Good Friday Sermon preached by Canon Simon Butler
I would like to draw your attention to the powerful image on the front of the order of service today. In case you can’t see it, I’ll describe it. It’s a press photograph from the ongoing civil disobedience in Myanmar. In the picture, we see a nun kneeling in front of heavily armed policemen. We’ve heard in the news of the way in which the security forces are cruelly repressing the demonstrations which have followed the military coup, killing many people. In the northern city of Myitkyina, Sister Ann Roza Nu Tawng kneels, arms outstretched, consciously or unconsciously imitating her Saviour on the Cross, and says to the policemen “You’ll have to come through me.” Moments later, someone fired a weapon – no-one knows if it was police or demonstrator – and as a result, two people died. Sister Ann said, “I thought today is the day I will die”. She added, “I thought it would be better that I die instead of lots of people.”
This Holy Week I’m reflecting on the way in which the resurrection of Jesus – which we know follows the death of Jesus – the way in which resurrection faith informs how we understand the Cross of Jesus, and the death he died. We might ask, as a way into this reflection, what on earth would persuade someone like Sister Ann to do what she did? Surely her death would mean nothing in the wider context, given what has happened since March 9th ? And it seems to me that the only cogent answer to that question involves not just imitating the sacrificial death of Jesus, for without the resurrection Good Friday means nothing; rather it can only mean that, seen with the eyes of Easter, the offering of her life – like the offering of Jesus’s life – makes sense. She can put herself in the firing line because, with Easter eyes, the Cross has a far deeper purpose than anyone nailing Jesus to the Cross could have possibly imagined. She offers her life, because life means more to her because of her resurrection faith.
But let’s go back to Golgotha. Each of the Gospel writers gives a different window onto the death of Jesus. Agreed to the basics, each offers a theological view of this moment that has it’s own emphasis. For John, whose Passion we hear on Good Friday, crucifixion is a moment of triumph: “It is accomplished!” cries Jesus, which John offers us in the perfect tense, literally meaning, “It is accomplished and will go on being accomplished.” What is more, for John, the Cross is above everything else, a throne. We may rightly wonder how on earth John can see crucifixion as a coronation and an ongoing accomplishment. A criminal’s death is not the way kings inherit their thrones. But for John, armed with resurrection faith – as we know from the likely late date of his Gospel – with the benefit of the church’s prayer, reflection and worship of the risen and crucified Lord over the decades – John and his community of disciples have come to see that this is how God saves the world. The cross has become the centre of everything, the heart of the message of the kingdom of God, the way in which God will rescue, restore and create a new world.
Let’s be clear – we have come over the centuries, and especially in the last hundred years, to understand that the cross is a place where God suffers with us. Divine solidarity in suffering has become a central understanding of the meaning of the cross. Faced with the weight of the world’s suffering and sin, God sends Jesus to the world to take the weight of it all. This is vital in a world of such cruelty and, in many ways a suffering God is the only way of making sense of faith in such a world.
But if Jesus saves us simply by suffering and dying on the Cross then there would be no need for resurrection. The truth is that we are saved not just by the Cross but by all that Jesus is and does – by his birth, life and teaching, death, resurrection and ascension. The cross may be the great paradox at the centre, the greatest mystery of all, but from the moment the angel speaks to Mary, God’s saving work has begun. As one writer puts it: “Jesus’ birth saves us from alienation; Jesus’ life saves us from destruction; Jesus’ cross saves us from sin; Jesus’ resurrection saves us from death; Jesus’ ascension saves us from ourselves.”
When we look back through the resurrection to the cross we can see the cross for what it is, the greatest demonstration of the depth of God’s love for us. There’s a false perception that the Old Testament is all about wrath and the New Testament all about love. If we taka the Bible as a whole, we can see that God has always been a God of love. From the moment of rescue in Egypt, perhaps even from the moment where God promised Noah that he would never again destroy the world, God has been loving the world back to himself. God has always been a God who suffers with the world, who gives himself for the world. As Paul writes in Romans, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Our responsibility is simply to respond to the love of God with love of our own. We see in the cross of Christ the sacrificial love of God. But although Jesus, in his moment of agony, cries out in belief that God has forsaken him, Easter tells us that God would not abandon his son by leaving Jesus in the grave; and so he demonstrates his love in the resurrection.
So when Sister Ann spreads her arms in imitation of her Saviour, or when Maximilian Kolbe takes the place of a condemned criminal in Auschwitz, or when countless Christians around the world choose the path of Jesus’ agony in the garden, or the path of lonely suffering in place of others, they are showing to others that path of sacrificial love.
But such sacrificial love is always and only made meaningful by the resurrection. Resurrection faith leads us to make decisions that choose the path of Jesus Christ when all around us choose a path that is only informed by the spirit of the age or the path of least resistance. Resurrection faith offers us strength to endure suffering – knowing (unlike Jesus in his darkest moment) that whatever we face, we do not into it alone, because the risen Christ, who bears the marks of the cross in eternity, is already there in the suffering before us. And resurrection faith always points us towards a future that goes beyond what we may have to face because of our allegiance to Jesus Christ. It always leads us to hope, because “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).
Forgive me if I have told this story before, but one of my most precious items is a small glass swan. It’s only about that big. It was given to me by someone I’ll call Julie, a lady I knew many years ago, who I spent a considerable amount of time with as she faced considerable personal difficulty, probably relating to her difficult childhood: tremendously low self-esteem, domestic abuse, eating disorders. In personal prayer, conversation, sacramental confession and the love of a Christian community, Julie slowly was able to work through some of this. At one point, Julie wrote a letter to God which she read out to him as I listened on. Through tears, she cried “I’m just an ugly duckling”. When I left the parish I was serving, the small glass swan was a moving way of her telling me of that work that God had done with her over time. From time to time my eye is drawn to where it sits in my house and it’s one of the things that reminds me of why I am a priest.
Some years later – perhaps ten years or more – Julie got in touch with me again and asked to meet me in town. We had a pizza together. By this time Julie had left her husband, got herself some additional qualifications, and was working helping vulnerable children with additional support in their education. It was though, through the darkness she had been through, a new vocation had emerged for her, one that saw her working to help the very sort of children she had once been one of. She had walked the way of the Cross with Jesus and had found him there, both crucified and risen. That power of the risen Christ had enabled her to give herself in love, to allow her suffering to become, through resurrection faith, a gift to others.
I’ll finish today with a poem of Denise Levertov, a poet whose work I am beginning to discover. I think it draws us to this way in which Jesus sees how things must be and how, faintly and mysteriously, resurrection faith might even remain in his moment of the deepest abandonment. The poem is called Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis:
Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
that He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone who has taken herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.
 The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, New Directions Press, p.908
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