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Friday 7 April 2023 Good Friday

07 February 2023

The cross for the world

John 18:1-19:42


By Michael Hopkins

United Reformed Church (URC) minister serving in and around Farnham, Surrey; Clerk of the URC General Assembly

Context: mainstream nonconformist worship in a home counties market town

Aim: to consider the cross for the world, not just the church

When you think of the cross, I wonder which one you think of? Most of us have seen thousands of crosses over the years. Which one do you think of when someone says ‘the cross’?

I sometimes think of a rough, bare cross, that I saw prominently in a chapel; or a modern metal cross hanging suspended in another chapel; or a cross transformed with flowers on Easter Day in yet another chapel. We cannot escape the cross on Good Friday, and as we sing ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ many of our hearts will be broken. All through Lent we have been approaching the cross, and today we meet it head on.

Given how the cross has become so widespread, even a fashion item, it would be easy to be in danger of becoming over-familiar with it, and consequently reducing its scale and potency, perhaps even domesticating it. Getting too familiar with the cross is dangerous. The cross towers over the world and over time, dominating history. Perhaps we may need to step back to see this mighty cross for what it is.

If we allow ourselves to get too familiar with the cross, we’re actually going against what the Gospel writers tell us. All four Gospels tell a very reticent story: facts, and some details, but no lurid pictures or emotions; no commentary, no explanations. Just the story. In addition, it is actually hard to get close to the cross because it isn’t part of our world or our experience.

This might be why that film The Passion of the Christ had such an impact: because people saw the terrible reality of the crucifixion. We need a certain amount of distance from the cross to have enough perspective to see what was going on. We all know about seeing the wood from the trees, and it’s much the same with the cross. If we get too close, we risk losing all sense of proportion.

Also, if we do get too close to the cross, we run the risk of trying to take it as our possession, and we have seen time and again the dangers of trying to take the divine as our own, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Jihadists. If we try to define the truth alone, and then possess it and guard it, all hope is lost. The bigger truth is that the cross is not for private ownership, it towers over everything, it towers over the landscape of time and is simply not for sale. The cross is God offering the whole of Godself for the whole of the world. Good Friday is not for the church, but for the whole world.

In many cities, towns and villages around the country, Christians gather outdoors today, sometimes stopping traffic or drawing crowds. Many years ago, I remember following a cross on a small Scottish island on Good Friday. The whole of the crowd, and the cross, had to leap onto the verge rapidly when a workman’s van came past at a good speed. All just as it was 2000 years ago. Christ dying for the world, not for the church; and in the marketplace, not just in the church. We must not try to possess such a great gift, which is meant for all humanity.

While we might be wise not to get too close, too familiar, to the cross, if Jesus brings his cross close to us, that’s another matter. People like Saint Paul and Saint Francis experienced the cross so closely they were physically marked by it – the stigmata. And in times of pain or disaster countless people have found that the suffering Christ has come close to them and been their rock. Maybe you have too. In those times when all we can do is hang on, without words, to the figure on the cross, it is sufficient. We are sustained, and Christ comes close.

The Gospel writers were simply brilliant in their restraint; they were masters of suspense. They give us the facts of the crucifixion while at the same time they hold back the excitement of the finish. Jesus is laid in the tomb, and we feel the heaviness as the stone is rolled across the doorway. A stone is rolled across our hearts too. And yet, with strange wisdom, we call this Friday ‘good’.

Today, may we remember that the cross is open to the whole world, plunging to our depths and lifting us to God’s heights, reaching out to embrace all peoples. May we not set limits where God has set none; may we not imprison God’s love in our narrowness of doctrine; may Christ’s church embody his love in its life, and not lock it up within its walls.

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