Readings for Principal Service
There is a story about a man who goes into a jeweller’s shop to buy a silver cross on a chain for his god-daughter on the occasion of her confirmation. He explains this to the assistant who asks if he wants a plain cross or one “with a little man on it”!
It seems like we’re living in an increasingly secular world and there are perhaps many people who don’t understand the significance of the cross as a symbol of Christianity. So maybe it’s important that we think about what the cross means to us and how we would answer someone who questioned us about it.
What does the cross mean to you? Perhaps, like me, you’d find it difficult to put into words its personal meaning for you in your journey of faith. So I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts on what the cross means to me.
I believe that Jesus is the Word of God in human form. Jesus reveals to us God – as he was in the beginning,- as he is now – and as he shall be for evermore, world without end. And for me the cross represents not just the death of Jesus but also his life and ministry, his teaching and healing and his loving acceptance of everyone he encounters.
The cross speaks to me of Jesus, our Emmanuel, God with us, alongside us, sympathetic and compassionate towards us because he understands from his own experience whatever we are experiencing. As the hymn puts it “tears and smiles like us he knew; and he feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness.” And in times of distress, anxiety, temptation or confusion we can pray, “Lord you know what it’s like to feel like I do today, please help me get through it” and somehow I believe he will even when we can’t sense his presence with us.
In Jesus we see what God is like, we see his love for those who are weak and vulnerable, those who are unhappy or bereaved, those who are hungry or anxious, those on the fringes of society or rejected by their communities. In Jesus we see a love that is wholly unconditional and without boundaries and for me the cross is a powerful symbol of that complete love. The cross says to me that there is no point at which God will say, “right, that’s it, you’ve gone too far and I don’t love you any more”.
Using the words of the theologian William Barclay:
‘In Jesus on the cross God says, “you may disobey me; you may grieve me; you may be disloyal to me; you may misunderstand me; you may batter me and bruise me and scourge me; you may treat me with savage injustice; you may kill me. I will never stop loving you.”
‘The life and death of Jesus are the demonstration and the proof of the limitless, the undefeatable, unchangeable, unalterable, infinite love of God.’
And with that limitless and infinite love of God comes limitless and infinite mercy and forgiveness because in the face of unspeakable cruelty Jesus cries out
“Father forgive them,
they don’t know what they’re doing”.
We’ve just sung the words
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.”
So the cross says to me that no matter how often we mess things up and fail in our attempts to follow Jesus and however harshly we judge ourselves, God still loves and forgives us. We might find it hard sometimes to believe that – self-hatred can be very powerful – but the cross says it’s true – God forgives us even when we condemn ourselves.
The cross can be a comforting and reassuring symbol of our faith. But it can also be hugely challenging in the way it invites us to think about how we respond to God’s love and forgiveness revealed in the life and death of Jesus, our Emmanuel.
The hymn we’ve just sung also says,
“But we make his love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify his strictness
with a zeal he will not own.”
And Jesus tells a story about a man who owes an impossibly large sum to his king. It’s a sum he could never pay back and he pleads for mercy. The king is moved with pity and cancels the debt. Then what does the man do? He demands repayment of a much much smaller sum owed to him by a fellow servant. Because of that the king changes his mind and once again demands payment from the man he had freed from debt.
The message is clear. We are forgiven people and because we are forgiven people we must also be forgiving people “for the love of God is broader than the scope of human mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.”
We are people who are loved unconditionally and eternally and we are called to be people who also offer unconditional love to others. And we all know that’s not easy – learning to love others as God loves us will take more than a lifetime. But maybe it’s enough that we are willing to learn and that our hearts and minds open to the possibilities of receiving and giving love and forgiveness.
When poisonous serpents were biting and killing the people of Israel God told Moses to make a bronze image of a serpent and to set it up on a pole. Once it was in place anyone who was bitten could look at the bronze serpent and they would survive. In our reading from John’s Gospel Jesus likens himself to that bronze serpent that saved the lives of the people of Israel. He is sent by God not to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved by him.
The cross on which Jesus died is for us a symbol of our salvation, the reassurance of God’s love and forgiveness but it’s also a reminder of our calling to commit ourselves – body and soul – day by day to the loving and forgiving way of the cross – the way that leads to eternal life in Christ.