Addresses given by The Rev'd Joe Moore for Good Friday
Over the years the words we use in public worship have been revised. One of the newer sentences in the communion service has proved more popular than most. Perhaps it stands out to you? It is the line, ‘He opened wide his arms on the cross.’
When someone opens their arms to you – what do you see?
What is being expressed?
What are you about to receive?
And how do you respond? – joy, love, delight, welcome – with open arms in return.
His arms are opened wide towards us and our world.
Here is love, vast as the ocean… that refuses to keep distance from us.
To imagine love in this place of such dreadful suffering is not easy. The focus is more often placed on judgement, guilt, punishment, debt and sacrifice. And they are all part of this story. But that focus too easily makes the cross a kind of extreme, divine problem solving – one which requires unspeakable suffering and death to deal with our sin.
Well, the cross is a place of painful truths but that is not where the story starts. What is original to this world is not our sin or evil.
It is divine love. When we begin with the negatives, focused on the problem, we never get out of the cycles of judgment and condemnation. No repentance is ever enough. No effort with make us acceptable.
It is true that human sin has made God’s embrace of us a work of tragic redemption … but it is love that holds him there. Love is reaching out to us at whatever cost. There is no distancing.
Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity – “now you can love them after all”. Jesus came to change our mind about God.
God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. This is welcome beyond any language of deserving – good or bad ….
The cross tells us that nothing we humans can do will ever decrease or increase God’s eternal eagerness to love us. Divine love is made visible here – forever.
So let us draw near to this love.
There is somewhere is this separated world where we have no need to keep our distance.
There is offered here an embrace unlike anything we have ever known.
It is beyond all imagining or any notions of deserving.
He opened wide his arms on the cross.
Executions always took place outside the city, in places of maximum publicity, by the main routes into the city – as a warning and deterrent. That the sign above the cross of Jesus was in three languages (as we learn elsewhere) makes this clear.
This is a message and a signal.
Around the edge of any growing ancient city would have been quarries, close to the main roads, managing the endless demand for building material.
Occasionally the quarriers would come to a rock that was flawed or cracked – perhaps from earthquakes. They would chisel round and continue cutting back so that, over time, the quarry floor would have lumps and outcrops of damaged rock sticking out, standing alone, rejected by the builders.
One of these had attracted the name ‘skull’ – because that is what it looked like.
It was a place used for executions. It was by this rock, or upon it, that Jesus was crucified.
We know that for the first years after the death of Jesus, the Jerusalem Christians gathered by this stone on Easter day. That makes sense of the words of Peter,
‘Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood. ‘The stone that the builders rejected’ has become the very head of the corner’.
The first Christians were often from among the poor, the marginalised, the socially ‘worthless’. To such people comes this unexpected invitation. Come to Jesus. You too are like stones in the quarry, left behind like so much debris, odd shapes and flawed pieces no one found any use for; discarded after the powers have chosen the best by their measures of value and importance.
But you are, in fact, of great value.
Here at the place of the skull – we too come flawed, unpromising and far behind when judged by the preoccupations and obsessions of this present age.
But listen. All the usual measures of what makes us acceptable, impressive or even useful have been suspended – or rather reversed.
‘Come to him’, says Peter. Really?!
This takes some trusting. We should expect anything built on such a foundation to look foolish, sound irrelevant, and be easy to mock and despise by any normal measure.
We will not be found on ‘Grand Designs’.
We will never be impressive building materials. But nor was Jesus.
He was a stone the builders rejected. If Jesus, the rejected one, is the foundation stone of life, we are being shown a completely different way of knowing ourselves and of seeing and knowing God. All that has been rejected and left behind as worthless must be seen in a new light.
Jesus, the stone the builders rejected, has become the foundation stone for the only building that really matters – the new humanity built upon his love.
Stop all the clocks……….cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, Silence the pianos and with muffled drum Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Good Friday might, paradoxically, present an opportunity to dwell on those desolate, hopeless, abandoned parts of the human experience which W.H. Auden’s familiar poem communicates so powerfully. ‘Stopped,’ ‘cut off,’ ‘moaning,’ ‘dead,’ ‘unwanted.’ Dark places of disillusion and despair. Places which all of us visit at different times; baggage – of different kinds but always heavy – that we carry with us. Perhaps we bring some of it here with us today. Our sickness unto death – our fear of death, our griefs and losses, our unresolved, inarticulate anger, our own depression and pain, and the struggles of those dear to us. Auden’s words have in the background that dulling knowledge of the cruel ways in which men and women treat one another, over history and over the breakfast table. In the diseased distance is the problem of evil, hearts squashed by the senselessness of suffering. The poet appeals grandly to a cosmic sense of existential alienation, but exile can be ordinary too – felt in long broken friendships, the jagged edges of which pierce our hearts but which through hurt and pride and the complexity of our human circumstances we must leave unreconciled.
Our liturgy this afternoon is not ‘Funeral Blues,’ not about paying our respects to a dead God, but about beholding and cherishing an instrument, yes, devised in man’s wickedness and emblematic of his morbidity, but which has become the vehicle of divine love; an emblem of pain and decay which God has made our salvation and our way to wholeness and joy.
The Cross was an instrument of torture, a device conceived in cruelty not only to kill but to humiliate and disfigure, to destroy the body of the victim and deaden the spirits of those made to watch. It was an emblem of the sin that ‘silences’ all hope, ‘prevents’ all promise, ‘cuts us off ’ from relationship with, even apprehension of, a loving God.
And yet by submission to it, Christ has made of it not the haunting shadow of a depraved humanity, but the silhouette of a human being fully alive and in the image of God, arms open to the world, inviting embrace. Of those rudely crossed bars he has made our truest and most intricate compass; our North, our South, our East and West indeed.
Today we remember and engage with that Friday of blood and abandonment and defiantly call it ‘Good.’ Amidst our awareness of the pain and separation which W.H. Auden so authentically evokes, our knowledge that Christ met it for so utterly allows us to take up and cherish that happier instinct which in this poem he abandons. In coming here today we show that we too thought ‘that love would last forever.’ In beholding that Cross, we know that we were right.
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