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'This cross is for all of us' - Archbishop Justin's sermon at Bristol Cathedral

Wednesday 17th September 2014

The Archbishop of Canterbury preached this Holy Cross Day sermon at Bristol Cathedral on Sunday during his visit to Bristol diocese.

Archbishop Justin at Bristol Cathedral, 14 September 2014. (Picture: David Pratt)

Number 21: 4-9 – the bronze serpent
Philippians 2: 6-11
John 3: 13- 17

Thank you so much to Bishop Mike and to the Dean for the invitation to preach at this service.

When I was a curate in Nuneaton my wife, Caroline, was in a jewelers waiting to get a new battery for a watch, and the person in front of her wanted to buy a cross for someone. And the lady behind the counter said: “We’ve got two sorts of cross: we’ve got a plain one and we’ve got one with a little man on it.” [laughter] I think she missed the point.

The point is exactly the reverse. For the first three or more centuries of Christian history, the cross was the reason people attacked Christianity. The insane scandal of the cross was seen as the most justifiable reason for dismissing Christian faith as absolute rubbish. Why? Because you only crucified really bad people. They were the ones who went to the cross. And the idea that you could have a faith that was based around a figure that had been crucified was clearly insane. And so when pagans wrote about why Christianity was rubbish, they started, of course, with the cross. It was scandal.

And yet today it is probably the object that is at the heart of more art, of more architecture, of more of the way we think of things, of the world around us, than any other symbol – not only in our own countries, in the ancient Christian traditions, but across the whole world. If you want to say you’ve been particularly badly treated, you talk about being crucified. It is the centre of the way we look at things. This very cathedral, of course, is built in the shape of a cross. The bishops here are wearing a cross, each of us, and, in a rather bizarre bit of symbolism, the primatial cross, of course, for an Archbishop is not a cross, it’s a double cross. It’s always worth remembering that when you’re dealing with Archbishops [laughter]…

But what is it about the cross that inspires us to call this day Holy Cross Day? Why is it the object that so captivates us, that so catches us? What is it about it that means Christians engrave it, paint it, sculpt it in their homes, in their churches, even on their bodies?

What is it about the power of this emblem that compels athletes, soldiers, priests, explorers, singers to sign themselves with the cross before any moment of great endurance or fear?

And why is this day, and indeed every day, different because of those two pieces of wood which were hastily but securely fixed together?

What is it about this power of this emblem that compels athletes, soldiers, priests, explorers and singers to sign themselves with the cross?

Why is this day, and indeed every day, different because of those two pieces of word which were hastily but securely fixed together?

The readings we have heard have a seam of gold running through them that shine light on our path as we seek to answer this question. Each of them has, as their central theme, the cross of Jesus Christ. That is no surprise, for this cross is at the centre of all things – in heaven and on earth. And rightly so: for, as Luther said, the cross of Christ tests everything.

You might be surprised to hear me say that the cross is in the centre of each of all our readings. In the first reading, in the book of Numbers, it was only a bronze serpent, set up in the middle of the wilderness. For those who are struggling to remember which particular moment in that story that was, it’s one of the fairly repetitious ones where the people of God are moaning. They winged, moaned and wimped their way through 40 years of travelling round the wilderness (that is a short summary of parts of the Pentateuch, but it’s more or less accurate [laughter]).

They might have been freed from captivity in Egypt, but the journey to freedom was not as easy as they had hoped. It never is. Bad goes to worse when they get into a plague of vipers and they are bitten by snakes the whole time. Moses is instructed by God to set up a bronze serpent on a pole and to lift it high, that anyone who is sick can look at it and live. It’s seen by Old Testament scholars as one of the oldest parts of the Old Testament, one of the most original parts, and it has often puzzled people. But Jesus talks about it in a different way, as a symbol of what will happen to him; that the symbol of evil will be turned into the power of good.

It is universally agreed that when Jesus talks about the ‘Son of Man’ he meant himself. And Jesus is declaring that when he is lifted up from the earth, on the cross, like the snake, all who turn to him will believe.

And it has been one of the themes of these three days in this diocese for me. The group of us who came down here have been fantastically looked after. I know there was some consternation yesterday in Malmesbury about where I baptised or reconfirmed the baptism of 19 people in a pool, in full robes, in the open air outside Malmesbury Abbey with a large crowd around. After I’d waded around in this pool for some considerable time, and the microphone had rather complained, I obviously then confirmed them – and I have to say it’s one of my quicker confirmations because the air was getting pretty chilly and they were shivering… Then, of course, I had to go and change, so some poor people who lived near the Abbey found themselves imposed upon by a dripping wet Archbishop. And apparently beforehand there were great worries about whether it was a fitting place for an Archbishop to change. (It always seems that people worry about what fits me much better than I worry about it myself).

