The Cross and Powerlessness
March 8, 2012
Last year the year 1 children from Lydgate Infant School came for the annual visit to St. Columba’s. We did a treasure hunt, and listened to the organ, and talked about the windows, and the children asked lots of questions. Then it was time for the visit to end, and I said, OK there’s time for just one last question. One little boy put up his hand and asked, “Why did Jesus have to die?”
I have great respect for this six year old’s ability to zoom in on the heart of the Christian faith. Never mind all these peripheral bits about stained glass and music and Saint Columba in his coracle. Let’s just do the basics, shall we. If this kind man Jesus was the Son of God, remind me why he had to do this nasty death-on-a-cross thing? And could you give me that in one sentence please, before we put on our coats and go back to school?
What struck me about the boy’s question wasn’t just its directness, but also an unease that went with it: the sense of the cross as disturbing reality, sitting uneasily with the God of Love I had been talking about. I pointed to our cross here. Look at the lovely colours I said, the red and the gold, happy colours. They remind us that death on the cross wasn’t the end for Jesus but he rose to a wonderful new life with God on Easter morning.
Was he satisfied with my answer? I expect he’s long forgotten it, but I haven’t forgotten his question, which reminds me of the power of the cross to ask questions of us, to provide a framework within which we can ask the big questions about pain and suffering, about human evil, and divine love.
In the wonderful Christian story of God’s saving, redeeming, transforming love for his creation, the cross stands at the very centre. During Lent our sermons are will help us, I hope to look afresh at the cross, to let it unsettle and disturb us, and to claim it anew as a wellspring to live from. Last week Tim Renshaw was talking to us about the cross and discipleship; about what it means to be part of the community of people who are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Today I want to share some thoughts with you about how Christ’s cross asks question of us about power and powerlessness. We’ll take a break next week, then on Mothering Sunday Sally will reflect with us on what taking up our cross and following means in the context of parenting and family life, and the following week we’ll be thinking together on just how the cross expresses God’s saving love for us.
As we read Mark’s Gospel, these words of Jesus are a pivotal moment; for the first hearers of the Gospel these would have been truly shocking words. Listen again: Then he began to teach them that the Son of man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
But why so? Why does Jesus have to die? Why, when the power of God is at work in him, announcing God’s coming Kingdom with the Good News of free forgiveness? Why when all over Galilee the sick and demon possessed are finding wholeness of mind and body? Why, when Jesus is establishing a new community, empowering his friends to go out and preach and heal just as he does?
The first half of the Gospel has shown us Jesus as a figure of authority and spiritual power. Peter has finally realised the full implications of this: that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, God’s chosen one, the one who will restore the ailing fortunes of Israel: for that is how the Messiah was understood. We now think of the Messiah as a spiritual title, but in Jesus time it was understood to be both spiritual and political. The Messiah would be like King David of old, a great military leader who would finally send the Romans packing and bring in Israel’s golden age.
So no wonder that Peter takes Jesus aside for a little chat. What Jesus is saying, these awful things about rejection, and suffering and death, they don’t make sense to him at all.
A couple of weeks ago Kon was talking to us about the transfiguration and what was being revealed there to Jesus’s disciples. Con asked us: When we look at Jesus, do we see what we want to see, or what we are meant to see?
At this moment in the Gospel there’s a huge tension between what Peter wants to see, and what he is meant to see. Peter, I think, wants to see in Jesus a successful messiah, a messiah who wields worldly power, one whose ministry will build to some sweeping climax. Jesus dismisses Peter’s objections in the strongest possible terms. “Get behind me, Satan”. But what Peter’s meant to see is quite different: a different kind of messiah, a different understanding of power, a different kind of God.
And maybe, after all, this shouldn’t have been such a surprise to Peter. All the way through Mark’s Gospel Jesus has been inviting the disciples to a new way of seeing the world, way of being that turns the world’s accepted values upside down. The Jesus who is will face trial mockery and crucifixion is the same Jesus that values the widow’s mite over the gifts of the wealthy, who urges the rich young man to give up his possessions, who tells the disciples that whoever would be first must be slave of all. Poverty, humility, vulnerability, powerlessness: these lie at the heart of Jesus moral teaching. And of course Jesus is much more that a moral teacher. He is the image of the invisible God. He is God the Son, God emptying himself of all but love to share our humanity. In Jesus, God is showing us the a new kind of power, the power of suffering, redemptive love.
Forget the power that comes from status, wealth and the mighty Roman Empire. Forget the power that comes from a good education, the ability to in the argument. What Jesus on the cross shows us is that only power the counts is the power of divine love, bearing the violence inflicted by evil and sin, absorbing it without returning it in kind, love made perfect in vulnerability and weakness.
When I talk to people about their faith and their struggles with it, the issue of suffering comes up again and again. “If God is a God of love, how come my wife had to suffer before she died? “I’d like to believe, but prayed so hard, and the cancer still got him in the end.”
The suffering of those we love is perhaps the hardest thing we have to experience in our lives. These are always sensitive conversations, and all I feel I can bring to them is my profound belief that faith in Jesus Christ is a set of relationships rather than a set of answers. God doesn’t give us a smart answer to the questions sufferings poses, but what he gives us is himself, Jesus, the embodiment of God’s very being, suffering on the cross, with us and for us.
And that matters because it means there is no human experience that is beyond the reach of the redeeming, transforming compassion of God. The cross tells us that, in the words of St. Paul, nothing can separate us from the love of God.
So tell me again, why did Jesus have to die? I’ll tell you: Jesus died, so that we might live.
Preacher: Revd Frances Eccleston, 4th March 2012