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Vol I No. 1
Anglican Communion

The Way of the Cross & the Way of Salvation

by William J. Martin
Image above by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

Words from the Gospel of John 19: 16 – 17

So they took Jesus, and he went out,bearing his own cross,

to the place called “The Place of a Skull”,which in Aramaic is called Golgotha

A Sermon 19thApril 2019   AMR

In the name of the Father Son and Holy Ghost….. AMEN

Having just heard in the uniquely striking way (that happens only on Good Friday) the Passion narrative of St John’s Gospel — we should perhaps remind ourselves just how distinctive St John’s account of the Passion is

There are for example a number of elements in the synoptic Gospel accounts that simply do not feature in St John’s Gospel. There is no mockery of Jesus at  the cross; no penitent thief;  no darkness, (even though John often engages the symbolism of light and darkness); despite repeated reference to the coming of Jesus’ hour there is little reference to the time (save at19:14 stating that it was the sixth hour); there is no rending of the veil of the temple;  no cry of dereliction (“Why has thou forsaken me.”); no earthquake; no opening of the tombs (even though John has spoken earlier of such and also records the raising of Lazarus; and  there is no profession of faith as “the Son of God” by the centurion, even though St John places particular emphasis upon this point.

Yet the core narrative remains and is cast in a distinctively Johannine light that is thrown into sharper relief that merits our attention. Thus looking specifically at the role of the Cross, the theme of the cross as exaltation emerges strongly and the three “lifting up sayings” in John (3:14; 8:28; 12:32) prepare us to understand Jesus’ death as an exaltation in a profound way.

For example, St. John does not treat the crucifixion of Jesus as a humiliation that is followed by an exaltation, rather it is the first step in Jesus’ exaltation and glorification in itself and the resurrection is bound closely with the crucifixion,   such that the two become stages in one essentially upward motion. The death of Jesus is as an integral part of his exaltation and glorification – with all being completed, ultimately, in the resurrection.

The conflation here is further supported by the fact that in John 12:34 the crowd asks Jesus how he can say that it is necessary for the Son of man to be lifted up, when what Jesus actually said (in John 12:23) was that the hour had come for the Son of man to be glorified. The overall narrative movement comes to a climax that echoes the summation in the Christological  hymn of Philippians 2:5-11, when ‘every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.’ Thus Jesus is glorified as the Son of man in and by drawing all people to himself through his death, and in this the Son glorifies the Father.

Central here is that, the death of Jesus is a complex event which is a performative revelation of God’s nature that brings about the possibility of salvation which it also reveals and declares: ‘The description of Jesus’ death as exaltation and glorification is a way of underscoring its revelatory character’

In other words the narrative in John’s Gospel now both

  • unfolds the meaning of Jesus’ death
  • and also draws us, as hearers and readers, into that reality.

It is fitting too therefor that the narrative of Jesus’ death in St John’s Gospel highlights aspects of significance for the Church, tracing the origin of the new community from which it sprang right back to the cross itself: which is the point at which a new bond of kinship was forged under the sovereignty of Jesus, undivided by schism, and ready to be sustained by ‘living water’ and the Spirit. Such deep bonds are first constituted at the cross in the shadow of  Jesus’ death first in the form of a new family, comprising his mother and beloved disciple, with all being empowered by the promised Holy Spirit (which in the ‘farewell discourse’ Jesus promised his disciples would even make it better for them that he depart because when he departed he would send the Paraclete to be with them, 16:7)

So with all that Johnanine framing in mind let us now recall our jorney this week as we work through the Holy Week and the Triduum to the joy of Easter.

Consider the Stations of the Cross which many of us have followed this week

Among those let us recall in particular the Second Station which is usually entitled :Jesus is made to bear his cross — though that simple title does not quite convey the fulness of the episode’s reality.

It is a deeply significant moment in the whole passion narrative upon which we do well to ponder, especially today, when we shall shortly be enacting in particular the veneration of the Cross, an action which really should prompt engagement with quite deep questions.

If we picture that moment of Jesus taking up the cross in our mind’s eye as though it is happening now and before us,  in all its immediacy and horror there are several layers of meaning to consider…..

Here, an innocent victim is made to assist in the process that will lead to his death,

But in ‘taking up his cross’, specifically, we behold an action of truly extraordinary depth because of who and what we understand Jesus to be.

