Dr Matthew Jones shares the sermon he preached at the College’s Good Friday Vigil.
For the past few days, we have walked with Jesus through Holy Week. We have listened to reflections, we have had discussions and we have thought deeply about the significance of the events of this week. Today, we have now come to that dreadful moment, that horrible moment, and yet also that wondrous moment, where our eyes are drawn to the cross. That symbol of awful death and torture that we cannot look away from or ignore or gloss over with nice and comfortable words. That cross which looms up before us here and now with Christ broken and beaten upon it.
The cross is first and foremost a device created for torture and pain; it is not a symbol of glorious sacrifice or noble death, but of agony and humiliation. Death by crucifixion was a punishment reserved for criminals, slaves, and political or religious agitators, and it was a slow and agonising one at that. As Christians today, we must be aware of this pain and agony, particularly when we see the many pictures and images of Christ hanging peacefully and happily on the cross. These images are not a realistic picture of what the cross is or what happened on it. The cross is an instrument to kill, rough wood on which nails are hammered into skin and on which Christ is hung up in the burning sun for all to see, and to die humiliated and alone. It is bloody and it is horrific, we cannot escape this reality. As Christians we must take this suffering on the cross seriously, it is not a glorious or romantic death, but a shameful and violent one.
At the heart of the cross event is violence and evil, it is a symbol of man’s inhumanity to man, it shows the evil that humanity is capable of. The cross stands as the shameful reminder of how human beings can treat their fellow brothers and sisters. It is an example not only in the world of 1st century Palestine but also in our world today in the 21st century. We live in a world full of violence, a world in which we see constant stories of cruelty and the destruction of life. A world where, in many nations, torture is still commonplace, a world where murder is still a fact of life, where women are still beaten and raped and murdered, where children are abused, where human rights are violated for power, profit and greed. Where nations destroy nations, where huge parts of the national economy of many countries are spent on weapons to kill, maim, or poison. A world where mass genocide and murder are still witnessed, where prejudice and racism are still experienced on a daily basis. The shameful list goes on and on.
And yet, in this world of bloodshed, despair and blindness, we see the cross standing as a symbol of God’s love for the world. Jesus comes into the world announcing the Kingdom of God. In the middle of all this violence and injustice he stands tall and proclaims a new way to live and a new way to be, a new way of life, a new covenant. It is the way of justice, liberation for the oppressed, forgiveness, a new order of love – a message lived out in word and action. A message of love in the midst of the world’s violence and blindness; a message that comes into direct conflict with the powers of evil. There is an inevitability that the way of God and the way of the world will clash; there can be no compromise here, as Christ’s journey to the cross reminds us again and again. The boundless love of God must clash with a world built on hostility and violence. Christ’s journey to the cross is inevitable because God’s way to confront a world of violence is not to fight fire with fire, but with the greater powers of love, forgiveness and hope.
The cross is the ultimate demonstration of Christ’s love, which is so complete, so total, that it involves an opening up to the world; it involves genuine risk and vulnerability. To truly love is to enter into the risk of relationship, to give oneself totally to others.
Christ’s love is so great that he gives himself to the whole world, he brings the message of freedom, joy, peace and love. How do we as human beings respond to him? We crucify him, we subject him to the humiliation and agony of the cross. Our cries of ‘Hosanna, Hosanna’, very quickly turn into the cries of ‘Crucify, Crucify’. We kill the one person who can set us free. We do not listen; we reject him and turn our backs. Christ himself knew this would happen and predicts it throughout the Gospels. In John 3: 19-20 Jesus says: “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”
And yet, it is through this death and resurrection that Christ saves us, it is through this death that we are set free. Jesus suffers not just because he comes into conflict with the forces of violence and evil, but also because it is the means to bring freedom from sin and the way to restore our relationship to the Father. To bring us back into fellowship with God. Or as the Epistle reading for today puts it: “…by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” (1 Peter 2: 24-25)
The Kingdom of God that Jesus preached about is a Kingdom based on principles of love, equality, justice, unity and peace. It is a Kingdom that opposes all things that oppress and enslave us in life: pride, greed, prejudice, racism, sexism, hatred and division. Jesus challenged the old world order of revenge, payback, condemnation and self-centeredness. He came into direct conflict with the world because he did not accept the way things were but sought to transform them.
