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Good Friday Sermon, April 2021

by Michael Ford last modified 04 Apr, 2021 06:05 PM

The Bishop preached at Salisbury Cathedral on Good Friday, 2nd April 2021, at 12.00noon.

The Way of the Cross - From a Distance

Welcome to this cathedral whether in person or online to keep Good Friday on this Way of the Cross. We are doing deep business with God.

Like many English churches Salisbury cathedral is set out in the shape of a cross. Entering towards the west end, we walk the way of the cross and today we place ourselves close to the centre of cross underneath the tallest spire in England, earthing heaven.

The cathedral is a big statement witnessing to the presence and the glory of God. We human beings find our place within it, not diminished or overpowered but recognising who we are in relation to God, one another and the whole creation.

We are reading the Passion from Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew seems to make a point about the disciples of Jesus under pressure choosing distance from him. Peter denied him, Judas betrayed him, the disciples fled, the women looked on from a distance. If we are in any way like them, how are we to let ourselves be remade through this experience of coming to stand by the cross of Christ?

We are required to be socially distant from one another. If we have come in person we are behind masks and at least two metres apart; if online, we are looking from a distance and you can sing the hymns in safety.

The service will last an hour and a quarter. Afterwards please leave in silence.

1. Were you there?
In these great three days at the centre of the Christian year we are dealing with some very big themes: friendship, love, betrayal, judgement, suffering, death, compassion, forgiveness, hope, what lasts for ever.... This is the stuff of everyone’s life but the question is whether any of us really turn up for such intensity. T S Eliot spoke a truth that “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” The question for each of us choosing to come to this cathedral in person or online to keep Good Friday is whether we have really turned up to face the reality of the rejection of God come among us in Jesus Christ.

Matthew begins his account of the day of the crucifixion with the chief priests and elders binding Jesus and brining him before Pilate, the Governor. There is then a most remarkable section about the repentance of Judas. It is a controversial theme. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. Jesus taught us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. How many times should we forgive? Not seven times but 70 times seven. Are there no limits to forgiveness? Could even the betrayer Judas repent with the hope of being forgiven? The chief priests and elders couldn’t be bothered with him. The question is what about Jesus and Judas? Or do some things put we human beings beyond the pale?

In the telling of the Passion, by each of the four Evangelists, none of the disciples did well, apart from the beloved disciple in John’s Gospel. Most of the disciples run away. Peter denied he knew Jesus three times. Judas betrayed him, and the despair of having done something so terrible that it can never be put right, marks Judas out. The despair of Judas has much to do with the condemnation of suicide In subsequent Christian thinking.

Through the appalling gravity of his betrayal, Judas has entered popular culture. When London’s Docklands were still working, on Good Friday the men used to hang a sack of flour from the cranes, like a body on a gibbet, to remind them of Judas. In a tight-knit working class community where people depended on each other for work and over against the bosses, a Churchwarden who used to be a Trade Union official in Millwall Dock said, “That’s what happens to grasses”.
When churches put on a Passion Play it is usual for the priest to play the part not of Jesus, or Peter or the Evangelist but of Judas. Priests are supposed to know our nature and the priestly role in Christ is to overcome evil and to pronounce absolution. Here we are at the boundaries of humanity. Where are the limits? Forgiveness for the Holocaust, for Apartheid, for slavery, or for the deeply personal betrayal of a friend on which hangs the salvation of the world?

One of the most memorable services for me as Bishop of Salisbury was the dedication of a new window at St Nicholas Moreton in Dorset which it had taken the church nearly 30 years to agree to receive. St Nicholas is a church eloquent about the resurrection. War damage in 1940 led to its being rebuilt and in 1955 to the first five of what eventually became twelve windows by Laurence Whistler. There was no general scheme at the outset but light was always a theme – candlelight, sunlight, jewel-light, starlight, lightening, the light of the galaxy…

In February 1987 Whistler offered a thirteenth window. He wrote, “Many medieval churches have uncouth and unholy figures sculptured on the outside in corbels as if in contrast with the holy scenes inside.” At St Nicholas’ there is a blind 13th window, glazed but walled up by a monument inside. Whistler suggested adding a window for Judas, the 13th disciple, to be seen only from the outside, a shadowy figure, not clearly defined, but sketchy, of Judas hanging from a rope, the 30 pieces of silver falling from his hand and turning into flowers on the ground. That would be the point: the hint that even Judas might have sought and found God’s forgiveness.

