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Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the First Sunday of Lent 2020

Shaped by the Cross I

The Reverend Ralph Godsall Priest Vicar

Sunday, 1st March 2020 at 11.15 AM

The season of Lent is often described as a pilgrimage, or as a journey or quest. It’s the time of the year when we ask ourselves as members of the Church if we are living out our Christian vocation to the full. Lent is a time of honest appraisal.

We come to St Margaret’s and the Abbey as one family worshipping in two places. We call these precincts ‘sacred’ which means it is ‘serious earth’, as the poet Philip Larkin said. This is a place where we take to heart the sin that clings so tenaciously to us as individuals and as members of the Church. This is the place where day in day out we can think about serious issues honestly, safely and hopefully. In the end, as someone once said, ‘the facts are friendly’ – but it often takes some doing to see the truth of that.

Like many cathedrals, Westminster Abbey is based on the shape of a cross lying flat on the ground. The cross is so shaped because it had to carry the human form when people were crucified – as Jesus Christ was crucified. The Abbey is a crucifix in stone and it represents, symbolically, the body of Jesus Christ. The nave is his torso, the transepts are his arms, the Sacrarium is his head.

So, the Abbey building is like a human being, stretched out on the ground – Jesus Christ, or you or me for that matter. Not that we’re literally crucified, but by living truthfully and humbly before God and neighbour we may have to face problems – just as Jesus did. The joy and peace that we long for often lies on the other side of dark things. ‘The only way out is through’, as someone once said.

That may sound a lonely journey – and it sometimes is just that. But it needn’t always be. That phrase, ‘the body of Christ’ is also used in the Christian tradition to refer to the community which gathers to worship. As followers of Jesus Christ, we believe that we are not alone. Jesus identifies with us in our struggles; and we are embraced by the world-wide community which he founded and continues to lead through the activity of the Holy Spirit.

The cross shapes our lives. We remind ourselves of this whenever we make the sign of the cross either in our heart and mind or with our right hand on our body. In pre-Reformation churches you often found a stoup (or receptacle) for holy water in the porch near to the church door. It was usually in the form of a small stone basin. People about to enter the church would dip their index finger in the water and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads as a reminder of their baptism and fellowship with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection.

Nothing is more central to the Christian tradition than the crucifixion. It is in the creeds and cannot be moved: ‘He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.’ Yet although the theme of the cross is the core of Christianity, the Church has never decreed any one doctrine of that cross to be orthodox. It remains first and foremost a story, not a doctrine. That is why, central as it is to Christian faith, it still impresses itself upon non-believers. 

To be shaped by the cross means to be led from death to life, from falsehood to honesty, from despair to hope. As a symbol the cross is, of course, much older than Christianity. It has sustained martyrs and spurred on crusaders and inquisitors. It stands for some of the Church’s greatest glories but also for moments of deep shame.

The cross, as core and universal symbol of the Christian faith, cannot endure being overlaid with theory. It judges our eagerness for certainty - about God, our neighbour, and ourselves. From the cross we learn how to live truthfully and humbly with God and neighbour.

Today we hear the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It gives us a picture of the moment sin enters the story. Sin lies in what Adam and Eve do. Once they have knowledge of good and evil, they are also aware of themselves within God’s world. What they have hitherto done instinctively, now becomes a matter of personal decision. There is, therefore, plenty of room to get things wrong.

Jesus spent a time apart in the wilderness immediately after his baptism examining his own desires and motives. He was indeed tempted there, and we can learn from the fact that he was tempted precisely by his own desires, by his hunger, by his own grace and power. Jesus went out into the wilderness directly from his baptism and returned proclaiming and ushering in the Kingdom. These forty days were spent thinking about his vocation. In the wilderness he came to terms with his desires and the will of God. He returned with a renewed sense of vocation. He knew who he truly was and what he was being called upon to do.

Among the many books that have been written on the subject of the cross the one that has stayed with me and shaped my thinking more than any other is Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. It appeared when the old, once powerful theories of the crucifixion of Christ felt too remote. Moltmann combined learning with his own testimony and passion for his subject. He emphasized the profound injustice of Jesus’ death. He brought home how loathsome a crucified man was to God and people. And he explored how Christ’s cross not only judges us but also passes a verdict on God himself.

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth,” he writes, “he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man's godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”

Jürgen Moltmann, a German prisoner of war who lost all hope in German culture because of Belsen and Buchenwald, understood the meaning of the cross and the Church’s true vocation better than most. Lent gives us the opportunity to come to terms with our own desires and the will of God and to ask ourselves afresh if we are truly living out our Christian vocation to the full.

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