A Sermon from Sherborne
‘Done on the Cross’: meditations for Holy Week 2020
6) Christ the Life-giver
We have been exploring what was ‘done’ on the Cross on that Good Friday, and have encountered thus far five powerful images: Christ as victorious over the forces of evil; as the ransom paid to secure our freedom; as our substitute; as the sacrifice for our sins and as the One who, lifted up on the Cross, draws us to himself. We have had ringing in our ears the warning of the Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky that there is an almost infinite number of these images, and none should ever be allowed to ‘harden’ into a doctrine which excludes the others. They are all facets of a single truth. We can only understand the Cross in part and know its meaning in fragments. I have collected five so far. For this last meditation there are many more to choose from.
The one I cannot omit is that of the Cross as the place where we receive the gift of life. “In Him was life”. A former Bishop of Winchester, John Vernon Taylor, once beautifully described Jesus of Nazareth as a man so intensely alive that others catch life from his touch. “The historical figure of Jesus that emerges almost incidentally from the study of the Gospels is of a man supremely alive in his awareness and his freedom. He was, above everything else, alive, and his aliveness was contagious.”
To understand our need of Christ the Life-giver, we have of course to acknowledge our own deadness. Bishop Taylor quotes Dr Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, a pioneer worker amongst the elderly, describing one residential home she had visited:
They were all sitting half dead in their wheel-chairs, mostly paralysed and just existing, they didn’t live. They watched some television, but if you had asked them what they had watched they probably would not have been able to tell you. We brought a young woman who was a dancer and we told her to play beautiful, old-fashioned music. She brought in Tchaikovsky records and so on and started to dance among these old people, all in their wheel-chairs, which had been set in a circle. In no time the old people started to move. One old man stared at his hand and said, ‘Oh, my God, I haven’t moved this hand for ten years.’ And the 104-year-old, in a thick German accent, said ‘That reminds me of when I danced for the Tsar of Russia.’
But you don’t have to be 104 to be half-dead, at least not spiritually. We have all encountered men and women who, by their vivid aliveness and sheer appetite for life and living, have made us feel very dull and lethargic indeed, and it has little to do with their age or ours. It has much more to do with the state our souls are in. Some of you have heard me quote before from Kenneth Kaufman’s splendid poem:
I think my soul is a tame old duck
Dabbling around in barnyard muck,
Fat and lazy, with useless wings.
But sometimes when the North wind sings
And wild ones hurtle overhead,
It remembers something lost and dead,
And cocks a wary, bewildered eye,
And makes a feeble attempt to fly.
It’s fairly content with the state it’s in,
But it isn’t the duck it might have been.
But we needn’t be barnyard ducks, not if we are prepared to be touched by both the death and the resurrection of Jesus. His was a transmission of life from the fully alive to the half dead. He told the crowds in Galilee that he had come that they might have life, and have it to the full. He told them that if he set them free, they would be truly free. The mass of the people hung upon his words, and when he asked Peter if he wanted to join those who were drifting away, the answer came back: “To whom shall we go? Your words are words of eternal life“. [John 6.68].
But what part does the Cross play in this transmission of life? Before I answer that, I need to quote an experience described by the Anglican nun Mother Frances Dominica, whose name will always be associated with Helen House Hospice for terminally ill children in Oxford.
I had known this mother for some time as both her daughters suffered from a rare genetic illness, and were frequent visitors to Helen House. During the year she and her husband went through a difficult and painful divorce. On Christmas morning she telephoned and I went. Her 13-year-old died the following morning, suddenly and unexpectedly. Seeing her sister dead, the four-year-old said, ‘I wanted to die first’, and five days later she too died. During those days and nights that I was with the mother and her children there were a thousand and one things to do. After the funeral there was nothing to do except to be there beside her. Surrounded by grief too immense for words I felt physical pain which still recurs from time to time when I least expect it. By staying alongside I was absorbing a little of her pain.
Jesus’s dying was to absorb our deadness. On the Cross the unparalleled aliveness of Jesus Christ went down under the deadness that is our sickness and our sin and was annihilated. Surrendering himself to death, he drew it into himself and absorbed it. If you think of our deadness as sin, as we should, then you can see that it was absorbed in Christ’s forgiveness, for that is how forgiveness works – it absorbs the wrong by enduring the pain and hostility of it without throwing it back. And if you think of our deadness as a wasting disease, you can see that its infection spent itself upon Christ, and was absorbed or, as the New Testament put it, “swallowed up”.
But if Jesus’s death was simply to absorb our deadness, to save us from death eternally, that death by itself cannot transmit to us the fullness of eternal life. We may not be dead ducks, but we remain firmly grounded in the farmyard of life, unable to fly and enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God. That is why we need Easter, we need the resurrection. Because Easter is the pledge that the death of Jesus did not just absorb our deadness. It also broke the power of death. No grave could contain him. The Cross itself is a victory. Jesus died absorbing and breaking the power of evil so that we might be free. But without the resurrection it would have been an austere and bleak victory. On Easter Day God at last shows his hand. The New Testament never says that Christ rose from the dead. It always says that God raised him from the dead. In the resurrection we know where God stands. The love Jesus lived for and died for is not a pathetic idyll, out of touch with reality. It is reality. Whatever present appearances may suggest, goodness is stronger than evil. Life is stronger than death. To believe this gives one a new and creative perspective on all of life, and life’s end. Here is the guarantee that our struggle after meaning and goodness and truth can never be in vain. Here is the ground of hope when the confines of this world give us no hope. Here is the light that illumines even the valley of the shadow of death. The resurrection is the place where we learn how to love, how to laugh and how to live. We come to it by way of the Cross. We are nearly there!
Have a happy, and holy Easter.
Let us pray
Lord of all life and power,
who through the mighty resurrection of your Son
overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
grant that we, being dead to sin
and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory;
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be praise and honour, glory and might,
now and in all eternity. Amen