The clear glass of Whistler’s windows means St Nicholas’ church is also eloquent about the connection between the church and world, seeing and praying for life as it really is. Whistler added, “To my mind, a church is one place where the conflict of good and evil, life and death should be felt at its sharpest.”

In 1987 Whistler’s offer of the window to St Nicholas Moreton was rejected. It was offered again in September 1993 after the panel had been engraved and exhibited here in Salisbury, not then called the Judas window but the Forgiveness Window. The church rejected it again.

We don’t really know what motivated Judas to betray Jesus. In John’s Gospel we are told he looked after the money box and Mathew says he was motivated by greed. Was he possessed by the devil, fulfilling a prophecy, or was a necessary part of God's salvation plan, had a political motive, was disillusioned and angry, or perhaps he didn't actually intend his 'betrayal' to lead to the death of Jesus? Here in Matthew’s Gospel Judas repented after he heard of Jesus’ condemnation and tried to pay back the money to priests and elders who couldn’t care less about him. So he went out and hanged himself.

Good art creates controversy. Exploring the really difficult, it challenges the way we see things. Whistler did this by depicting that love and forgiveness are central to the Gospel and that there is always the possibility of forgiveness of the penitent sinner. As St Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8)
It took St Nicholas’ Moreton 27 years to decide to take the window which was installed and dedicated in May 2014. It had been looked after in the meanwhile by the museum in Dorchester. It’s odd that some things are too hot for church to handle. Even now the controversial window suggests that whether there are limits to forgiveness is to be viewed from outside the church. Like Jesus, the window declares there are no limits.

Matthew tells us that Pilate gave the people a choice: Jesus or Barabbas. The crowd, misled by the chief priests and elders, called for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified. We’re all capable of choosing evil rather than good. Here at the cross, where we and God have really turned up, we are here to repent of our sins, seek forgiveness and determine to try again, and again, and again to live in the truth and mercy of Christ.

Laurence Whistler’s Judas window at St Nicholas Moreton
Laurence Whistler’s Judas window at St Nicholas Moreton

2. The Crucifixion
Matthew’s account of the crucifixion is brutal. The soldiers stripped him and dressed him up to mock him, The soldiers, chief priests, scribes and elders mocked Jesus: “Hail, King of the Jews!... He saved others; he cannot cave himself… let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him… for he said, ‘I am God’s Son’.” In Matthew even the bandits crucified with him taunted him.

Jews at the time of Jesus would have been astonished that images from the prophet Isaiah about the Suffering Servant were applied to Jesus to identify him as the Messiah whom they longed for to set them free. For some of us familiarity with this bold use of scripture owes a lot to Handel whose Messiah was first performed in 1742. In its central section an aria and chorus uses verses from Isaiah chapter 53: 3-5.

He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He gave His back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair. He hid not His face from shame and spitting.

Surely He had borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! He was wounded for our trangressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him. And with his stripes we are healed.

Matthew used these images in his Gospel to show that Jesus shared our human nature fully and that his suffering was according to the prophet Isaiah. It is a very distinctive use of scripture in which salvation comes through the Suffering Servant and Jesus is the victim. It is a very different depiction of Jesus to that in John’s Gospel, as we will hear when reading John’s Passion at the 2pm Liturgy. John’s Jesus knows his destiny and accepts it willingly because he is in the Father and the Father is in him.

People from all over the known world were gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. The soldiers compelled Simon to carry the cross. It’s sloppy to think he was a random choice. Simon was from Cyrene in North Africa and the soldiers pulled him out of the crowd because he was an outsider who looked different and was easy to pick on in a crowd that didn’t think he belonged with them.

Simon’s presence in Jerusalem was evidence of the nations gathered for the festival. In Matthew’s Gospel salvation comes from the Jews but, as is so human, they did not see the gift God had given them and rejected him. Simon, the North African, witnesses that salvation is for the world. This outsider is remembered because he was compelled to carry the cross. The disciples were nowhere to be seen. At some time, each of us has known the kindness of strangers and kindness, even when it is compelled, is much underrated.

We’ve got problems in the way we relate to one another. After more than a year of pandemic the economy is under the sort of pressure we have not seen outside of war. Yet we’re all feeling the pressure of enforced discipline. For many of us who are older there’s the slight feeling of depression from the social isolation of the last year. For some there’s the more extreme reality of illness, mental and physical. For the youngsters there’s the pent-up frustration of having had little or no social life. On the evidence of the last few nights in The Close we’re not coming out to the Roaring Twenties but to the escapism of alcohol and drugs. If we can’t bear reality, escapism will do.

