The Bishop of Ebbsfleet reflects on the Cross as the visible token of a love that never abandons us
This sermon was preached at Shrewsbury All Saints, 20 September 2014, at a Credo Cymru Festival of Faith. The Festival, an annual seasonal event, took place very soon aer the publication of the Welsh Code of Practice. The lectionary was that of the feast of the Holy Cross: Numbers 21.4b–9; Philippians 2.6–11; and St John 3.13–17.
‘In the world you have tribulation, but take courage: I have overcome the world’ (John 16.33).
What on earth has got us to this point? What series of disasters has contributed to the situation we now find ourselves in?
We have reached the end of the road, even the end of all roads; we shall surely die.’ Such had been the hardships of the people of Israel, as they made their exodus from Egypt (Num. 21.4b–9): lurching from one deprivation to another, endured over generations; forbidden by local kings to journey either this way or that; restive, critical of their leaders (who themselves were dying on the journey), going round in circles in the brutal and unforgiving wilderness of the deserts of Sinai and the Negev. ‘Wasn’t slavery better than this?’
They raised their fists against God, and God responded by sending among them ‘fiery’ serpents, whose bite stung and inflamed their flesh. That rather nasty shock had its apparently intended effect: the people came to their senses, and sought the Lord. At the Lord’s command Moses made a copper serpent: and all who looked upon it, when it was lifted up, were healed by the Lord.
In the trackless wastes of the Negev, under the shattering sun, where there were no known ways forward, no direction that could be trusted for safe passage, the ancient people were brought home to God: the copper serpent was lifted up by Moses as a sign of repentance, of healing and mercy for the tribes of Israel.
St John’s Gospel
All this of course is the experience that St John evokes when he is recounting in our Gospel passage (John 3.13–17) the night-time conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus: ‘So, just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert’, said Jesus, ‘in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may share in the life of God’s new age.’ And twice again in John’s Gospel (8.28, 12.32) Jesus identifies his destiny, his life’s goal, in terms of this same being ‘lifted up’, lifted up on the holy Cross, like the copper serpent on the pole, so
that all who saw him, and understood who he was and whose mercy he revealed, could be healed and saved.
Being lifted up for all to see, his suffering visible and exposed to the whole world: this is the act that helps us to see the point of Jesus’s life. Without that lifting up on the Cross, without that public display of God’s reckless faithfulness and compassion, we wouldn’t understand who Jesus is, we couldn’t, as we might say today, ‘get’ what he is trying to teach us. His is not just a story of a spectacular teacher and wonderworker who comes to a sudden and shocking end; his is a life with a purpose, burgeoning for the whole world, just as the purpose of a grain of wheat is to grow into what will eventually make bread for the world.
I am sure it is no accident that you find yourselves as a body, at this moment of dashed hopes and deepened anxiety about the future, celebrating the Cross of Jesus – the sign which, like the copper serpent before it, is lifted up at exactly the point, the very moment, when hope seems absent, where there appear to be no paths forward that we can yet know, or map, or trust. The Lord has firmly planted the Cross in the midst of the world – and plants it in your midst now – as the visible token of an invisible, eternal and unimaginably costly love that never abandons us, and he has given us the Eucharist as its lasting and indestructible foundation in the Church.
Because of that costly love and that indestructible foundation, it is worth reminding one another at a moment like this that the desire and resolve of Credo Cymru to be faithful, indeed to be obedient, to what we believe the Lord has revealed as his will for his Church at a moment of disorienting change, is – as it is for your sisters and brothers in the English provinces and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion – at its root an attempt to witness to the faithfulness of God, who raises up the Cross and the Mass to give us new life in his Son. Yours is not a matter of loyalty to abstract ecclesiastical ‘principles’, much less a show of human strength, but the effort to let God’s self-consistency show through, to let his inexhaustible faithfulness be shown through us, in word and in sacramental actions.
It is a matter of obedience. And because obedience must always show itself in gratitude, so we are challenged in a moment like this to be thankful. Thankful first, and fundamentally, for the facts of the uplifted Cross and the obedience of Jesus Christ our Saviour in embracing it, facts which are embodied by us daily at the altar. Thankcul too for whatever small space and understanding Credo Cymru (and those working with you) has been able to win in the present situation. However slight or precarious they may feel at this moment, they are perhaps not necessarily the last word if, with generosity and the special gift of the Spirit we call courage, a respectful mutual flourishing can be promoted within the body of the Church. And thanks too, that possibilities as yet unknown, paths forward as yet unrevealed, as yet undiscovered, will, in God’s time, be God’s paths. In all this you can be assured of our unity with you, and our prayers for your witness.
Simply because it seems appropriate at this moment, I want to end, after a moment of silence, with something I rarely do in a sermon and read a poem – R.S. Thomas’s ‘The Prayer’:
He kneeled down
dismissing his orisons
as inappropriate; one by one
they came to his lips and were swallowed
He fell back
on an old prayer: Teach me to know
what to pray for. He
listened; after the weather of
his asking, no still, small
voice, only the parade
of ghosts, casualties
of his past intercessions. He
held out his hands, cupped
as though to receive blood, leaking
from life’s side. They
remained dry, as his mouth
did. But the prayer formed:
deliver me from the long drought
of the mind. Let leaves
from the deciduous Cross
fall on us, washing
us clean, turning our autumn
to gold by the affluence of their fountain.
(from R.S. Thomas Collected Poems 1945–1990, Orion, 2000)