Never Let the Cross Be a Cliché

Sunday 22nd March 2015
The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
John 12:20-33

Now, I mean, most of you know me pretty well. Do I strike you as an Archers man?

Well, I am not one but I share a home with Margaret who has been an Archers lady ever since the very first episode, and so I reluctantly eavesdrop on the drama from time to time, not least  when Margaret sadistically puts my dinner on the table just as an episode is beginning.

A couple of weeks ago Ambridge was under water and there were blokes being heroic in boats. At one point, two men thought they heard a desperate voice but then thought it was just the sound of the wind. You will remember Jane a couple of weeks ago bringing to mind the dress that was either white and gold or blue and black; well, if vision can do that sort of thing to the brain, sound is much more elusive such that a couple of coconut shells really can sound like a horse.

So here we are, outside the temple and Jesus, at the end of a sort of stage aside, says: "Father, glorify your name" and a voice comes from heaven saying: "I have glorified it and I will glorify it again." Was it thunder or an angel? Nobody was really clear which is perhaps why this incident isn't in God's greatest hits, alongside the Baptism and Jesus and the Transfiguration.

Perhaps the reason for the relative obscurity of this passage is the relative difficulty of working out what it means. Jesus says that the voice is not for him but for the crowd so that it knows what is going to happen to him; but this is somewhat complicated by the doctrine which says that Jesus lay his godhead aside when he became human and he therefore cannot know that he's going to rise from the dead on the third day after his judicial murder. Whether, under this doctrine, Jesus can say, as he does: "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" is, I think, a moot point.

So much for the problems with the actual train of events and their doctrinal significance but now let us put these events into their wider context. The central concern in the Gospel of John, quite distinct from that of the other Gospels, is to show that Jesus is in total control of the events swirling around him which will lead to his death, culminating in the mutual glorification of himself and the Father and, as part of the lead-up, Jesus, in a series of somewhat tetchy interchanges with the religious authorities and the crowd before the Temple in his last week, is careful to portray his forthcoming death and triumph over death as a cosmic - and therefore necessarily - massively public, event. You can't get more public than your statement being under-written by God from heaven.

There are, in our society, some vestiges of the crucifixion of Jesus as a public event; it is still hard to go anywhere without seeing a cross on a church but in a really serious way the message of the Cross has been hollowed out. Instead of being a public event it is increasingly thought of not only as a purely Christian factional event but as a profoundly private event whose main significance is the guarantee it provides to individuals of their personal salvation. If you are faithful to Jesus, irrespective of how you behave, goes one translation of the most critical verses in the whole of Saint Paul (Romans 3:21-22), you will be saved. Here is the NRSV translation: "Now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe." But there is a little footnote in the NRSV which says we might translate the passage thus: "The righteousness of God through the faith (or faithfulness) of Jesus Christ for all who believe." Put plainly, one translation says we are saved through our personal faith, the other says we are saved through the faithfulness of Jesus. Now the reason I'm here is that you expect me to study such things and I have concluded after years of study that the second translation is by far the more convincing and coherent in the context of the whole Letter of Paul to the Romans; and this has massive implications for the way we think about the death of Jesus because instead of stating the position, as the first translation does, contractually - if you do this Jesus will do that - it makes the situation totally non contractual: it is the faithfulness of Jesus to us that will save us. A second implication is that the clause that says "irrespective of law" looks a little suspect. This phrase was taken by the 16th Century Reformers to mean that "works of the Law" or, things we do, are directly opposed to the unique attribute of personal faith.

Now nobody who ever says the Lord's Prayer can accept that 16th Century interpretation. Jane and I have a running joke whereby I insist that there is no punctuation in the phrase: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" in the Lord's Prayer; but if we are to take that phrase seriously it has deep implications for public conduct, uniting that thought with what Jesus said in front of the crowd about the cosmic events about to take place.

The crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus are public events in three critical ways:

And so, as we enter this season of Passiontide, let us pause at the sentences we read about what Jesus has done for us, and just give them a little thought; it's too easy for the familiar to descend into cliché: and we must never let the Cross become a cliché.