Good Friday – Love of God magnified

IMG_5683I came across an article in the online version of The Independent on Monday[1] – something I am going to have to get more used to seeing if I want to continue to read it after the last print edition tomorrow. The piece was by a Biblical scholar from the University of Sheffield arguing that Jesus may not have been nailed to the cross. Meredith Warren’s point is that the gospels do not say that Jesus was nailed, they merely say that he was crucified and that was not as neatly defined as we have tended to think. Each team of soldiers was pretty free to do what they wanted and were not unknown to nail other parts of the body to the cross too. Some they just tied up and some were dead before they were crucified. The point of crucifixion was that it was about mockery and display. The purpose was to humiliate which is why the condemned tended to be stripped of their clothes. So I thought I’d better check.

The gospels do not say explicitly how Jesus was crucified, they just say he was crucified and we are left to draw our own picture. However John has Thomas asking after the resurrection to “see the mark of the nails in his hands and put [his] finger in the mark of the nails” (20:25). That rather implies nails to me and Meredith Warren did acknowledge this in her article. Luke similarly mentions the marks after the resurrection, inviting the disciples to look at his hands and his feet (24:39). No nails are mentioned but it is clear he is saying the person you see in front of you is the person you saw crucified and the marks are the sign of credibility. So clearly there was a tradition that he was nailed.

Crucifixion did not end well for anyone. It was a decisive death. In Jesus’ case John’s gospel also has the story of the spear in the side and the blood and water coming out (19:31-37). This matches the trauma he endured and the build up of fluids in the body which would be released if pierced. The person who wrote this had seen crucifixion and knew the physiology even if he didn’t understand it. John is a gospel with deep meanings behind even the most mundane sounding of detail, but he also carries insights into the real life of the times in the details of the narrative. It is not beyond him to give real details and add theological significance at the same time: blood and water takes us back to the wedding at Cana where water was turned into wine and there are Eucharistic allusions (2:1-11). The fulfillment of promise and hope and salvation are made known, made manifest in both the Cana miracle story and on the cross. This piercing becomes a moment of Epiphany.

The blood and water at one and the same time are both a sign of the reality of death and also a visual aid for Christ’s cry from the cross; ‘It is finished’. This is a statement of completion and fulfillment. The pains and suffering of the world, its transitory nature and its fragility, are taken into the very heart of God. This is the mystery of the cross. It is not just the gateway to the resurrection, which it clearly is, but it is also an act of profound making known, of revelation that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, as St Paul put it, not even death. Not even the most violent of deaths, which crucifixion, whatever form it took, displayed. And we are witnessing at the moment significant levels of violence and hatred, brutality and the dehumanizing of people, which recent acts of terror display; contemptuous of life and counting the other as completely lacking worth or respect.

The other day as I walked through Cathedral Square one of those street preachers had set up his sign proclaiming that ‘men will be judged by Jesus Christ’. The flippant in me thought only men, not women too? That aside his was an angry message that wanted to condemn and damn. It was a message that we are worthless and unlovable. And I feel there is far too much of this at the moment. We could do with less of it. Wind it forward and it can justify violence, the viewing of other people as being something less than fully loved and cherished by God. Why would God go to the trouble of making himself known in Jesus Christ and in the act of taking on the pain and suffering, the hatred and vice, on the cross, if it wasn’t the most loving act he could perform? That seems to me to be a much more healthy and wholesome place to start, to draw people to the loving embrace in which lives are transformed rather than threats and judgment. I don’t know what judgment means, perhaps it is that the consequences of decisions and actions will take their course. But of course what we proclaim in the cross is that Christ cancels the debt we can never repay, if we use that language, the consequences are dealt with for us because we cannot sort this ourselves. It needs his grace to set us free and that is what we celebrate on this day as we mark the day that Christ died and drew all of the sting into God’s-self.

It is also for this reason that I deeply dislike the line in the hymn ‘In Christ alone’ which we had this morning at the Walk of Witness in the square. It is the line about ‘the wrath of God’ being ‘satisfied’ and I always change it to ‘the love of God was magnified’. The author doesn’t like us doing that and has refused permission for printed versions to make that change[2], but I find the hymn unsingable with the wrath line in it. Christ was sent to reveal the love of God not to satisfy anger and hatred. The latter is a gross distortion of the Christian message, which is one of love magnified beyond measure.

The life-giving cross is the source of our joy and peace. It is the place that the unresolved finds resolution, the stuck is set free and what is lost is found again in his redeeming love.

 

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Good Friday 25th March 2016

 

[1] Meredith J C Warren ‘Was Jesus Christ really nailed to the cross?’ in The Independent 17th March 2016

 

[2] Abby Stocker ‘Wrath of God keeps popular worship song out of 10,000-plus churches’ in Christianity Today 8th January 2013

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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