But this pandemic is global and it’s not going away quickly. It seemed to me that last September’s, “It will be over by Christmas” served notice that this is likely to be a five year problem. Vaccines will help us manage it but, either willingly or because we are compelled to do so, we will have to accept that we will carry the cross for others and it might be a long journey. We are being compelled to learn new ways of living.

For decades we have gained a sense of our own worth by international travel. I go on holiday to Spain or the Maldives, therefore I am. In a pandemic we need to focus on the local. The danger of that is of thinking the local is all that matters, whereas the pandemic is global and we need international institutions as never before.

Church should be good at both halves of this problem that is both local and global. In prayer we learn the practice of giving thanks for everything. We need to get back to the insights of George Herbert, “Teach me my God and King, in all things Thee to see”; or Thomas Traherne, “I do not see this world aright until everyday I awake as if in heaven.”

Church can also help set the framework for addressing the pandemic because we are local everywhere and we learn to love everywhere by loving somewhere in particular. Love begins at home but does not stop at home. Nationalism is valuable when it helps us build internationalism. Think about the impact of the partnerships of this diocese with the Sudan and South Sudan, with Latvia and Evreux in Northern France and the emerging link with Haderslev in Denmark.

Of course we want to escape but those of us who can are compelled to carry the cross so that the burden does not fall on the victims who are the poorest and most vulnerable both in our own country and the world.

We have the capacity to think and act locally and globally. At this time of pandemic this is literally crucial.

3. Darkness at noon
In the addresses last night and today I have tried to set out some of the big themes encountered on the way of the cross. In this service, whether there are limits to forgiveness and what it means to carry the cross for others but now we are faced with a bleakness that is very difficult to handle.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

The crucifixion of Christ was the darkest of moment for humanity. The people in power didn’t get it, neither the politicians nor the religious leaders. They misled the crowd. The bystanders derided him. Here was a people benighted in daytime unable to see the truth. They just couldn’t see it.

Not surprising that the centurion and those who were with him were terrified. Only when it was finished could they speak the truth: “This man was God’s Son!”

Many women, who had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him, looked on from a distance. As so often, it is the people on the edge who see clearly.

From time to time something very dark happens to humanity. It happened in Nazi Germany and it happened in South Africa at the time of Apartheid, and it happened here in relation to the justification of slavery as part of the God-given order of things. In each of these cases the Church was complicit, at least in part. Thank God for the Confessing Church and the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. Thank God for the courageous leadership of those in South Africa who saw differently and had the courage to speak out, for the unlikely leadership of Fr Trevor Huddleston and the Anglican Community of the Resurrection, for the likes of Desmond Tutu and for leaders from the Dutch Reformed Church, like Byers Naude. Thank God for the campaigners against slavery like my predecessor Bishop Burgess who before he became bishop wrote a book towards the end of the eighteenth century against slavery. Doubtless like the centurion and those who were with him, they were at times afraid but they spoke the truth and made a difference.

We know quite a lot about how some of the witnesses to the resurrection have lived with their own fears and doubts. It is deeply Lutheran that Dietrich Bonhoeffer developed a theology in which his confidence and hope were based not on himself but on Christ alone. His faith was not about how he felt but committed him to live as if the resurrection is true. In the end, death does not have the last word. Truth and love do.

Some of the greatest and most striking of those who have followed in the way of Jesus Christ have put themselves on the line because they have seen the truth of Jesus Christ and committed to live with it even when they have suffered from the personal darkness of depression. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was striking for the way she radiated compassion whilst we now know she suffered from a darkness within. The writings of St John of the Cross about the dark night of the soul show there’s a problem for those who seem to be closest to God knowing their own unworthiness and sinfulness.

What we are called to live by is the conviction asserted by Desmond Tutu in the darkest years of Apartheid in the 1980’s that

Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate
Light is stronger darkness
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours through him who loves us.

“From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” but even then there were those keeping watch who knew death does not have the last word.

I have loved since childhood the prayer of St Richard of Chichester. As Chancellor of the Diocese of Canterbury and then as Bishop of Chichester, Richard de Wych was in conflict with King Henry III and knew what it was to suffer and be insulted. In this extraordinarily intimate prayer St Richard recognizes that Christ carries the burdens for us and strengthens our discipleship in following in the way of the cross.

Thanks be to thee Lord Jesus Christ
for all the benefits which thou hast given me,
for all the pains and insults which thou hast borne for me,
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
may I see thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
and follow thee more nearly. Amen

St Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)

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