Sermon given at The Chapel Royal, Good Friday 2013
29 March 2013 at :00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
The Archbishop of Canterbury chose as the text for his enthronement in Canterbury Cathedral words from the gospel account of St Peter walking on water before his faith failed him and he began to sink. He began his sermon by saying: Jesus calls through the storms and darkness of life and says “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid”. The Archbishop was speaking just two days after the inauguration of the ministry as Bishop of Rome of Pope Francis. He too had used the words Do not be afraid, but in a rather different context. He may have wanted to echo the words of Blessed John Paul II at the inauguration of his Petrine ministry in 1978. Famously the Polish pope had said,
‘Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows "what is in man".’
Do not be afraid. You may ask whether that is really an appropriate message on Good Friday: when we see the cruelty of man at its most virulent; when we see a good, innocent man condemned to death after two hasty and unjust trials, flogged, mocked and nailed to a cross.
You may say the injunction Do not be afraid is a little naïve when we see the world’s economies in a state of collapse, populations shifting all over the world, the weather going haywire, with snow-drifts several feet deep on the hills of northern England and Scotland almost into April, death and destruction running riot in Syria, threatened attacks from emerging nuclear dictatorships and no solution to the agonies of Israel and Palestine. We may feel relatively comfortable here in London – but what’s not to fear?
There is much in this world and much in people’s lives to cause them, to cause us, to be afraid. And we know that to feel fear in certain circumstances from time to time is a natural human reaction. After all, it is the fear of pain that protects us from a great deal of harm. It also seems likely that the fear reaction is able to stimulate responses that get us out of difficulties of all kinds. Even so, who wants to live in fear, to awake every morning feeling afraid, to fall asleep not knowing what terrors the night will bring?
Preaching yesterday evening in the Abbey at the Maundy Thursday Sung Eucharist, I spoke about the fear that people suffer. I said that Jesus suffers that fear too. It is important to recognise that, despite our Lord Jesus Christ being fully divine, he is also wholly human. He does not float through life six feet above the ground, feeling nothing of what we feel. Jesus feels tired. He gets angry. He feels pity. He weeps. He becomes afraid.
St Luke in particular tells us that, after the Last Supper, when he arrives at the Mount of Olives to await his betrayal by Judas Iscariot and his ensuing arrest, Jesus goes apart to pray.
‘“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” In his anguish he prays more earnestly, and his sweat becomes like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.’
One of the great problems for Christian theology is the problem of evil and suffering. The conundrum runs, If God is good and all-powerful, then he should have both the will and the power to prevent people suffering. But people do suffer, so either God is not good or he is not all-powerful. That conundrum offers a genuine challenge to belief in God. But I believe it is only a challenge for those who do not believe in our Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. If we believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, it follows that God knows what we are going through. In this terrible anxiety of our Lord as he waits for his arrest and contemplates the prospect of his trial, just as in his suffering on the Cross and in his death, there is great strength and comfort for us. It makes a difference to us to know that whatever we suffer, whatever fear or anxiety we have, God knows and understands, because in Christ he has experienced the fear and the anxiety, he has experienced the suffering himself. God is not extraneous to our suffering. God shares our suffering.
But I believe there is more that can be said, more that Good Friday achieves for us, more in the meaning of the Passion and Death of our Lord. The Bible tells us to fear God and in his strength to fear nothing else.
The last verse of Psalm 111 runs
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do thereafter; the praise of it endureth for ever.
Take these words from Psalm 3:
I did call upon the Lord with my voice: and he heard me out of his holy hill. I laid me down and slept, and rose up again: for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid for ten thousands of the people: that have set themselves against me round about.
Fear God and trust in him and you will have nothing else to fear. We find that idea expressed clearly in the hymn Through all the changing scenes of life written over 300 years ago:
Fear Him, ye saints, and you will then
Have nothing else to fear;
Make you His service your delight,
Your wants shall be His care.
Can it really work like that? Eighty years ago this month, on 4th March 1933, Franklin D Roosevelt, at his first inauguration as President of the United States of America, famously said, ‘Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ The very resonance of the expression and its memorability derive not only from its simplicity and directness as a piece of oratory but from its direct appeal to the human heart. We instinctively know it is true.
More powerfully still we have the words of St John in his first Epistle:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. [I John 4: 16-18]
I started this sermon by referring to the sermon of Archbishop Justin Welby at his enthronement last week and the sermons of two popes, John Paul II at his inauguration in 1978 and Francis at his inauguration last week. All three of them were calling their hearers – and us – to have confidence in the saving power of God in Christ. Do not be afraid to trust God, they said. Do not be afraid to spread the Gospel. Do not be afraid to stand up and be counted for Christ. Do not be afraid to challenge those who seek to undermine the Christian heritage of our civilisation.
The saving power of Christ is the power of his self-giving love, the power of his self-sacrifice on the Cross. In the power of the Cross, there is nothing to fear, because the Cross conquers everything. ‘In this sign, conquer.’ Death is defeated by the power of the Cross. Sin is defeated by the power of the Cross. Even our own sin and our own death cannot withstand the power of the Cross if we place our trust, our faith, in our Lord Jesus Christ.
To quote the Song of Solomon, ‘Love is strong as death. Many waters cannot quench love neither can the flood drown it.’ So, let us not be afraid