The cross is not merely imposed and thrust upon Jesus, rather Jesus actively picks it upand begins to bear its weight

That weight is immense for it comprises not merely the heavy weight of the wood itself but also the whole weight of the Crucifixion that lies before him.

–a burden of truly unique scale and yet also one that only he in the fullest sensecould bear.

The literal physical weight of the cross  is certainly terrible. (So heavy in fact that Jesus will later stumble and fall under it) but far more than that,  this weight also comprises the burden of the sins of the whole world: every sin ever committed by of every one of us.

And this point changes our relationship to what is happening.

For now we understand that each one of us is not in fact merely passive

and looking on here in the role of a spectator: no, each one us is putting that cross upon Jesus and more even than that we are each adding, with our every sin,  to its weight.

Yet Jesus still picks up that cross,  as only he can do, because he is both the Son of God and also entirely human, like each one of us and so too, it is as a man that he suffers for us to bring that salvation that none of us alone, without Christ, can either achieve or deserve….

We can also usefully think here of that other Station of the Cross which can at first glance seem rather strange: namely the eighth when Jesus addresses the women of Jerusalem. Here, in the words of St Luke’s Gospel

there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him.But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’

These seem very harsh words from Jesus that comprise a “hard saying”…

Are the women notweeping as Jesus’ mother is weeping?

Just as we too, —are we notall smitten alike with sorrow at the events we are following and at what we see now unfolding?

Yet at just this point,  Jesus says : “do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children”

The answer to the puzzle here is surely clearer if we think about our relationship to the scene unfolding.  In that perspective, are we not being challenged here to look at ourselves more truly and to ask: just how deeply arewe moved by what we are seeing?   Howauthenticis our sorrow? How real is our contrition, our repentance?

Is it a mere shallow emotion, in the face of a terrible but ultimately merespectacle?

Or is there something in us that is being changed and transformed

by what Christ is suffering and doing for us?

To ask these questions is to ask large ones about the nature of our participation in what is happening much as the ancient Greeks and Aristotle had hard questions to ask about catharsis and the transformation achieved in Greek tragedy

(and it may be recalled that at this time last year I stressed that ultimately the Christian story of the Passion is very much one that is NOT ultimately a tragedy and that the Christian vision can never in the end be one of tragedy.

But what the questions raised by the two stations of the Cross I have mentioned point to are some very large ones about our relationship to the events of the Passion and what we are about throughout Holy Week  and most especially Easter itself

Surely, we are surely called to a quite profound participative recollection (that is to echo the earlier word also performative) in the events we recall and liturgically re-enact.  In other words, the unfolding liturgy of this week is not merely a remembering of things past. Rather this is all about our making anew and participating in what is unfolding, namely the great work of salvation.

In other words – as the Eucharist itself always is—this is a collective act of anamnesis

In saying this, we come to that extraordinary calculus which lies at the heart of Christianity in which one profoundly complex event – the crucifixion and resurrection– becomes transformational to the extent that it actually has the capacity to redeem the entire world of fallen creation.

And that challenges us on many planes at once.

First, in terms of articulating and understanding how the presented “economy of salvation” is actually effected by the death and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, culminating in his resurrection: how did and does this actually work?

This is a challenge of understanding:

How did that sacrifice enable the restoration of a right relationship to God to be made available to all of humanity through the ages?

But second, there is the question of how we engage with that reality beyond the level of mere observers or even thinkers who ponder it. How do we enter into it all in such a way as to be beneficiaries of the inestimable gift conferred?

The answer to that lies in how we make this narrative of crucifixion, resurrection and redemption our own – which is nothing less than the ultimate task of a lifetime to which the yearly cycle of the liturgy invites us as our aid.

Let us Pray:

Lord Jesus Christ,  you spoke to the weeping women of repentance and the Day of Judgement, when each of us too will stand before you as the Judge of the world.

Grant us the faith to accept your saving work in the cross

and to be so transformed by it

that we shall not be without excuse on that Dread Day.

Grant that we may not merelywalk at your side, with mere words to offer.

Convert us and give us that new life in you,  so that in the end

we will not be dry wood, but living branches in you, the true vine,

bearing fruit for the eternal life (cf. Jn 15:1-10) that is to come in you.

AMEN