Preaching the Crucifixion: Good Friday 2020
Written by Bishop June
I’m not going to be preaching about the Crucifixion this year, at least not on Good Friday. The Church will still be celebrating the Cross and Resurrection this weekend and doing it with great inventiveness and dynamism. On-line there are being offered prayers, sacred music and hymns, artistic images of the Passion story, and various liturgies including the adoration of the Cross. There have been some terrific meditations for Holy Week, but so far I haven’t found anyone who decided to risk a full-blown sermon in the realm of social media.
This has made me wonder whether, church buildings open or closed, we make less effort to preach the Crucifixion these days. I reflect on how rarely outside Lent and Holy Week I make a serious effort to struggle with the community of faith to articulate what we believe about the meaning of Good Friday. There are certainly representations of the Cross around my living and working environment reminding me of the centrality of the suffering and death of Christ to my faith. And like many Christians I find Holy Week a great challenge because I try to travel a daily journey that will make the Way of the Cross a vivid personal reality, culminating in a sense of standing at Golgotha with the words of John Sanders’ ‘Reproaches’ in my ears –
‘O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me… Holy is God! Holy and strong! Holy immortal One, have mercy on us.’
So, on this Good Friday, here are four things, any one of which I might explore about the Cross of Christ when sermons are preached once more.
The Crucifixion is about a death, but we are a culture which in normal times wants to avoid the subject of death.
It makes a difficult starting point for any preacher because they know that their congregations don’t want to be invited to confront their own mortality nor the whole life experience of dying. Of course, that may all be changing faster than any of us could have imagined. Death is all around us and each one of us is wondering fearfully about our own vulnerability and especially the manner of our dying. We are discovering that we know what a good death looks like and a Crucifixion is the epitome of a bad death. The one dying is isolated, abandoned even by his heavenly Father, separated physically from his mother who could only stand back and weep at his humiliation and the injustice of it all.
My guess is that many people will want to hear us speak more about death in the months and years to come. There will be many of the bereaved needing to cope with a legacy of being absent at the time of death, of having attended an all too brief funeral, those asking us for memorial services which will not carry them to a new place in the way funerals are able. They have missed commending their loved one into the hands of God’s care and committing their mortal remains to the earth. In all that grief we can speak of a Saviour who himself felt abandoned at the point of death.
More than that the Cross is about a gruesome death.
In Tom Holland’s recent book ‘Dominion’, about the shaping of the Western mind and the long, powerful imprint of Christianity, he describes the ingenious brutality of Crucifixion as a means of execution, and how it was much more besides. Throughout the New Testament St Paul and others refer not to Christ’s murder or killing or death but specifically to his Crucifixion. ‘we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but… Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:23) It required great courage and audacity to proclaim a crucified Messiah in the first century, and that itself shows us that the mode of Christ’s death was significant. In that extremity of dehumanisation, in the shame and public humiliation, in suffering which degrades we find God. It is there the action of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit reveals itself more potently and purely than in any other expression of the divine available to us. It is the supreme entering into the corruption of the human heart and its capacity for godlessness.
The practice of Crucifixion also placards the fact that there is something terribly wrong in our world which must be made right.
I’m so grateful to the cleric in our Diocese who introduced me to Fleming Rutledge’s substantial book ‘The Crucifixion’ to which I return often. In it she uses the language of God ‘rectifying’ the terrible wrong which must be made right. At one point she quotes Miroslav Volf, the Croatian theologian who writes so powerfully about conflict and violence, when he says, ‘The cross is not forgiveness pure and simple but God’s setting aright the world of injustice and deception.’ (‘Exclusion and Embrace’ p298)
All of us must battle with the world’s wrongs if our faith is to mean anything. The Cross of Christ helps us to do that by giving us two categories of God’s action. One is that he makes atonement for human sin and the other is that he establishes a decisive victory and deliverance from the powers of sin and death. To understand both of those the New Testament gives us numerous rich motifs within which we can understand something about God’s action on Calvary. Fleming Rutledge has chapters on those motifs which are both very familiar to us – the Passover and Exodus, blood sacrifice, ransom, redemption, recapitulation, substitution and Christ’s descent into hell – and yet which we need to revisit and understand afresh if they are going to make sense when we incorporate them into our liturgies and spirituality. Those narratives, images and motifs known to us in the New Testament don’t always sit comfortably together but we must live between those multiple perspectives if we are to capture the full majesty of what God achieves on Good Friday. In the Cross of Christ, we see revealed the righteousness of God, of how he has rewritten the story, offered a new creation, not just forgiven us but mended us.
We are no longer prisoners to our worse selves nor to the evil powers which would seek to destroy us. The good news is that God is on the side of the defenceless, including ourselves.
Much of that is well-rehearsed but my final point about the Cross is that it also answers a question we should ask in our hearts regularly.
What of those who reject Christ?
Western Europe is dominated by a culture which has become unsure of what it thinks about faith. It’s no exaggeration to say that we have moved swiftly to a place where children are unbaptized, and adults are unbelieving. This is no new dilemma It certainly captured St Paul’s imagination and intellect bringing him to speak throughout his letter to the Romans of how God holds unbelievers in his purpose, that we are to trust him ‘who justifies the ungodly’ (Romans 4:5). Indeed, we all depend for our salvation on his great acclamation concerning the Cross that ‘Christ died for the ungodly’ (Romans 5:6). I can only take comfort in the Christian faith knowing it assures me that God moves the universe towards the goal of rescuing unbelievers, that we should believe in the infinite resourcefulness of the God who wishes to save everyone.
It’s time to anticipate the next step in God’s action, to call ourselves Easter people, to know that the Risen Christ will show us his wounds, open a new and living way, and promise us that death itself shall die. It’s time to cry ‘Alleluia!’