Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 4th March 2012
4 March 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
I want to the use the four matins addresses I have this month in the period of Lent to consider the meaning and significance of the cross. The Church has always believed that in some way through the death of Jesus an act of salvation for human kind has been wrought, so the Church has spoken of the cross bringing about salvation and some form of atonement, or ‘at-one-ment’, between God and man. But in its formal creedal statements the Church has never actually defined exactly what that meant or how it worked. The Nicene Creed does say of Jesus that ‘for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven’ and then later 'he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried', but beyond that historical statement the creeds of the universal Church are silent on how it works. There have, of course, been all sorts of attempts to say more by a variety of theologians, and during the course of this series I shall be looking at some of them. Some sections of the Church have also tried to suggest that one or another particular explanation is the right one, but such a view has never been endorsed by the Church as a whole. By its creedal silence on the matter the Church has in effect proclaimed that this is a mystery which words can only go some way to explaining.
Now the various theories that have been put forward by individual theologians can be categorised as being in three broad types. There are those who stress the death of Jesus as a sacrifice. There are those who stress it as an example. There are those who see in it a victory. They are not mutually exclusive, but most of the various theories can be broadly put into one of those categories. In each of the subsequent addresses in this series I want to examine each of them. But this morning I want to ask a question that lies behind the whole issue: What is the problem to which the death of Jesus is supposed to be the answer?
An earlier generation would have been quite clear about at least one dimension to the answer to that question; they would have said that it was an answer to judgement on sin. Each person, they would have said, is responsible for their own actions, that all of us have done things which were wrong, which infringed in some way God's law on how we should behave, and that at some stage beyond death we would face the judgement of God on how we have lived our lives, and we shall then all be found wanting. And judgement then would mean that we would have to acknowledge the consequences of our wrongdoing and face the fires of hell unless some sort of atonement and hence forgiveness could be offered.
Well, as a matter of simple sociological observation I doubt whether that belief is as strong as it once was. There will, of course, still be some who do fear judgement beyond death, but many others are at least sceptical about any after life and certainly judgement in that form. They note most people recognise that their bodies and their minds are intimately linked together, and when the body dies the mind ceases to function and so consciousness ends.
Now in his current very interesting series of lectures my colleague, Canon Vernon White, has been attempting to rehabilitate the notion of life beyond death, but he did note in his first lecture that in a careful sociological enquiry into the matter by a noted academic it was discovered that about a third of Anglicans said they believed personal life simply came to an end at death, only a third professed belief in some sort of spiritual survival, and only four percent believed in resurrection of the whole person. I am happy to admit that personally, while I would not deny the possibility of life beyond death because how can any of us know, I do not actually expect it. It seems even among Anglicans I am not alone. And certainly fear of personal judgement beyond death is nothing like as universal as it once was.
But the Church has never believed that was the only context to talk about salvation. In an important book on atonement, published nearly thirty years ago, a former Dean of Liverpool, F W Dillistone, noted that there are four areas of life where many human beings can experience some sense of unease or, to use the word he used, alienation.
There is, first of all, our relationship to the all-encompassing environment in which we live, the natural world of which we are all a part. Huge problems can arise in that, whether they be natural disasters for people in many parts of the world, or the threat of such things as climate change which in turn may have disastrous consequences for our children and grandchildren. In a country like this we may feel less immediately threatened by that, but humankind has to live on this planet, and any thinking person knows that sustaining a decent quality of life for the world’s population in the future will not be easy, so there is some unease there.
Secondly, he noted we all relate to the particular nation to which we belong, and no English person can be unaware of the major problems this nation faces, whether it be through the social disruption shown by the riots of last summer, or the consequences of dealing with debt and the austerity that is likely to impose on some who already have very little. This nation is not entirely at ease with itself.
Then, thirdly, Dillistone noted the more immediate groups to which we have to relate, the family, the network of friends of which each of us is a part, or the communities where we work, and for many people in those more immediate contexts all is not always well. I do not mean that there are simply disagreements, they are part of life and often a creative part, but the statistics for divorce and family breakdown are perhaps just the tip of an iceberg wherein lodges a good deal of deep unease and unhappiness in those more immediate communities.
Fourthly he noted the inner world of each individual, that complex relationship between the conscious and the unconscious, between what we have and what we want, and it is the fortunate person who is truly and completely at ease with themselves.
So we do not have to go to the afterlife to find the places where salvation and atonement are needed, there is quite a lot in this life that needs to be worked on as well. And how does the cross of Christ make a difference in any of those areas? That is the question I want to examine in this series. Next week I shall consider the notion of Christ’s death as a sacrifice that can make a difference. For what it is worth for those who are interested, one of my colleagues shall put this and the subsequent addresses all on the Abbey’s website. But, far more importantly, I hope they will make some contribution towards preparing us individually to reflect on Good Friday and Easter and that great act of atonement that Jesus Christ wrought there.