But let’s see what is fitting for Jesus. He is the one who comes from above, says Philippians, who came because he did not count holding on to what he had as something essential, but he gave it all up. Nothing was fitting except he came and lived a fully human life so that we could be caught up and live a life with God. He came to be like us, so that we had the opportunity to become like him. He was extraordinary in his love. He lived the most brilliant of human lives – but that is not the most wonderful thing. He teaches the most profound truths as only a true genius can, in the simplest of ways – but that is not the most wonderful thing. The most wonderful thing is that he considered it fitting to be lifted up on the cross.

We are living through a time when it seems that daily the darkness deepens, the shadows fall, the weight of human evil seems to grow; and even those who stand up for what is good find themselves assailed on every side. All of us today will have heard this morning of the brutal, cruel murder of David Haines. He was in the Middle East on humanitarian work. He had gone to serve the people of Syria and Iraq, and his captors captured him, held him, toyed with the hopes of freedom, and then killed him.

And so where is Christ in that? On Holy Cross Day, we are reminded above all that he is with David Haines, that he is in the depths of evil and the depths of our own suffering because of the cross. We will pray for David’s family and remember him, but we can remember with hope because of the cross.

And there will be many here today who are themselves going through a cross of sorts; perhaps with relationships in the family, with work and debt, bereavement or illness, or the fear of it. There will be much suffering in this cathedral this morning, mostly unseen. And all that sounds pretty grim were it not for the fact that on Holy Cross Day our eyes are drawn to the cross.

In Coventry Cathedral (where I worked for five years and where I was involved in conflict management and reconciliation work, including in the Middle East, including one visit to Iraq, including in the Holy Land, much in Nigeria and other places of profound and deep brutality) at the east end, by the high altar, of the new cathedral, built after the destruction of the Second World War, there is a tapestry, 80 ft high, 35 ft wide. It’s a tapestry by Graham Sutherland of Christ in glory. And there is the ascended Christ on his throne; it’s a wonderful, profound piece of art, magnificent. When you stand at the back of the cathedral, it was designed by Basil Spence so that was the only bit of colour you could see; everything else is grey. But there at the end are these brilliant greens and yellows and golds, and Christ in glory. And at his feet, between his feet, because the figure is 70 ft high, is a small man; and even Christ in glory, on either side of that human being, has the marks of the cross in his feet, on his hands.

I used to sit there before some of the more dangerous trips, in my stall in the cathedral as a canon, and look up at that during Evensong, and pray, when I was really nervous. And I remember my eye always being drawn by that man and the recognition that, wherever I was going, that Jesus had gone further; whatever the costs might be to me, they had been greater to him, because that man on either side had the marks of the cross on the giant feet of Christ.

Where is Jesus in the depths of our suffering? He is the God who became wholly human, who stood by our side, who sucked into himself every ounce of sin and suffering and brutality of this world, before then and after, in total injustice, absorbed it, held it, overcame it and rose from the dead, and is alive and with us by his Spirit today in reality and truth. And therefore death is defeated, despair is overcome, whatever we feel, wherever we are, however weak we are, afraid we are, depressed we are. You can be overwhelmed by the sorrows of this world – many are, sadly; depression assails them and only darkness seems all around. And yet Jesus remains light, whatever we feel, and loves us, however much we turn away.

So this cross is for all of us. It’s for David Haines and his family. It is the cross of sorrows and grief, that says God loved us enough to come and share every ounce of it with us. Grace upon grace, love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.

And the response he calls us to – to trust this grace and love with our lives. The one who is lifted high on the cross requires more than a glance from us, more than a quick squint or look. He calls us to believe, to trust, to take this love for us as the most certain thing in our lives. To become those who take up our cross and follow him. Who consider it fitting for us not to live life for ourselves, for our own glory, our own power, because that way lies evil and darkness. But live our lives for others, sacrificing everything. That is what it means to take up our cross, it’s what Jesus said. And when we do that, the morning breaks, the light fills our lives and our hearts and our world.

And as God’s people we are called to go out and draw others to find that extraordinary life that is found in the death of Jesus Christ. To be so confident, as his church, that this is God who died that we might live, who became like us so that we might be like him – that we will share that news, in the way that God came to us we will go to others. In that way, and that way alone, through history: through the overcoming of the Roman Empire without a sword drawn or a shot fired by the church over four centuries; in the overcoming of the Dark Ages through the monasteries of St Benedict, and the retention of human learning and the love of community and the preaching of the good news of the cross. Through even the 20th century, the darkest of all history, where in the darkest of the darkest places the light of Christ was still held up. If we live as Jesus lived, if we share what Jesus gave us, if we proclaim the good news of the cross, then truly the light overcomes the darkness.


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