O DEARLY, DEARLY HAS HE LOVED

a sermon preached at the church of the Annunciation, Brighton on GOOD FRIDAY 2012

The shocking sight of a young man in the prime of life hanging in agony by the weight of nails from a wooden cross, slowly choking to death - What could be “good” about it? What was special or unique about it? There have been plenty of other ugly and cruel judicial murders of innocent victims in the history of the world. 

Well, we have come with hindsight, in the dazzling light of the Resurrection and Ascension, to the awful realisation that on this occasion it was the Son of God, the word made flesh, who was put to death, the word which, according to S.John, in the beginning was with God and was God.

And the young man in the prime of life – that word made flesh – declared more than once that “the Father and I are one.” They were indivisible, two persons of one substance in the Holy Trinity.

So the first thing to understand about the crucifixion is the indissoluble bond between the Father and His beloved Son, a fusion of identity which makes it impossible to stomach any ghastly idea that  a remote Father in heaven was looking down and weighing up the suffering of His own Son to see whether it was sufficient to pay for the affront caused by the sinfulness of the human race.

There is a green hill far away is a lovely and well loved hymn, but  the words There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin are difficult to swallow. Because it doesn’t really bear thinking about that the crucifixion could have been some kind of negotiated deal for the appeasement of divine wrath.

Just what this terrible event is really all about hit me dramatically when I first saw the print of Durer’s painting “The adoration of the Trinity” which now hangs in my house.

 

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Durer shows Christ dying on the cross but it is a highly unconventional crucifixion scene because, peering out from just above the vertical plank of the cross, a few inches away from Christ’s drooping head, is the face of an old man with a long beard and a sort of coronet like the ones worn by Orthodox patriarchs.

And a few inches again above him is a white dove hovering with wings spread.

The imagery is perhaps a bit crude  but what it seeks to represent is the most earth-shattering truth and precious hope for us all.

THE WHOLE TRINITY IS THERE, AT THE CROSS. THE FATHER AND THE HOLY SPIRIT ARE NOT SOMEWHERE ELSE. THEY ARE IN THE THICK OF IT, SHARING THE SON’S SUFFERING.

Durer could almost have painted nails driven into the Father’s forehead and into the Spirit’s wings.

 On this interpretation, everything falls into place. We can trace the whole story of the incarnation back and make sense of it.

When Our Lord came down from heaven to live among us, He tried and tried again to show us the true values of the kingdom of heaven, or, simply, what the God of the Holy Trinity is really like. Tragically, He was viewed with suspicion and then hostility, misunderstood, rejected and in the end was killed for His pains.

But this ultimate sacrifice, in some mysterious way, accomplished its purpose. Because, in resisting and rejecting that divine teaching and divine life, the world began to discover it and it was only in crucifying that divine life that the world became captivated by it. That is why we call it “good” Friday – the understatement of all time.

Now, if the figure on the cross was not an innocent pawn in some penal transaction, what was He up to? What WAS it that captivated us?

The answer is so simple. LOVE.

When Jesus predicted the passion to His disciples, He said “The son of man must be LIFTED UP.”

He was not talking about the Resurrection. He meant being strung up and nailed to a cross and put on view.

Because what people see when they gaze at His broken body lifted high is THE LENGTH TO WHICH GOD’S LOVE WILL GO. We see that God so loves us that He will even let us kill a part of Him if this would hold out even a slim chance that we may finally respond; that we will see what we have done and finally discover a reciprocal spark of love in our cold hearts.

And if our hearts do kindle, if the sight of the crucifixion does move us, then what does God want us to do in return?

Well, Christ said Take up YOUR cross and follow Him. But I’m not sure that we’ve always got the right end of the stick about this commandment.

I will never forget one Holy Week trying to help someone who was very disturbed and depressed and had taken an overdose. In all her distress, the thing she seemed most anxious to tell me was that she had not managed to give anything up for Lent. I don’t know whether this was seriously bothering her more than anything else or whether she thought it was the right thing to say to a priest but either way it is a very sad reflection on the way the gospel has been interpreted and instilled in vulnerable people.

Taking up your cross was never supposed to be a self-absorbed exercise in masochism – if you must fast, said Jesus, do it in private and don’t make a song and dance about it. “Deny yourself” is a positive, not a negative, command. It is a means to an end, that of loving other people.

And you can’t do that if you go round feeling guilty and beating your breast all the time.

He has shown us the way but I think we still have to ask: Did it work? After all there is still so much sadness, violence and needless suffering in today’s world.

The answer is yes, it did work, it was worth it, it was GOOD Friday precisely because the birth, life and death of the Son of God have shown us once and for all what God is like and what He wants His children to be like.

God has shown His hand. He has shown us how it should be. And now it’s over to us. Christ’s disciples are now His body on earth. He has no eyes, no hands, no feet but ours.

I can’t cope with the theology behind the words There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin but I would you to take home with you this afternoon the last verse of There is a green hill, because this sums up everything I have been trying to say:

O dearly, dearly has He loved and we must love Him too and trust in His redeeming blood and try His works to do.

 

Spike Wells