As a result, he made enemies, he disturbed people, he made them uneasy and unsettled. He criticised the way in which some of the Chief Priests and Pharisees interpreted the Law, their hypocritical way of life and the way things were done (Matthew 23: 13-36). He healed on the Sabbath to make the point that it was a day to save life not to oppress it (Luke 6: 6-11). He ate with sinners and outcasts (Mark 2: 15-17) and chased moneylenders out of the temple (Mark 11: 15-19). He upset the establishment and upset the conventional world order, it is no surprise then that they plotted against him and put him to death. It became the conflict between the new way of love and justice and the old way of violence and injustice.
The cross of Christ stands as the symbol of God’s non-violent love in the world. It shows us what violence can lead us to – in this case the death of an innocent man who spoke words of peace and love. But his death on the cross is not a defeat, but a victory, it shows us that the way of God is the way of humility, servanthood, and forgiveness. It is the way of total love. In John 15: 13 we read: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Christ’s love on the cross is total and complete love in action, through his suffering Christ loves all people, even the very ones who spit, mock, beat and hammer the nails into his body. It is truly remarkable that in the midst of the pain, the despair, the humiliation, Christ loves and forgives his enemies. He meets their violence with love; he defeats their violence with love. The cross is the most powerful expression of them all; it shows us that violence is the enemy of God. That violence itself tries to destroy God, that violence stands in direct opposition to the God we worship and believe in.
In his death and resurrection, we see that violence is defeated. It defeats itself. To follow the way of violence is to follow the road that leads to death, destruction, revenge, division and hatred. We see in the cross the promise of the victory of non-violent love, it stands as a sign of hope. To paraphrase Daniel Migliore in his book Faith Seeking Understanding, the cross is the sign that God’s forgiveness is greater than our guilt, God’s love is greater than the powers of hatred, God’s way of life is greater than our way of death. God’s compassion is greater than the murderous passions of our world. God’s light has never been put out but shines even in the deepest night of savagery.
Today we live in a world of violence, a world where Jesus is rejected again and again, mocked again and again, and crucified again and again. Because we do not listen, we fight among ourselves, we argue over politics, over power, over land and over money. We inflict suffering and injustice on others, the innocent who become victims. We seek to tear down and destroy all that is good in the world, we treat others and God with contempt.
Yet, it is through the love and forgiveness of Christ on the cross that this chain of violence and despair which enslaves our world can be broken. As Christians we are called to love and forgive like Christ, to live in this world of violence and meet it head on with Christ-like love which transforms all violence, death and despair into love and new life for all. We are called to take up the cross, to open ourselves to others, to enter into the risk of relationship, to make ourselves vulnerable, because we must love.
It is this kind of Christ-like love that compels us to act, when meeting violence, despair and injustice head on, we cannot and must not keep silent. We cannot live alongside things that are opposed to the love and forgiveness of God. We cannot passively accept the way of a dark and violent world because that is the way things are. We cannot keep silent and watch our Lord being crucified again and again, in yet another death, yet another violent conflict and yet another victim suffering. One of the Collects for the seven Melanesian Brothers, who were murdered in 2003, puts it this way: “We thank you that the event of the cross is not a past experience but a present reality for us. Empower us, your weak and vulnerable people, to recognise that the power of the cross for the liberation of people from evil is through humility and love.”
The cross is meaningful and powerful only if it is a present reality in our lives, if it is real and taken down from the pretty pictures or carvings in our churches that can gloss over its raw and bleeding truth. Only then can it be grounded in our lives and in our communities, only then can it make a real difference in the lives of God’s people. Only then can it stand as a symbol of God’s opposition to violence and injustice which we are called to carry in our own societies, contexts and present day realities.
The cross speaks to our world today. Its wood is real, the blood and sweat upon it are real, the nails that hammer flesh are real, and the power of God to save the world upon it is real. It is the means to face all the injustice and suffering of our world. It is the means for real love and reconciliation to flow and pour out upon all our communities, our cultures, and our contexts. It is the way to real divine love and the power to shine out in the darkness. We must never ever underestimate the power of love. Christ has saved the whole world with it and he has promised to be with us until the end of the age. So, if we stand with him, who can stand against us?
 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Third Edition. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2014), 198.