A sermon for Morning Service at Cheap Street Church, Sherborne, preached by the Rector of Sherborne, Canon Eric Woods on Sunday 8 March 2020
From this morning’s second reading, John 3. 14-16: Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
On our first visit to the United States, many years ago, Sandra and I did a month’s house, car and (for me) Sunday duty exchange with an Episcopalian – that is, Anglican – rector from the little town of Lebanon in the beautiful state of Oregon. The rectory there had what is commonplace in British homes today: hundreds of channels. And so, flipping through those channels, I had my first encounter with a telly-evangelist. Perfect tan, perfect teeth, perfect haircut, perfect suit, he was perfectly (and appallingly) confident that he, and apparently he alone, really understood the Gospel message. At the height of his peroration he stabbed his finger at the camera – that is, at his television audience – and declared, “And brothers, and sisters, if you ain’t got it like I got it, you ain’t got it at all.”
Good Friday approaches, and with it our engagement with the meaning of the Cross, the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus. And brothers, and sisters, I want to warn you against any preacher who declares that, if you don’t understand the Cross like he understands the Cross, “you ain’t got it at all”.
Rather, the mystery of our redemption can never be more than partially understood by us this side of heaven for now, as St Paul declares, we see through a glass darkly or, as your pew bible renders that verse from 1 Corinthians, “now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
Over the centuries, of course, the theologians have wrestled with the mystery, and – usually drawing selectively on texts from the New Testament – have come up any number of explanations of how the Cross “works”. In medieval times a popular theory was that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to the devil to secure our release from his power – and in both Matthew and Mark Jesus declares than the “Son of Man has come to give his life as a ransom for many”. With memories of having to pay a massive ransom for King Richard I – the Lionheart – to be released from captivity by Leopold of Austria, it is easy to see why the idea gained currency. And it reappears, surely, in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with Aslan the lion offering his life as a ransom for the life of the not very likeable boy Edmund, held by the Witch.
And then we have just sung about another version of how the Cross works, in Mrs Alexander’s hymn There is a green hill far away. Verse 4: There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin; he only could unlock the gate of heaven, and let us in. We have sinned against God, and a Just God must find us guilty of that. And with guilt comes punishment – but Christ steps forward to substitute himself for us, and pay the price himself.
I could go on. There’s the interpretation that Jesus was a necessary sacrifice to turn aside the wrath of God, just as sacrifices in the Old Testament provided a soothing odour that could appease or propitiate an angry God. I’m not sure that’s actually what the New Testament means by ‘sacrifice’, but, like it or not, it certainly has it place in the tradition.
And then there is an understanding of the Cross inspired by the verses from our second reading with which I began: Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For those drawn to this verse, their starting point is that God could have forgiven us without sending his Son to die, had he chosen to do so. Strictly speaking, the Cross wasn’t necessary. Nevertheless, it happened. So what was God’s intention in sending his Son as man? Surely it must have been to reveal his love for us – in what Jesus taught, in what he said, in what he suffered, in what he was. And this wonderful demonstration of God’s love for us, revealed in Christ stretching out loving arms for us on the Cross, must have been meant to awaken in us a similar love for God who first loved us.
Seen like this, the achievement of the Cross is to reveal and proclaim God’s love in Jesus’s life and death, a love which has the power to transform us and redeem us. As a former Bishop of Salisbury used to put it, God first engages with us and then he changes us – and the most engaging thing about God is his love, revealed on the Cross. The Cross is the magnetic centre of our faith, drawing us to Him.
And this is a thoroughly Biblical image. Echoing John 3, Jesus says in John 12 [32-33]: ‘And I, if I am lifted up, shall draw all men to myself.’ And John adds, ‘This he said to indicate the kind of death he was to die.’
This understanding of the Cross has often been criticised for not allowing Christ’s death to have achieved anything in itself, objectively. There is, if you like, no “transaction”, whether it is a payment to the devil or the appeasement of an angry God or of Jesus substituting himself to take the punishment we deserve. It is wholly subjective, relying on Christ’s death invoking a response of penitence and love in us. But is not this how all sacraments work? What is the Eucharist if there are no eyes of faith to see beyond just bread and wine? What is marriage if there are no eyes of love to see beyond the legal contract? Christ is the magnetic centre of our faith, and if we proclaim his love, and share the contagion of his love with others, I believe there is more chance of them responding to the Cross than by our trying to convince them of any number of theories of the atonement which somehow leave love out. For the Cross, ultimate sign of man’s hatred, is also the ultimate sign of God’s love. And many waters cannot quench love. It is stronger than death. And still it has its ancient power to draw us to the Crucified.
This was Eric’s formal farewell to Cheap Street Church (Methodist/URC) after 27 years of partnership in the Gospel. He retires as Rector of Sherborne on Easter Day. At the end of the service the Church Secretary, Christine Rogers, paid a moving tribute to Eric and presented him with a generous gift and with flowers for Sandra.