The Cosmic Cross

Sunday 13th March 2005
The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint

As we awake every morning to yet another sorry litany of the self inflicted ills of humankind, it is difficult to realise that we live permanently within the shadow of the victory of the Cross. The poor and inadequate are slaughtered, exploited or ignored; politicians, frightened of voters, but much more frightened of powerful interest groups, dither; and we learn all about the poor world's shortcomings through the persistent sneer of unelected journalists. It is, on the face of it, a depressing world.

And then, closer to home we are in a state of civil war. The Church Militant has turned in on itself; we have torn down our banners of the Cross and replaced them with pick-and-mix slogans about what we think of as morality. How misled we are. We might be inspired to go the extra mile as witnesses of Christ's saving grace; we might put up with severe hardship now and again on the pilgrimage of life from the font to the florist's final bill if we believed that this would bring hope; but do we really want to dedicate our lives to bigotry and bossiness? When the Church of Christ uses its energy to obscure rather than to clarify His message we are in deep trouble.

So, on this Sunday, the last before the full drama of Christ's death and Resurrection unfolds once again before us and within us, I want us to focus on the meaning of the Cross as the iconic, central point between incarnation and Resurrection.

First, the incarnation. God could have made any number of arrangements to help us overcome our fall from Grace. He could have sent a message to say the slate was clean; he could have sent an angel round all the great leaders, with a special mission to sort out the Romans; but he chose to manifest Himself as a human being like us, only less well off and less well placed. We do not know why; but we do know that this represents a deeply significant empathy in God's love of us and it massively affirms our divine potential.

Next, the Crucifixion. Again, in spite of impressive theological tomes on penal substitution and atonement and the whole discipline of soteriology, the study of salvation, we do not know why God chose this method of showing His love; but, again, what we do know is how the Passion and death of Christ tell us two things of overwhelming significance: the first is our propensity for doing evil; the second is God's endless capacity for doing good. Without the Passion and Death it is difficult to think that we would have taken our salvation seriously.

Thirdly, the Resurrection. We do not know precisely in what form Jesus appeared to his friends once He had risen from the dead but we do know that this was the clincher when it came to their understanding of His mission on earth. Three times, then, in His birth, in His death and in His Resurrection Jesus forged a remarkable relationship between His Divine and Human natures and the hinge, binding the incarnation and resurrection together, is The Cross.

The Cross is the central symbol of our faith, a symbol of the mystery of our salvation. This is the symbol we need to hang onto for the next fortnight. We will, of course, call to mind the details of Christ's Passion; the agony at Gethsemane was real enough; the taunts of the soldiers were real enough; the cowardice of Peter and Pilate were real enough; and the nails were nails and the thorns were thorns and the cries were cries and the blood was blood. We should never forget these things because they help us to remember that Jesus, the Son of God, was a human being, like us; and that we are truly blessed to be spared the ordeal of Martyrdom.

But behind the cruelty and the cowardice, the stuff of our daily awakenings, there lies the truth of the Cross; that Jesus, by His Cross and Precious Blood has redeemed us. Not a few of the elect, not just certain kinds of Christians, not just all Christians; but all of the world. The Crucifixion was a cosmic act whose saving power was made irreversible in the Resurrection. Whatever the totally human, totally obedient Jesus thought as He breathed His last, the Resurrection turned his death from the defeat of the flesh to the triumph of hope.

What this means for us as Christians is that we have responsibilities over and above those of others, to proclaim the Gospel we have personally encountered. As I said, most of us will be spared the call to any kind of martyrdom but we still have a lifelong mission to proclaim the Gospel of hope which might take us into personal suffering to demand of us what Bonhoeffer called the Price of Discipleship.

The first place where we must make a difference is inside our own Christian community, here amongst our friends and acquaintances. We must support and build up each other in the love of Christ. If we must express our individual aspirations and grievances then this must be direct, proportionate and charitable, always assuming from the outset that everybody has a good reason for doing everything.

Secondly, inside the church at large we must abandon the tut-tutting as yet another clergyman (and it usually is a man) picks and mixes his own favourite moral smorgesbord; we need to tell our leaders that they must behave themselves; and instead of being cross they should humbly stand at the foot of the Cross.

Thirdly, we need to bring hope to the world through proclaiming that everyone will be saved. Clearly, not everyone will find salvation on our most blessed pilgrimage, constantly in the company of Jesus; and we may find it hard to believe that any number of villains we could think of might ultimately be saved; but ours is not a message of ecclesiological league tables with our kind of churchgoers at the top, the Muslims somewhere in the minor leagues and atheists not even eligible to play. Sometimes the incarnation, Passion and Resurrection give us a self confidence to which we are not entitled: we make the unwarranted leap from knowing why these things happened to claiming to know how they happened and for whom they were crucially intended.

Let us, then, when we wake up in the morning to yet another bleak, secular landscape, sadly littered with the harshness of clerical anathema, remember that we live in the age of irreversible hope. We live appalled and exalted by the Cross; we live guilty of inflicting pain but joyful in sin forgiven; and as people who are capable of deep self consciousness, we are capable of watching ourselves watching what happened on Calvary from a variety of perspectives: we see our imperfect but passionate individual relationship with Jesus; we see the death of Jesus in utter despair yet know He will rise; we see the Jesus who makes sense of our corporate Christian lives; we see the tragedy and the triumph, the tiniest of details and the massive theological superstructure of salvation. All these we see; but I wonder whether the picture we miss is Jesus the Saviour of the world; Jesus the Saviour of all others.

Hope, the staff of our earthly pilgrimage, is not a sloppy, passive concept; we would not think much of somebody who went to the station without consulting a timetable, in the hope that a train will turn up. Hope is the support of all our endeavour; it is what sustains us as we probe deeper and deeper into the mysteries of our faith; it enables us to be patient and brave as we look into ourselves and our relationship with God, giving our spiritual lives ever greater richness.

But hope and the elucidation of mystery are not private properties, they are Christ's gifts to the world through His church. May we, then, as we approach the solemnities of Passiontide, enliven hope within us, within each other, within the Church and within the aching souls of those who do not yet know the Lord Jesus, who awaken each day to the same bleakness to which we awaken but who do not yet share our hope.