Sunday 13th March 2016
Year C, The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint

"So who in the world will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason?" This was the question which Archbishop Thomas Becket put to his congregation on Christmas Day 1170, four days before he was murdered, as he knew he would be. And, as he asked it at the birth, I ask it again on this Passion Sunday: "So who in the world will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason?" And I ask this in the context of that Medieval fascination with the Christological hypothetical, most popularly represented in the Carol, Adam Lay Ybounden summed up in the phrase: "Blessed be the time that apple taken was." If the wonder of the Incarnation is not great enough in itself, this is the season for adding the fortuitous salvific dimension.

The riddle that is posed by the carol lies at the heart of Christian faith: what is the point of God's creating a flaw in humanity which can only be fixed by God? This question presents itself most acutely if we think of God's dealings with creation as sequential: first, creation; and then, much later, the life of Jesus culminating in crucifixion and Resurrection. But, from God's 'point of view', so to speak, the events of creation and crucifixion were timeless or, again to use approximate human language, they are simultaneous because these acts of God have always been and always will be, as can be seen from the opening of Saint John's Gospel. But, even if we see matters from the timeless perspective, there is still the basic problem of why we were created flawed to which the most plausible answer is surely that it is only with a moral flaw that we can exercise free will to love God and each other; if we were perfect we would have no capacity for love, no choices to make. If this is at least plausible, then the next step is to face up to the purpose of the Crucifixion which, regardless of denominational baggage, most Christians take to be the first stage of putting right the flaw, because what God has flawed only God can fix. This idea is often put in an extreme form known as "Penal substitution" whereby Jesus, in a quasi legal act, satisfies God's anger with flawed humanity. But no matter which way you express the thought, it follows from this that the Crucifixion is a necessary precondition for the Resurrection.

But if you think that all that I have said is complicated, it gets much worse. Some Christians believe that however Jesus can be said to have saved us by his death and Resurrection, that he has, in fact, only saved some of us. The narrowest understanding of this idea is that even among struggling Christians, historically referred to as the Church Militant, only some of us will be saved and that there is nothing we can do about it which, of course, makes a nonsense of any idea that the purpose of imperfection is the exercise of free will. This idea, that God created some of us not to be saved then begs the question of why 'He' should have bothered at all. Other people, taking a wider view, believe that all those who have heard of Jesus and have faith in him will be saved. This presents two problems: the first is that the notion that we are saved by our faith in Jesus is much more egotistical than the idea, which is an equally valid understanding of the critical Pauline texts, that we are saved by the faithfulness of Jesus. The second problem is raised if you see the life of Jesus in linear time: what is the possible purpose of creating countless people who cannot be saved because they were either born in the wrong time or place ever to hear about Jesus. And then there are those, whom we might call generalists, in a tradition most vividly articulated by Julian of Norwich, who say that we will all be saved because we can hardly be blamed for the imperfection which results in wrong choices. But there might be an exception for those who know about Jesus and deliberately turn their back; but, even then, we would have to ask what we mean by the human statement that God is merciful: is such mercy like ours but simply writ large or does it possess a qualitative difference?

All of which goes to show that saying the articles in the creeds about the Crucifixion pose more questions than they answer, always supposing that we need an answer about the mechanics of the Crucifixion and not simply the bald truth.

Returning, then, to Thomas a Becket's question: the rejoicing arises out of our being created out of love so that we might freely love God; and the mourning arises because we all know that we could play the hand that we have been dealt much better. Saint Augustine called the flaw in our createdness "Original Sin" but that, I think, is unhelpful theological jargon. The essence of sin is that we consciously reject, neglect or denigrate God or that we reject, neglect or do not see God in our neighbour and treat her accordingly. But the notion of sin is, in any case, challenged by the debate about nature and nurture and about the line between evil and illness.

There is one further aspect of the Crucifixion which cannot be ignored and that is the simple fact of the pain which led to death. Our mourning, surely, concentrates on the cost to Jesus of Incarnational solidarity with imperfect humanity. From the standpoint of abstract logic, God might have attained 'His' purposes simply by Jesus dying in his bed before rising again but that would not have threatened to break our hearts. It is only when we become acutely aware of our own individual and collective wrong choices that we can steel ourselves to love God better which is, after all, our reason for being.

Finally, however, I want to go back to the perfect simultaneity of creation and redemption by saying that God is love, who created us out of love so that we could freely love; and what the Crucifixion shows us is that that God's love is so absolute, beyond our imagining that we, as humanity, are forgiven even after committing the ultimate sin, the murder of Jesus. If we, as flawed humanity, can be forgiven that sin, what sin is there that will not be forgiven?

Just as creation and redemption are inseparable, so are the rejoicing and the mourning. There is no satisfactory English word for Schadenfreude but, never mind; simply hold on to the idea that although we are familiar with rejoicing on Christmas Day and Mourning on Good Friday, the best Christian response is to do both, simultaneously, on both occasions.