Sermon at Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Lent 2020

Shaped by the Cross II

The Reverend Ralph Godsall Priest Vicar

Sunday, 8th March 2020 at 11.00 AM

Last Sunday morning we observed that Westminster Abbey is a crucifix in stone representing symbolically the body of Christ. We reflected on the implications of this - what the Christian tradition has to say about the cross and about belonging to a cross-shaped community whose vocation is to live truthfully and humbly in communion with God and neighbour.

Last week we heard of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is the moment when sin entered the story. Adam and Eve end up forfeiting their communion with God in the garden for the sake of an illusory freedom, an illusory knowledge, where God is no longer God, no longer their Creator, but their rival – someone they needed to feel equal to, when they had already been endowed with nothing less than the divine image. They chose, and they chose badly – and don’t we all? They mistook themselves, they failed to realise what kind of creature they were – that there was nothing more for them to be; no knowledge that could make them freer than they already were. The knowledge of evil could only lead them into painful unreality; cast out of the garden and into the wilderness.

Today we hear of Abraham’s call - the moment that faith and entrusting enter the story. We hear how Jesus talked to Nicodemus, a thoughtful Pharisee who came to him by night under the shadow of darkness. Truth does indeed often lie on the other side of dark things. The Judaism that both Nicodemus and Jesus knew had a good deal to do with the knowledge of God, but Jesus talks to Nicodemus about being a child of Abraham and about new birth. God is starting a new family in which this ordinary birth is not enough. To enter the Kingdom of God you need to be born all over again, to be ‘born from above’. The initiative rests with God. It’s humbling for Nicodemus to have to be told this. He is, after all, a respected and senior teacher of the Jewish faith. And it’s humbling for us, too, to know that the true vocation of the Church will always be tested by baptism in water and the spirit.

Twelve years ago, I retired from full-time stipendiary ministry. It was a difficult decision, but I felt called to set out in a new direction. Friends and colleagues were more than a little bewildered but not my family. To test this call, I walked the Camino as a pilgrim from Le Puy in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain – a journey of about 1200 miles. I carried all I needed for the journey in a small rucksack. All I had to do was to keep walking day after day, following yellow arrows that directed me towards my destination. I didn’t have to worry about how long it would take, or where I was going. The only time I got lost was when I thought I knew a better way and missed or ignored the signs marking the way. It took me 80 days to reach my destination. It proved to be a remarkable experience. It brought closure to the past and prepared me for the future. I had been ‘born again in the spirit’. For a time I had renounced rapid and polluting forms of transport; I had re-connected with the soil beneath my feet; I had gained a deeper self-awareness, and, most importantly of all, I had allowed the slower, gentler pace to give a sense of what the human journey is for. It had been a journey shaped by the cross in which the faithfulness of God upheld me and embraced my flawed character. 

Along the way I remember a sign that warned walkers to watch out for snakes. Fortunately, I didn’t see one. But it reminded me of the way the symbol of the snake has been used in many cultures over many thousands of years. From poetry to art and medicine the figure of the snake has haunted the human imagination from time immemorial. So, Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’

The evangelist is clearly pointing here to the death of Jesus on the cross. Moses put the serpent on a pole and lifted it up for all to see. Likewise, the only cure for humankind, smitten with a deadly disease, is to look at the Son of Man dying on the cross and find life through believing in him. What the evangelist is saying is that the evil, which was and is in the world, is deep-rooted within us all. It has taken out its full force on Jesus. When we look at him hanging on the cross, what we are looking at is the result of the evil in which we are all stuck. And we are seeing what God has done about it. God’s action in the crucifixion of Jesus has planted a sign in the middle of human history.

By being hung up Jesus was literally distanced from people. A crucified man was a criminal and object of disgust. So, Jesus is separated from us and the rest of humankind. Yet, says the evangelist, by his separation he will draw everyone into a new closeness with him.

Distance is an ingredient in loving trust. It is not the whole. But it is the key, if we are really willing to entrust ourselves to others and allow them to use us. It is through being generous with ourselves that we find we come into greater closeness with God and neighbour. Distance and closeness, trust and faithfulness, then, combine in a profound experience of what the evangelist St John calls love. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

When we see this for ourselves, we can better deal with our tendency to want to control and manipulate others, especially those to whom we are drawn – to make someone we love in our own image. In the gospels both Judas and Peter in their different ways reckoned they loved Jesus. But each showed this by trying to manipulate him into doing what they thought would be best for him and thence for themselves. We all do it. Sometimes we are blatant about it but more often we are, like the serpent, surreptitious.

To act without self-interest, to entrust oneself to others, is the challenge of the Christian gospel. In the light of the cross, Christians believe that it is possible. The perspective of the cross gives shape and substance to what genuine love involves and calls us to direct all that good created energy within us towards our high calling as human beings, directing us towards the knowledge of our true nature and the true knowledge of God. Then the Nicodemus within each of us is given a new birth and a new vision. The cross stands as a permanent sign that all our ideas of love need constantly to be checked and tested. And that test comes from our neighbours, whom we love by entrusting ourselves to them, for good or ill.