Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 18th March

18 March 2012 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

In the series of Matins addresses this month I have been considering the notion of atonement, the Church’s belief that somehow through the death of Jesus we are reconciled and so made at-one with God. A fortnight ago I considered what the problem was to which the Cross of Christ is believed to be the solution. Last week I looked at the notion of sacrifice, which is one of the ways in which the church has interpreted the Cross. Those addresses are on the Abbey’s web-site as will this one and next week's. Today I want to consider the notion of the cross as an example.

Perhaps the clearest exponent of this way of looking at the Cross was given by a distinguished academic theologian of a century ago, Hastings Rashdall, for many years a lecturer in theology at Oxford University. On a regular basis in Oxford a distinguished person is invited to give what are known as the Bampton lectures, they are still given now every other year, and Rashdall gave those lectures in 1915. They were published in 1920 as The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology, by which time Rashdall had become Dean of Carlisle.

He disliked notions of the atonement that interpreted the Cross as bringing about forgiveness through some form of payment to the devil, which was the view of much of the early church, or even a payment to God to satisfy God's demand for justice as was developed by St Anselm, and which I discussed last week. Rather Rashdall saw the whole life of Jesus including his death as an example of the self-sacrificial love of God which was so deep and profound that it might evoke in the believer a response of love and gratitude, and which might in turn change the way in which the believer subsequently lived and behaved.

In developing his understanding of the Cross in that way Rashdall was drawn back to a twelfth century religious teacher, Peter Abelard, perhaps better known by many for the exchange of love letters he had with Heloise, but Abelard wrote at one point of Christ’s life and death ‘the purpose and cause of the incarnation was that He might illuminate the world by His wisdom and excite it to the love of Himself.’ Rashdall saw Abelard as the medieval theologian who started the process of developing a way of looking at the Cross that Rashdall believed might make sense of it in our modern world. Abelard’s way of thinking about this was taken up by his younger contemporary, Peter Lombard, who was to become Bishop of Paris. Lombard wrote ‘So great a pledge of love having been given us we too are moved and kindled to love God who did such great things for us.... The death of Christ therefore justifies us, in as much as through it charity is excited in our hearts.’

There is the essence of the exemplarist approach to the Cross. God shows his love to us partly by teaching the centrality of love, both love of God and love of neighbour, but most especially by being willing to express that love even in the awfulness of crucifixion, when he could say to his crucifiers ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And that example of love has the potential to invoke a response of love in us and a determination to fight against evil when it comes into the world and even into our own lives. Rashdall suggested that love can be contagious, and if someone gets truly caught up in the vision of being loved by God as expressed by Jesus' love shown in Calvary, then it can start to become contagious and such love can begin to change the world.

Now as I said Rashdall gave the lectures in 1915 but they were not published until 1920, and in that five year gap there were some of the most terrible horrors of the First World War. And it was against that background that others were to develop their understanding of the death of Jesus as an example of showing us something of God’s love by seeing in his death God entering into the aweful world that the First World War generated. One particularly effective exponent of that was the First World War chaplain, Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, who wrote in one of his war-time poems in a reflection on the crucifixion:

I look upon that body, writhing, pierced
And torn with nails, and see the battlefields
Of time, the mangled dead, the gaping wounds,
The sweating, dazed survivors straggling back,
The widows worn and haggard, still dry-eyed,
Because their weight of sorrow will not lift
And let them weep; I see the ravished maid,
The honest mother in her shame: I see
All history pass by, and through it all
Still shines that face, the Christ Face, like a star
Which pierces drifting clouds, and tells the Truth.

Studdert-Kennedy believed that the cross showed that God himself entered fully into the horrors of human misery, and that is how he can become close to us and us to him.

That same belief and Suddert-Kennedy’s expression of it was profoundly to influence another person caught up in war, but this time the war was the Second World War and the theologian was a German, Jurgan Moltmann. He served as a young man in the German army towards the end of the war. He was captured and became a prisoner of war in this country, and he was introduced to theology through that experience. He became a very distinguished theologian as Professor of Theology in Tubingen and wrote a very influential book called ‘The Crucified God’ written some forty years ago which developed the notion of the Cross showing us what God is like. For Moltmann God is a suffering God; that terrible cry from the Cross ‘My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?’ is almost the starting point for his theology, for he thought much human experience evokes that sense of being forsaken by God, and yet it was in God’s own experience as well. The Cross in one sense is a symbol of what we human beings are constantly doing to God, and so God also knows what it is to be God-forsaken. That is the paradox that Moltmann explores so imaginatively in his book.

And that is why I believe the approach to the cross that sees it as an example has much to commend it. Of course it can be held with other approaches; theological understandings of the Cross need not be mutually incompatible, but the cross as an example of God’s love for us, but even more as an example of God himself entering fully into the traumas of human life and suffering at the very heart of that trauma, that I personally find an immensely powerful image. And perhaps that has been expressed with great power in the words of that hymn so often sung on Good Friday, ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’: when it ends

Where the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small,
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my life, my soul, my all.

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