The passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ stand at the centre of our historic inheritance in this country.
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Friday, 19th April 2019 at 12.00 PM
The passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ stand at the centre of our historic inheritance in this country and in very many countries throughout the world. The account of our Lord’s suffering and death on the cross is known and treasured by one third of the world’s people, perhaps 2.3 billion people in all. For them, for us, it is an account that carries significance and meaning above all the other great stories of our national and world history. It is described as the greatest story ever told and it goes to the heart of our national story.
Following his arrest, the suffering of Christ, humiliated before the Jewish high priest and the Roman governor, comes to a climax overnight, when he receives mockery from the Roman soldiers and a severe flogging. He is condemned to death by the governor Pontius Pilate. His suffering intensifies as he carries his cross to the place of the skull and is there nailed to the cross and hauled up so that he hangs on the cross, exposed to public view and humiliation, until finally the loss of blood and the pain of the nails and the strain on his heart lead to his death.
This great story is not only foundational for these British Isles but has been for over 1700 years foundational for the people of Europe. Earlier this week, we saw how devastating was the experience for the people of Paris and of all France, and for so many people around the world who love the particular inheritance of the French people, of seeing their great, ancient cathedral in Paris, Notre Dame de Paris, burning vigorously and threatening to be destroyed utterly. The salvation from ultimate destruction of this beautiful church by four hundred firefighters means that Notre Dame will rise again.
In France and across Europe and the Americas and many parts of the Far East, as in Britain, whatever the ups and downs of political life, whatever the torments and tragedies nations or peoples may face, just as they have faced in France as in Britain revolution and regicide and world wars, this account of the life, passion and death of the Saviour brings people to a deeper reality of awareness and understanding, to a foundational story that gives meaning and purpose way beyond the passing incidents of daily life.
And the power of the story is not simply that Jesus was crucified. Crucifixion was commonplace, the Roman reaction to uprisings and rebellions and crimes of all kinds committed by anyone who was not a Roman citizen. Roman citizens were executed equally freely, but they were beheaded by sword. What we see here in the Roman empire was a deep contempt for the lives of individuals, indeed for human life itself. The empire depended on its power and the use of force to subdue the people, to make them a subject people, to bend them to the will of the emperor and of the Roman senate.
Thus Jesus, accused of insurrection, of raising a force against the power of the Roman empire, was himself subjected to death on a cross, along with other common criminals. Two others, as we know, were crucified with him, one on either side. One railed against Jesus and mocked him, we are told, whilst the other, certainly in the account of St Luke, recognised the innocence of Christ and pleaded for forgiveness, for a place in paradise. Jesus would certainly not have been the only innocent person crucified by the Roman empire, which also had other imaginative means of torture and death, most obviously combat for life in the arena against gladiators or wild animals for the entertainment of the crowd.
But the point of the account goes far beyond the innocence of Jesus. It is not simply his innocence that makes the point; certainly he was innocent but there is more.
The Church teaches and we believe that Jesus Christ was perfectly good and entirely committed to fulfilling the will and purposes of God. And moreover we understand that he was able to fulfil this will and these purposes since he was not simply a human being as we are human but also held within him, more than just the divine spark, the very being and essence of God himself.
A hymn by St Thomas a Kempis translated into English begins,
O love, how deep, how broad, how high!
How passing thought and fantasy,
that God, the Son of God, should take
our mortal form for mortals' sake!
Or we can quote St Paul in his letter to the Philippians: ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’
He humbled himself. God, the Son of God, humbled himself. He took the form of a slave. He accepted in every way the suffering he had to undergo, in order to save people from sin and death and to offer them a new way.
In the glorious plan of God our loving Father, he would send his Son to take upon him our flesh, to be born of a human mother and to live as a human being, whilst gathering a group of disciples around him and doing all kinds of good and preparing people through his teaching for a different way, for a better way of life. And Jesus Christ absolutely fulfilled these expectations. And now he came to the point where he was to humble himself afresh in a new and more vivid way and become obedient to the point of death, accepting death on a cross.
The great story is of the humility of Christ, and thus in a way of the humility of God himself. So unlike the Roman governor and other rulers in ancient tradition, he would not show a great power or force or domination but would submit, would be humble, would willingly receive suffering, agony, death.
We see that this is not easy, even for our Lord himself. The gospels tell us of his agony in Gethsemane. He said to Peter, James and John ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ He threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’
This brings us to a key point about the foundational character of this story. This great foundational story has over the past many hundreds of years gradually formed a people who are conformed to the likeness of Christ. Our Lord shows us the way of humility and calls us to follow in that way. And our society has been formed and transformed in such a way that people generally believe and understand that political or religious leaders or the great men and women of our societies are not here to dominate or command but to serve, not to brag and boast and strut around but to be humble and to seek to make the world a better place. The wonderful story of our Lord’s passion and death has worked its way into people’s consciousness whether they profess to be believers or not and formed their way of thinking. This is a wonderful achievement of the Church over these past centuries.
Our Lord Jesus Christ accepted his suffering; he bore the burden; he humbled himself and became obedient even to the point of death. His death is our healing. But his example of suffering and humility is also ours to follow. We are to accept his gift and to follow his example.