Good Friday 10 April 2020

The Glory of the cross

The cross is the most recognisable symbol of Christianity. It crowns buildings, sits in windows, marks graves and is worn round millions of necks. It is easy to forget that originally it was an instrument of torture and death. It was a hated and feared symbol of Roman oppression, used to humiliate and make an example of those who angered the Roman invaders. The Romans themselves despised it, and no Roman citizen was allowed to be crucified; it was reserved for slaves and conquered peoples.

We are told that Jesus feared it, like all his contemporaries. On the night before he died, he prays in agony: “Take this cup (of suffering) away from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22.42). On Good Friday, we witness the darkest of hours as Jesus, the greatest teacher and healer that has ever been known, dies an agonising, slow death. The cross was so feared that it didn’t become the symbol of Christianity until 300 years after the death of Jesus, when a Roman emperor became a Christian, and banned the use of a cross as a means of execution. Only then was the secret fish symbol used by Christians to identify themselves replaced with a cross.

So how did Bad Friday become Good Friday? The name is easy to explain. Good Friday was originally called God Friday. And just like the words “God be with you” have become our modern “Goodbye”, so God Friday became Good Friday. It’s a slip of the tongue, but it’s actually a happy slip.

For this day was seen as a Good day, as well as a God day, from earliest times. Jesus himself says this about it, in John’s Gospel: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (Jn 12.23)

We are beginning to understand the power of a good person choosing to put their life at risk for others in this epidemic, as we see the rising number of doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants dying as a result of their loyalty to their patients and colleagues. Who of us is not inspired to give a bit more, and to endure a bit more, by the sacrifice of these who chose to continue caring, when they knew that it could cost their lives?

This is the glory of which Jesus speaks: the glory of surrender into the hands of faceless evil, of sacrifice, of courage and loyalty. The paradox here is summed up again by Jesus, as he surrenders to death, the final outrage in his shameful treatment, his words are indeed words of surrender, but into the hands of God, not into the hands of evil. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”, he cries (Lk 24.46).

Evil has done all it could; his body is broken; his mind starved of oxygen; his heart torn by the sight of his grieving mother. But as Jesus dies he surrenders not to evil, but to God, because evil has lost its grip on him. As he dies, he passes out of its domain and rests in the deeper reality that God holds us all, including this broken, virus riddled, frightened earth. As he dies, the power of evil is broken….. and not just for Jesus alone.

This is the power of this day, this Good Friday: all the forces of evil are arraigned against Jesus and they spend their power on him, only to find that he slips out of their domain, and opens up a way for all who wish to live outside the destructive power games, hatred, cruelty and despair of a godless world.

This is not a counsel of despair or charter for suicide; this is not me saying that death is something welcome, yet it is true that Jesus’ death takes away the fear of death. We tend to fear what we don’t understand, but Jesus teaches us that death is not something to be feared. The beautiful story of him promising one of the men on a cross next to him that “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23.43), tells us that death is not some shadowy sleep or place of torment, but the fulfilment of our dreams, the place where the truth comes out and we are naked in the love of God, like Adam and Eve before the tragedy in the garden (told in Genesis 3 – paradise is another word for Eden, the garden).

The power of this day is that Jesus takes this freedom to live outside of the power of evil right back into the broken world. The evil powers thought that by crucifying Jesus, they could manage the world to suit themselves. But Jesus, by his voluntary acceptance of death, and his resurrection, inaugurates a new era, where, in the power of his Spirit, women and men, girls and boys can live lives that openly defy the power of evil and selfishness and despair.

I’d like to share with you some stories that have reminded me this last week of God’s people living counter-cultural lives, lives that defy evil to its face:

An 8 year old member of St Paul’s church decided, quite on her own, to put a “worry box” at the end of her drive, so passers-by could put their worries in it. At the end of the week, she took them to the cross outside church.

The PCC at St Mary, Tadley, decided to go on paying their cleaner, even though she can’t work, because they cared about her and her family.

A man who only occasionally comes to church in Silchester offered to help financially anyone who Rev Rob knows has money problems.

A harassed single mum who offered immediately to shop for any isolated older people.

The many of you who have volunteered to help phone lonely people, or collect prescriptions, or shop for the isolated, or give to Foodbank……

The death of Jesus sets us free from the self obsessed fear that holds us back from acts of kindness and generosity. The death of Jesus sets us free from the fear of this virus, so that we are able to choose rationally not to go out, for the sake of others, not for our own sake. The death of Jesus helps us know that lives which have to be laid down in this epidemic are not wasted, but weave the very fabric of society. They will earn a reward far beyond the rewards of Hollywood. The death of Jesus defines the church as the body of people who live generous, sacrificial lives. Whenever the church becomes mean, selfish and driven by fear, it forgets what it is:

  • It is the company of the free, for whom death holds no fear.
  • It is the company of the forgiven, for whom failure is never the last word.
  • It is the company of the holy, for whom Jesus is all in all.
  • It is the company of all faithful people, regardless of race, income, age, gender, education, culture or orthodoxy, who refuse to bow to evil and despair.
  • It is you and it is me, and it is all who walk in the way of Christ.

Today we honour our leader, Jesus, who calls us to take up our cross and follow him in the ever present battle to overcome evil by refusing to play by its rules. One day, He will return and death will be swallowed up in victory (1 Cor 15.45)