Address given during Devotions at the Cross, Good Friday 2011

22 April 2011 at 14:00 pm

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Sub-Dean and Canon Treasurer and Almoner

The Victory of the Cross

In the first address I thought about the Cross and Us, and about the way it can be an agent of our finding a deep and serious forgiveness. I want now to think about the Cross as a victory that Christ won at Calvary.

But first let us start with our own experience.  I take it that part of being a Christian is to seek to live our lives with some measure of integrity and honesty, and to live it in some sort of conscious relationship with God. But if we try to do that with any seriousness there is much to tempt us to give up and even to despair.  At a personal level it is very tempting to put something else in the place of a relationship of integrity with God, something more obviously appealing.  The acquisition of possessions is, I suppose, the most obvious example, but there are other more subtle ones many of here will have had to face at other times.  The desire for approval of one’s fellows must be one of the most beguiling.  Most of us like to be liked and only a very limited number of people are prepared to risk popularity for the sake of doing what they believe to be right.  But then such is the curious nature of human beings that the other side of that coin can be some people’s total obsession with the rightness of their point of view that they can be unwilling even to listen to what may be the valid criticism of others.  It can be very difficult to find the right balance between being open to others and yet firm in ones own convictions.

But if an over concern with our importance is one of the forces that can so easily drag us away from God there are another set of forces that attach all too easily to our humanity.  As I have already mentioned there is the acquisition of possessions in some greedy way, or the indulgence of sensual desire to the exclusion of concern for the deeper needs of others or ourselves, or the vicious struggle for position that makes us step on others in our search for status, all of those forces too can drag us away from that living of life with integrity in relationship to God.  

Now what I think we can see in Jesus, not just in the events of today but in his whole life, is a victorious battle against those destructive powers.  We see it first in the temptations in the wilderness.  The temptation to sensual indulgence was there - “take these stones and turn them into bread” - as was also the temptation to seek power in the wrong way - the devil takes Jesus and shows him the nations of the world and offers him power over them all if only he would worship Satan.  And then, perhaps most subtle of all, there was a temptation to doubt himself and thus to try and prove himself to himself - “if you are the Son of God throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple”.  How many destructive acts, whether in the process of manipulating others or in more public acts of barbarism have actually been carried out because individuals have needed to prove themselves to themselves?  The forces that can so easily drag a man or woman away from God were clearly and firmly faced by Jesus right at the beginning of his ministry.  

But as we have seen in the last few hours those temptations needed constantly to be fought even towards the end.  In Gethsemane the temptation must have been to run away or to stand up and fight; both  temptations were there in considerable force leading Jesus away from what he actually did, which was to face without fight or flight the challenge that lay before him. And then perhaps at Calvary came the greatest temptation of all, that of despair - “My God my God, why has thou forsaken me?”  What turmoil and agony must have been going on in Jesus’ mind then as he felt forced to meditate on that psalm.

And that last temptation may, I suspect, be a particularly powerful one for any sensitive man or woman living in our times.  The sheer barbarity of men’s acts to one another has always been shocking but never until fairly recently have those facts been so regularly and almost inescapably been brought into our homes through television.  No-one can now be unaware of just how brutal life is for some people, and the temptation to despair for mankind and to cease to trust in the purposes of any loving God must be more strongly felt now than it was say a century ago, when a more confident belief in progress was more prevalent until it was so roughly destroyed by the First World War.  

I suspect that for many people to-day the real barrier to belief in Christian faith is not the fact of believing in God; many can see the point of seeing the Universe in personal terms and if the Universe has allowed personalities to evolve then it is not unreasonable to believe that behind it all is a personality as well.  What I suspect people find much more difficult to believe is that any such God is in fact good.  He appears far more to be at least capricious if not at times actually malevolent. I am sure for many today, the church’s assertion that God is good is far more questioned than the fact that he exists.

Well, what we see in Jesus’ life is God entering into that distorted and sinful world and in a human being doing battle with the forces that can lead to cynicism, destruction or despair, and winning over them.  Jesus had as much reason as any to be cynical, or to despair, yet he chose not to adopt one of those easier options;  rather he chose to remain faithful to his vision of finding the centre of his being rooted in a relationship with God.

And that vision was maintained even on the Cross.  “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”, “Mother behold thy son, son behold thy mother”, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit” or St John’s account of that victory expressed in the cry “It is finished”, which could equally easily be translated “It is accomplished”.  In all of those words Jesus on the Cross shows us the reality of his victory.  

To forgive his enemies when faced with the agony of being crucified, that must have been an extraordinary internal battle, and yet it was won.  In those circumstances to avoid self-absorption and self-pity and to continue to care for others like his mother, that too must have been a great internal battle, yet it was won.  To be faithful to a belief in a loving father even after hours on the Cross, hours spent there simply because of that belief in a loving Father, that too must have been a great inward battle, and yet it was won.  Then finally to see in all of that not a defeat but a victory, that too must have been a battle, yet it was won. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself because in Christ God as it were took on the forces of destruction, of cynicism, of despair on their own grounds and yet won.  

And the church as always believed that because of the victory on the Cross won by Jesus, a victory won at one time is now made accessible for us all.  There are some events in history that seem to stand beyond time; though they happened once for all at a particular moment they also have a timeless quality in that they reveal an eternal truth that is always there. The cross reveals at one particular time a victory that we can claim at any time.

And the challenge for those of us who profess and call ourselves Christians is to make that victory a reality in the world about us, where Christ so often seems to be crucified afresh.  Whether it be in world events like the conflicts in Afghanistan or Libya, or in a mental hospital or a marriage guidance counselling room, in a Board of Directors or in a Trades Union Committee, or even in a fractured church congregation or a fractured family, or even in the secrets of our own hearts at times of difficulty and challenge we can know that in Christ that victory has been won and however powerful the temptation to despair or to cynicism might be, it can be overcome because it has been overcome in a far greater degree by Jesus on Calvary.

So it is I think right that at the end of this meditation period we should look forward to the resurrection on Sunday because for those who have the eyes to see it was implicit even in the words Jesus spoke on the Cross.  All that he had stood for in his life he had held on to with integrity even to the moment of death, and that was the basis for resurrection, a resurrection in which the life he had lived was seen not as something ended by his death but rather something completed by it.  It was in the re-telling of the story of that first Good Friday that the early Christians found eventually not just a story of the end of a life, but the basis of hope for the future.  “Except a seed of wheat fall to the ground and die, it cannot bring forth fruit” so said Jesus in his life, and he exemplified that principle in his death.  The challenge to us as we leave Calvary later today is to hear Jesus’ words of hope as understood by St John “It is finished”.  To believe that and to make that victory of Jesus a reality in our own world is what we are called to do.

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