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Sermon: Good Friday The Three Hours - Address Three

Friday 3rd April 2015
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The Cross: Glory, grace & truth in the Letter to the Colossians & Gospel of St John


The cross is an icon of human suffering and divine solidarity with it. The human suffering of the cross is hard to relate to the notion that the cross is the source of salvation: what is it all for? And yet, that is precisely what we proclaim. This opens up for us the logic of the Cross Catholic by which we are shaped and formed and in which we participate in the very life of God: it changes how we live our lives.

God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

I. Part of the challenge of the cross, and of what we are doing here today, is the question of what was, what is and what will be accomplished through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Are we here today to nudge God closer to the day when the world will be at peace? When human lives are not distorted and compromised? What are we here for?

There is a difficult tension as we gaze upon the cross and the face of the Crucified: if the cross has won the victory over sin and the devil, then why do we all do bad things, neglect good things and see the world in the mess that it is in? When will the cross triumph? When will the time come when ‘Christ is all in all’ (Colossians 3.11)

The scoffers who walked by the cross pointing, jeering and mocking saw no victory in the cross. They saw defeat yes, but not defeat of sin, only defeat of a man they took to be deluded. On the first Good Friday there was no obvious sense that the cross had done anything. What does this make of all our claims of the cosmic, salvific nature of the cross?

St Matthew asserts that something really did happen that day:  the death of Jesus on the cross is literally earth shattering; the sky goes dark and the earth quakes (Matthew 27.51). Matthew, Mark and Luke also record darkness and the torn curtain (Matthew 27.51b; Mark 15.33, 38; Luke 23.44,45). John gives a different detail as Jesus says, ‘It is finished’ or translated another way, ‘It is accomplished’ (John 19.30).

The gospels, then, testify to the fact that something really did happen that shook the earth and affected the heavens: it wasn’t just about Jesus’ mother and friends, or just about Jerusalem, or just about Palestine, this is cosmic and decisive: the Cross Catholic.

II. That the triumph of the cross and salvation is complete is practically impossible to comprehend in our human frailty. But Christ has triumphed!

This is where we can misread Paul since in Colossians he says, ‘I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church’ (Colossians 1.24). This seems to sit at odds with the assertion in his letter to the Romans (6.10), in the Letter to the Hebrews (7.27; 9.12; 9.26; 10.2; 10.10) and the First Letter of Peter (1 Peter 3.18) that Jesus’ death was once and for all.

We misread Paul if we think he means that somehow Christ’s death didn’t quite do it. Rather, his sense of sharing so deeply in the life of Christ, in communion with Christ, associates him with the pains of the world and the birth pangs of the new creation in Christ.

There is Christ’s fleshly work, and there is Paul’s fleshly work. Paul’s suffering is for the sake of the Colossians, for the sake of the whole church, and world, in his proclamation of the unfolding consequence of the saving death of Jesus, a proclamation to every creature under heaven and earth.

This gives us the double sense of mission: it is the missio Dei, the mission of God, echoed by the missio Ecclesiae, the mission of the church. In other words, God’s reconciling mission in the world is something in which we participate as witnesses to the saving power of Christ’s death.

What is lacking is not the salvation wrought by Christ but our appropriation of it: that is what Paul is working, and striving, to complete; that is what we witness to in mission. As Paul says in Philippians, ‘not that I have already obtained this or reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…I press on to the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 3.12, 14).

So what was accomplished on the cross is once and for all and is bringing everything into completion. That means that we share in that completion when we live lives that are not marred by sin and do not impede the shining of the light of Christ: in short, when we have allowed Christ ‘to restore in us the image of his glory’, a phrase you might recognise from the Baptism Liturgy echoing Colossians.

III. As I come to kneel before the cross I see God’s love poured out for me. Bending before the cross I die, to be raised up through God’s renewed and renewing life made known in Christ. At the cross I come into the covenant of Jesus Christ, I submit to Christ, I share his life, coming to the Father in the power of the Spirit.

The cross is at the heart of the gospel of reconciliation and forgiveness. Paul proclaims that,

‘[God] set [the record of our sins] aside, nailing it to the cross’ (Colossians 2.14b). And so what? Do we sit satisfied? Let’s be clear it is God who saves us; it is his initiative and it is undeserved, but all the same we must respond. This isn’t to earn salvation but to respond to salvation.

We respond in how our lives are shaped. This is literally ‘crucial’, cross shaped. As Paul puts it, ‘If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?’ (Colossians 2.20). Our lives have to look different.

Paul waxes lyrical on this in Colossians, saying what our lives need to look like: clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience; bearing with one another, forgiving; the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts; allowing the word of Christ to dwell in us richly, teaching, admonishing, and with gratitude in our hearts singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God (Colossians 3.12-17): ‘my song is love unknown’.

Forgiveness, reconciliation, love, are not general principles but particular actions that come from the cross: as those forgiven, we are called to be forgiving; as those reconciled to God, we are called to be reconcilers; as those loved by God, we are called to be lovers of God and lovers of all those made in his image and likeness; servants, now friends, of the servant king (cf John 15.15), we witness to his love in acts of kindness and service, speaking with integrity and honesty.

The intensity of love revealed by Christ on the cross, ‘for us and our salvation’, gives birth to this renewed life: ‘the life that really is life’ (1 Timothy 6.19). It is this abundant life, to which we are called and for which Christ came, that leads us to resurrection.

At the foot of the cross may we all be renewed in the image of Christ: we have died and been raised with him in baptism, we share in his life and bring that life to the world.