesus, condemned to die, suffering immense physical pain, was born so that he might connect the Creator with creatures, with humanity. The way that some Christians describe this is to say that Jesus came to redeem us, or to save us, or to take away our sins. But these statements do not make sense on their own. Why did Jesus have to do any of these things? Surely not because the Creator was a demented accountant or a mad judge who wanted justice, who wanted somebody to pay. The clue is in the mysterious story in Genesis Chapter 3. The version of the story which we most often hear, runs something like this: the serpent, the craftiest of creatures, whose identification with Satan began in Persia and was transferred by the Book of Revelation into Mediaeval iconography, this serpent lures humanity - nom, better still, a woman - into trying to be God and in order that this serpent should be crushed, God must punish himself in the form of the mutilated Jesus. But an alternative and more plausible understanding of the story, it that The serpent, the symbol of wisdom, beckons all of humanity to abandon the naive idyll in utopia and to fulfil our role as God's special creatures by learning how to exercise freedom of choice. And the reason why this freedom is so important is because without it there is no such thing as love. God is love and we have the awesome privilege of choosing to love, a choice which we often misuse. It is the freedom to choose not to love that explains why we are here now.

How bad could it get, we have to ask ourselves. Well, in the Old Testament it got so bad that God regretted what he had done and almost wiped out humanity; but this version only makes sense if we think of God in relationship rather than as an impassive force. Throughout the Old Testament the Chosen People underwent or forged, depending upon your point of view, a fearful oscillation between faithfulness and disaster as the they struggled with a God they could hardly grasp. The Incarnation provides the means by which we can grasp the idea of God but something else needed to happen to avoid the oscillation, to sustain us in some kind of journey, to give life and history a forward trajectory. In the Crucifixion we are not only forgiven, we are told that there is nothing that will not be forgiven and nobody who will not be forgiven. Sometimes this has been taken to mean that it does not matter what we do because Jesus will put it right through his death; but the converse is true. Because he died to demonstrate the indestructibility of God's love for all humanity, everything we do in the exercise of the choice for which we were created counts enormously. It is so important that we should love out of love and not out of fear that everything that we do is significant.

Sitting here watching people die makes me wonder about what we are here for. One minute you are enjoying a drink with your friends and the next minute a goblet goes flying and before you know where you are, you are dead or arrested for murder. One minute you are enjoying a mild joke at the Emperor's expense and the next minute you are being sent to the top of this hill to be killed. It makes me value the little things. I might be a soldier but I'm also a human being. I notice the landscape, the flowers, the smiles on faces, the taste of a grape. Since I started this duty I think I have become kinder; I know that there is so much roughness and retribution in this world that we must cultivate kindness; we must be meticulous in everything that we do to celebrate the gift of life. I, who have taken life to make my living, value it more now perhaps than those who stay at home. Sometimes what we have to do is difficult and distasteful which is why I love doing something for its own sake, because it's the right thing to do, whether or not anybody notices or knows.

As soldiers of Christ our celebration of nature and life is more directive; we do not simply enjoy what we experience, we know who deserves the praise; And yet, praising God in a judicious sort of way, giving credit where credit is due, is not enough. Our form of celebrating the wonders of Creation should be to live lives of celebration where everything we do counts significantly towards a Kingdom of Love on Earth. When Jesus forgives it is not because our wrong choices do not matter but because it is vital for our being that we become unfettered from our mistakes so that we can continue to choose to love. If you think that human beings are fundamentally wicked, this is an impossibly risky strategy because it leaves the way open for repeated infraction; if you give us a moral inch we will take a mile. But if you believe that we are fundamentally creatures of love, the need to retain sorrow without guilt is overwhelming for our mission.

So many Christians who believe that we are fundamentally wicked, have got themselves into hopeless muddles over what we are watching and it is easy to understand why. We are watching God's own self in the form of a human being, suffering horribly; we know he is going to die. We have to work out why? It is impossible to take this in? It is a stupendous sacrifice and an equally stupendous scandal. And the obvious conclusion is that it is the direct result of human wickedness. But the only way to make sense of it is to go back to the basic manual and re-learn that we have to understand everything in the context of love; not some sentimental attachment, but something difficult and dangerous and ultimately steadfast. Thinking of the effect of the Crucifixion in terms of atonement, ransom, redemption, is to understand it from our own perspective, to think of it in terms of human justice and judgement; but the Crucifixion is an act of God so it has to be thought of in God-like terms; and the only thing that we know about God is that God is love. Every time we stray from this central focus to our own anthropocentric understanding, we go wrong. If we are sorry because of what Jesus did we have missed the point; the reason we need to be sorry for where he is now is not because of what he did but because of what he is. His love has taken the form of suffering because our love did not fulfil its promise.

Our lives are lived at two levels: at one level we struggle to fulfil our promise and at another we mourn the love that has failed. We are part of a pilgrimage of lifelong spiritual Schadenfreude. We say sorry and perform some kind of act of sorrow but to be sorry is a permanent corollary of being created to love, it is part of our necessary imperfection. Whenever we are not sorry we have lost touch with ourselves and with the beloved; that is why penitence is turning back to God, it is putting us back in touch with ourselves as creatures and therefore back in touch with the Creator. The reverse side of this is that the permanent state of sorrow is assuaged by a permanent state of forgiveness. As we were created for one thing and one thing only what appear to be episodes in our lives are simply tangential symptoms; the real meaning of our lives never changes.

It's all grind; I can't see an end to it; but if you watch people like this Jesus it all begins to make some sense. He may be a bit of a basket case - I was probably exaggerating when I started talking about him - but where would any of us be without forgiveness? Nobody's perfect; so no matter how hard we try to love other people we need forgiveness; and we need to know it's always there. How could you be happily married if you never knew when you got home a bit drunk, whether you would be forgiven or not? Because you know it will always be there you don't take advantage of it. Let's face it, this Jesus had nothing to gain by saying what he did to the repentant one; he forgave because it seems like this is part of his being. Perhaps one way of thinking about people like Jesus is that we think they are mad just because they are good all through, they always forgive. But you need people like that. They help you to see that human beings are basically good, that most of them don't take advantage and that when they do they are sorry. I see criminals like these brought for punishment; I see people who join the army because they enjoy being cruel; I see people who think burning houses down is a bit of a lark; I see the appalling misuse of power. And yet, when you look at the faces of people you cannot help thinking that they were made to do good.

Jesus was always clear about forgiveness as he walked through Palestine but when we are enfolded back into the Creator we will no doubt still be shocked to find that the whole world is there with us. The whole world, the soldier and both thieves.


Heavenly Father, you sent your son to bring us courage when we fail so that we might better discern the unfathomable depths of your love; as he hangs before us now at the point of death, help us to turn again to Jesus when we wrongly choose not to love so that we may be one with you in Paradise. Amen.