As with every Holy Week, it’s hard to believe so much has happened in a week – from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to Jesus’ final teachings, the Last Supper, the betrayal, the trial, the crucifixion and death. And then the resurrection, which is such a disjunction from what has gone before that it makes it all seem like a different world, long ago, even though it was just hours ago.
Last Sunday, as we paraded through Great Strickland behind our donkey in the spring sunshine, I found myself praying for those who could not profess their faith openly, those for whom even such a simple act of devotion in public would cause their death. Perhaps the Holy Spirit had laid it on my heart, because I returned home to find that indeed, at that very time, our brothers and sisters from the Coptic Church in Egypt were being murdered for their faith. Knowing that they would be gathering on Palm Sunday, someone had deliberately sought to annihilate them and the faith of Christ from the face of the planet.
John Donne was right when he said “every man’s death diminishes me.” But when you know that this was not only an attack on our fellow human beings, but an attack on the faith we share, when you know that the same people would have killed you and me if they could, it makes it deeply personal.
And we cannot celebrate today without remembering our Coptic brothers and sisters, just as the first disciples could not celebrate the Resurrection without remembering the Cross, the trial and the betrayal, because each of them had been a part of it, just as each of us is a part of all the pain and injustice and betrayal of our world.
Today is a day of Victory. It is the victory of God over sin, of good over evil, of life over death. But we must never forget that Easter is the victory of the Cross. The Cross was where humanity vented its hatred and anger and violence on God himself, and just at the moment when it appeared to have won, with the death of God himself, it lost. In the Cross, death snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. For when God encountered death, eternal life encountered death; endless creativity encountered mindless annihilation; perfect love, which grieves over every instance of human suffering, encountered the indifference that can apparently shrug its shoulders at suffering and death on a terrifying scale. And love won. Creativity trumped destruction. Life overcame death. Because of the Cross, God won. And therefore we won.
The Cross is the victory that proclaims that the evil of this world, for all its apparent power, will spend itself and, when it is spent, it will end in defeat.
The Cross is an instrument of torture. Deliberately designed to inflict maximum suffering, we threw everything we had at Jesus. He was humiliated, beaten, abandoned, gloated over, tortured – destroyed bit by bit until he died. And we did it deliberately. And he took it deliberately. God invited us to do our worst to him so that he could draw the poison out of us and take it to death with him. We win, because he drew the sin out of our mangled souls.
The Cross is an instrument of humiliation. It was a public display of ritual humiliation, to show what happens to the enemies of Rome. Would-be rebels were hung naked, as would Jesus have been. The inscription Pilate hung over Jesus “the King of the Jews” was not a moment of theological revelation, but a deliberate attempt to humiliate the Jews – look what Rome does to your king! And yet, Jesus proved to be the only king worthy of the name, because he was humble, because, though he was God, he was also profoundly human, because he did all this for love, as he does everything for love. The victory of the Cross tells us that God’s commands are for our good, not for his – as everything Jesus did was for our good, not for his. Today, humble goodness wins and every act of kindness, however small and unnoticed, every silent prayer or hymn sung in praise becomes the truly majestic events of human history.
The Cross is an instrument of religious intolerance. It was used deliberately to insult the religions of Roman subjects. Many Jews were force-fed pork as they were crucified (and other even worse things). And even today, if Daesh can get hold of Christians, they prefer to crucify them rather than blow them up. Crucifying Jesus on the feast of Passover, said the Jews, “your God is dead. There’s no freedom from him anymore.” But the victory of the Cross tells us that God is alive. Even in death, he lives and that knowledge is truly liberating, because there is no force in this world, however horrific or powerful, that can overcome God. There is nothing that can happen to us in this life than can separate us from God or his love. There is nothing that can dehumanise us or annihilate us, because in the very process of destroying us, we win. Because God won. So do not fear those who can hurt the body, but cannot hurt the soul.
Today we celebrate, more joyously and deeply than at any other time of the year. But let us never forget that what we celebrate is the victory of the Cross. It is not bombastic or triumphalist. It is the victory of poor, of the outcast, of the humiliated, of the tortured, of the dead. It is the victory that proclaims the end that evil will meet and the glory of kind, gentle, humble faith.
So we celebrate firstly by seek God’s will above all things in our lives, knowing that his will is for our good, not his. We celebrate by humbly putting aside our own pride, our own ambition, our own path in life and seeking the way of the Cross. Because the Cross draws out the poison from our souls and gives us life in true abundance.
Secondly, we celebrate by living the faith of Cross. When we share our faith, we must do so not as scalp hunters badgering the world into give us their souls, but as those who are broken, but find God in the midst of our brokenness, hanging on his Cross, turning defeat into victory. When we engage in public life, we must remember that we are on the side of the wounded, the downtrodden, the outcast. When we seek justice, we must remember that we are on the side of the victims: those suffering unjustly and those falsely accused. When we consider our wealth, we must remember that we are on the side of the poor. Because to be a Christian is to proclaim Christ and he is only the Christ because of the victory of the Cross.
Thirdly, we celebrate by having courage. Following God has always been met with persecution because it proclaims that the powerless belong to God and that the powerful are actually powerless. Now, it may be that death and persecution will come to us one day, as it came to those Coptic Christians, but “do not fear those who can kill the body, but cannot harm the soul”. More likely, we will simply face the ridicule of those who consider the Christian faith ridiculous, irrational, mindless. Well, perhaps we are ridiculous, but the victory of the Cross tells us that to be fools for Christ is to share in the ridiculous victory of Jesus, the victory of defeat. And our Gospel is far from mindless or irrational. It is in fact the only thing that truly makes sense in this world, the only thing that truly heals our souls, the only thing that truly conquers violence, hatred and even death. So have courage and, whatever others may do to you, return it with the kindness and goodness we receive from Christ.
That is how we celebrate the victory of the Cross. And we celebrate it whatever life throws at us. We celebrate in the midst of loss, or pain, or suffering or even death, because the Cross is our victory. It has been my privilege to sit with a number of faithful Christians through death and it has been very moving to see them celebrating God’s love and presence, even in the valley of the shadow of death, because they know what God did for them on this day. And they know that their apparent defeat is in fact a victory, the victory of the Cross.
“Death, where is your sting?
Where, O Grave, is your victory?
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So today, let us celebrate our crucified and risen Lord. And let us live our crucified and risen selves. Happy Easter to you all.
Preached: Morland 16 April 2017