The cross on which our Lord was crucified has become the universal symbol for Christianity. Early in the fourth century, pilgrims began to travel to Jerusalem to visit and pray at the places associated with the life of Jesus. Helena, the mother of the emperor, was a Christian and, whilst overseeing excavations in the city, is said to have uncovered a cross, which many believed to be the Cross of Christ. A basilica was built on the site of the Holy Sepulchre and dedicated on this day in the year 335.
Readings for Principal Service
Preached in 2015
Snakebite antidote is running out.
That’s the headline to one of the BBC’s news stories this week. And it’s a serious problem. Worldwide about 5m people a year are bitten by snakes; 100,000 die and 400,000 are disfigured or disabled.
There is a drug called Fav-Afrique which is very effective in treating venomous bites from different types of snake. But the supply of Fav-Afrique is running out and the last batch to be made will expire next June. The manufacturers, a company called Sanofi Pasteur, say they have been “priced out of the market” and are now making a treatment for rabies instead. There is no comparable replacement and although Sanofi have said they will pass on their recipe to another manufacturer so far nobody has taken up that offer.
It’s a grim situation and it seems all wrong that tens of thousands of people will be seriously harmed or killed because the supply of an anti-venom drug has dried up for commercial reasons. It seems quite possible that tens of thousands of people will be in a situation similar to that of the people of Israel in the wilderness.
As we heard earlier, they’d been moaning about their plight and the story goes that God sends poisonous serpents among the people, many of whom die after being bitten by one of them. There isn’t an antidote to that poison but God does provide a means of healing. He tells Moses to hold up a snake made of bronze and says that if someone who is bitten by a snake looks up to that bronze serpent he or she will live.
And in our reading from St John’s Gospel we hear Jesus likening himself to that serpent. He says that when he is lifted up anyone who looks to him and believes in him will have eternal life. Of course Jesus is not talking here about snakebites. He is talking about the venom of sin and evil: the dark side of humanity which is so self-destructive and so not what God wants for us.
In his gospel John also tells us that Jesus said,
“And I, when I am lifted up … will draw all people to myself” and adds that Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. And so we come to the cross. What does the cross mean to you? What does this crucifix mean to you?
In a recent international poll, 88% of people recognised (this) McDonald’s logo. Only 54% recognized what the cross represented. I think this is one of the greatest challenges facing the church today. There are many, many people “out there” who have no understanding of our faith. There are many who just don’t care. And there are many who are angry against all religions, not just Christianity.
We need to think long and hard about this and about how we take our faith, our Gospel, out there, to people who may not understand us and what we say we believe. We need to think about it because “out there” are also many people who feel lost, who can’t see any meaning in their lives, who are hungry for love and a sense of belonging; and there are suffering victims bitten and poisoned by the venom of sin and evil.
There are people asking the big questions about life and about God:
Is there a God? And if there is, why does he allow such suffering?
Who is Jesus and what’s he got to do with me?
So, what does this crucifix mean to you? The figure of Jesus dying a horrible death on the cross having been betrayed, convicted without a fair or even legal trial and tortured.
The crucifix speaks to me about a suffering God.
Yes, God created a universe in which terrible things can and do happen. But he has also shown us that in Jesus he has, if you like, come down into the snakepit with us and been bitten just as we are. But without biting back! In Jesus God has taken into himself the poisons of hatred, cruelty, oppression, prejudice and all the other forms of darkness of which we are all capable of feeling and showing towards others.
And John tells us that in Jesus God’s intention was not to condemn, convict and punish us because of our venom but to show us how we can overcome the poison of the sin and evil that lurks in and around us all the time. Look at Jesus on the cross, says God, look at him and know that all the powers of darkness in the universe are also nailed there in a mighty showdown between good and evil.
If we look a Jesus on the cross and know that great truth about him then we will have grasped eternal life. And in grasping eternal life we will be guided to live as Jesus lived and to learn from him how to deal with the snake bites we will undoubtedly experience. And we will be given strength in knowing that he has once and for all dealt with those deadly serpents.
And the empty cross: plain, stark, powerful. What does that say to us.
Let me tell you a true story:
A woman dreams that she is sitting on a bench in a park which she often played in as a child. The bench is half way up a hill and in her dream she knows that at the top of the hill the crucifixion of Jesus is taking place. The horror and fear of that adds to her already unbearable load of grief and hopelessness. She weeps.
And as she weeps she senses a man walking over and sitting close beside her on the bench. She can’t look up but is aware of the brown sleeve of a garment made of some coarse material. Quietly he speaks to her, “It’s alright, I am not there, I am here, I am risen.” A sense of peace wells up inside her and a sense of knowing that “all shall be well”.
She wakes from the dream and such is its power that she knows that she has encountered the risen Christ whose love and power have touched her life deeply and profoundly.
So the empty cross says to me: Jesus is not here, he has risen. But it also tells me of the cost to him of taking and showing love to the very end, never letting go of us, his beloved children.
God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life and that the world might be saved through him.
God’s love is the antidote to the venom of sin and evil, it is freely given and it will never come to an end for commercial reasons.
God’s love will never let us go. For that and for all his goodness, let us thank God. Amen.