Not the end, but the way to a new beginning…words for Good Friday 2021, Adel Parish church.
I wonder how many of you are fans of the film Titanic? I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch it – after all, with that title it’s hardly going to end well!
Today is somewhat similar. We follow Jesus to the rubbish heap outside Jerusalem, the place of execution. And we fear we do know the ending; we fear that today we’ve reached the ending.
After all, we’ve just heard from Jesus’ lips, ‘It is finished.’
‘It is finished’, that’s certainly how it must have appeared to Jesus’ followers, and to those who couldn’t cope with his brand of radical love and needed rid of him. All those hopes for a new way of life seem to have ended at the cross. We seem to have reached the bottom, a dead end.
But the Greek for ‘It is finished’ can also be translated, ‘the work is completed’.
We could see the work of Jesus’ as living a human life in total obedience to God. Not the obedience of following orders, but of reflecting God’s perfect love back to God. Jesus’ whole life was one of showing what God’s love looks like in human form.
And this leads to the cross. Not because God demands it – but because perfect love refuses to use power, to manipulate, to repay violence with violence; so perfect love is vulnerable to the human need to be on top, to be in control. Perfect love asks for a new way of ordering society where every life matters. The cross is the response of those who feel they have too much to lose in this new world.
In his life Jesus sought out the outcast, the poor and downtrodden, the sorrowful, and declared God’s love for them…whatever the consequences. Those who were threatened by this had him put to death, and he died declaring God’s love and forgiveness for those who killed him.
The work is completed, not because it’s failed, but because even violence and death have not defeated God’s love. At the cross it’s hard to see the ending, but somehow we know that this is not it. Jesus died abandoned, betrayed, alone…but still loving. So when we reach the absolute depths of human life – God is there. Although God’s love reaches to the depths – the depths cannot hold it. We know what the disciples didn’t, that on Sunday it will burst the tomb and there will be a new beginning.
But there is no way to that new beginning except via the cross. This is not the ending – but it is our way ahead. Jesus overcame hatred, violence and death not by avoiding it – but by confronting it with love. Those who found new life on Easter Sunday had to face their part in the cross – their betrayal, abandoning, cruelty or indifference. They had to accept that God could deal with these, then they had to leave behind the people they had been, and begin new lives trying to share God’s love with others.
The cross is not the end, but nor is it a magical solution to life’s problems. The end is how we deal with all the ills exposed by the cross. 2000 years ago society’s attitude to the poor, the mentally and physically ill, the stranger, women, those who struggled with strict religious laws were all laid bare by Jesus’ life and death.
Those for whom the cross turned from disastrous end to new life had to leave such attitudes behind as they formed the earliest Christian communities.
This year COVID has done something similar for us, putting a spotlight on things we perhaps knew but preferred not to examine too closely. It’s been a difficult year for us all, but the load has fallen disproportionately on some parts of society. The poor, the disabled, the elderly, black and Asian communities, prisoners, asylum seekers have suffered the most. They have seen more deaths, but also greater loss in income, loss of freedom, loss of access to green spaces, disrupted education.
On the whole these groups suffered more because they were already disadvantaged. COVID exposed how little our society values many workers even as we discovered how much we rely on them. COVID reminded us how precious a thing our National Health Service is. COVID highlighted how many isolated lonely people there are. COVID helped us relearn the importance of community and family.
We are still some way from the end of this crisis, but hopefully we have passed the lowest point. We are looking forward with hope to a new beginning…and we hear the idea that we should ‘build back better’. We are at a point in history – a little like the end of the last war – when there is appetite for change.
As Christians I think what we offer to the debate is the knowledge that real new beginnings are reached only via the cross. We cannot improve the lives of those who have suffered most without recognising the sins of society that underpin that suffering. Jesus showed us that obedience to God’s love means valuing every life, caring especially for the vulnerable. He also showed us it means leaving our tendency to selfishness, and our reliance on power over others at the foot of the cross.
This church, like many others has a long history of generosity to those in need. As we look forward to post-COVID life, let’s also think about how we can contribute to eradicating that need.
On Sunday we will share the joy of Easter, but today we stand at the cross. Let’s use this time to recognise the evils humans inflict on one another. Let consider what, individually and as a community we need to leave at the cross as we seek to share Christ’s love with all in the new beginning that is coming.