The Dean of Westminster
Friday, 25th March 2005
The cross is not and cannot be loved. The opening words of what is undoubtedly one of the finest books of theology on the cross of the 20th century, perhaps of any century that by Juergen Moltmann, The Crucified God. The cross is not and cannot be loved. Yet only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and as foolishness. Today too it is considered old-fashioned to put him in the centre of Christian faith and theology. It only when men are reminded of him, however untimely this may be, can they be set free from the power of the facts of the present time and from the laws and compulsions of history and be offered a future which will never grow dark again.
Nothing less than this is our theme on Good Friday and I had in my mind to expound this further, while wondering precisely which direction to take. Then I heard some terrible news about a friend, Louise (not her real name). She became a friend through meeting at conferences and we have remained in contact. She is fiftyish, black, with shortish curly hair and a very stylish dresser and particularly good on jewellery. An educationalist she has worked at universities and is a freelance teacher. A year or so ago she married a priest in the Episcopal Church and once had a thought about offering herself for ordination. When I saw her earlier this year in San Diego I thought she wasn't looking well. She was sent for extensive tests and a consultant saw her quickly. Suddenly last week came a message from a mutual friend, that Louise was afflicted with multiple myelomas, which means several cancers to treat. The prospects are not very good. She faces either a long painful treatment with radiation and drugs or possibly a slow death.
The news arrived as I was thinking about Good Friday. The story is vivid and shocking. But this must be an issue which the Christian faith addresses. We are used to making claims about the sufferings of Jesus on the cross as if they were unique. For him of course, they were. But they could only be so if they are regarded as an extension of human suffering. Although crucifixion is a painful and cruel death, and the victim drowns in the end in his own lung fluids, there are other horrible deaths. That is why, I think, people someti mes find it difficult to sing some of our hymns. We seem preoccupied with blood:
Blessed through endless ages
Be the precious stream,
from endless torment,
Does the world redeem
They treat the sufferings of Christ as if they were peculiar to him and as if no one else in this world had suffered so much. It links our own sufferings with those of Christ. But in the end, how could we judge between the pain of Louise and of Jesus? Is a slow pace over several months at the hands of the medical men doing their best worse or better than the cruelty of crucifixion?. Or again, can you compare one crucifixion with another? And if so, how? At the time of the slaves revolt in Rome the Emperor lined the Appian Way, the main road out of Rome, with crucified slaves. In other words, crucifixion was and is nothing special. It is in the sufferings of Louise that we see morel clearly the tragedy this morning.
C.S. Lewis used the form of the letter to convey his ideas, as for example in The Screwtape Letters. For that matter, so did St Paul. Heres another one:
Its about half past three in the morning. Im sitting here are surrounded by thousands of books and four computers, all directed to asking the same question Why Louise?. I suppose I'm someone who should rationally know all the answers, but I am at a loss as no doubt are all your friends -- the many of them. For as you know only too well it is serious. I could go on about new treatments, my own experience at the Royal Marsden (London's premier cancer hospital), and how prospects have improved. But both you and I know firstly it is avoidance and secondly it is not like you or me. One of the many attractive marks of your life in so far as I know it (and I count it a great privilege to know anything at all) is a straightforward head on face to all adversity. I cannot but think the same is true in this most horrible of times.
I taught you in that training group many years ago:interpret, interpret, interpret. And for that you need a transcendent reference. Well you have one - your faith. But again, how does one avoid being trite or appearing glib? What better time of year than coming up to Good Friday for considering these things not having the answer but managing some sort of interpretation within the frame of reference that at any moment impinges on you. I think for example, that Christ's suffering on the cross has such a range of rich interpretations because they are all context controlled and directed, i.e. the suffering of a failed friendship (Judas), or losing his disciples, or alone in the garden or finally both accompanied by bandits and alone with his God (or without him, as Moltmann so powerfully argued) are all qualitatively different. One episode is not the whole story but in the here- and- now it is the only one.
The Swiss theologian, Eduard Schweizer found himself in Japan with only a Greek New Testament and no theological books. Out of that experience came a book entitled Jesus, . It was a simple exposition of his understanding of the Gospels and without the paraphernalia of scholarship it was a delight, the discussion flowed. When he writes about the death of Christ he is succinct: If you are Christ the King of Israel, come down from the cross that we may believe. But the miracle secretly longed for, devoutly prayed for and hopefully expected, did not take place. At the human level there is the shock of the news about her; it makes us, whatever the link may be, shallow because `it is so profound a matter for you. We scrape the surface, you probe the depths. We agonisingly imagine what you are going through, you experience it as both less and more. We leave the prospect of death to a later date, you face it. It is as if you could reach and are reaching the horizon. And when we are in that position, we both know that there is nothing to be said, only ideas to be stimulated and memories recalled.
Bishop John Robinson (he of Honest to God fame) preached a remarkable sermon in Cambridge as he came to the end of his life. He was dying of a cancer. And true to his own direct approach to things, he argued cogently that God was in all parts of our life, including even the cancer that was killing him. He refused point-blank to entertain any sort of dualism whereby some things were good and some bad. But all such simplicity does not relate to the complexity of will be as successful as maybe. But if its not to be that we should meet again here, then let us look forward to that on another shore and in a greater light where we shall stand with the myriads of those who in their .own generation carried their own crosses and followed Christ.
Faith takes the peculiarities of the world, that dont fit with the ideas that I have and I am told with great seriousness, and seeks to relate them to God, whom we know chiefly through worship. The world is both coherent and absurdly incoherent. There are those who are fascinated by impact when those moments coincide. Again and for you impossible comes believable and believable becomes impossible. That topsy-turvy changing relationship is brought about by the resurrection which makes my letter to Louise can be written in the first place.
The fact of the cross and of Christs death upon it is not held as a sort of measure against which to compare your own suffering or that of others - where it is worse or better and more or less. About rather it provides the context in which you reflect upon the main issues of life, including pain and suffering. There is no direct effect, but the story is so power for and so rich that it allows us to find it every and any moment of the presence of God. That is what John Robinson meant by God being in his cancer. God was not the cause of the cancer but that because of his ultimate and final identification with us in crucifixion there is nothing in life or death that is beyond our comprehension but that is not beyond our exploring.
One of the least explored of the seven last words from the cross is today you will be with me in paradise. The dying Christ invites the dying thief to be with him in the next world. His colleague spoke of the present: they were both suffering deservedly because of their crimes but Jesus was innocent. But perhaps it was more than that: for his illness, disease and suffering generally makes us more dependent upon others that we need help, nursing, care and concern virtues come into our lives, through other people, we engineer and not taken back to our earliest years when we were also helpless and unable to look after ourselves. Why should the end life own dependency like that? The answer surely is that it is a preparation fraternity: because I presumably in Gods immediate present, the maligned sign of dependency is obliterated and the good humour and good and personal into relations based upon dependence become stronger and more realistic and ultimately we find that God is all in all. That will be resurrection.