The cross that absorbed the sin and pain of the world

Peter Seal, 10 September 2017

Philippians 2: 5–11; John 3: 13–17

Jesus of Nazareth was executed by means of crucifixion. His body was nailed to a cross, where he died a criminal’s death. Either side of him was another cross on which similarly convicted men died. Jesus was killed because of the way he lived. What he said, and what he did, was deeply challenging to his own Jewish people, as well as unsettling for the occupying Roman powers.

Jesus was a supremely good man of total integrity and a passion for truth. He wanted everyone, regardless of who they were, to live free and full lives. In his presence people found themselves to be at peace with themselves and filled with hope for the future.

Jesus wanted everyone to live free and full lives. In his presence people found themselves to be at peace with themselves and filled with hope for the future.

It was probably inevitable that those he challenged and spoke out against, because of their oppressive customs, their attitudes and their religious zeal, would eventually conspire to bring about his death.

Approximately 25 years after what we, with the gift of hindsight, call Good Friday, the man we know as Paul was in prison. He wrote a letter that covers just four pages in our Bible. He was writing to Christians living in the city of Philippi; that city no longer exists, but it was in eastern Macedonia in Greece, not far from modern day Kavala. Paul’s letter to his friends in Philippi is described as his happiest. It’s full of faith and joy. We heard some beautiful words from it, which began:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

With this biblical background I want to speak briefly about two people whose faith was nurtured here at St Paul’s.

Tom Simpson, son of John and Susan and brother of Alexandra, is now 28. He’s married to Gemma and they have two young boys. They’ve moved to Devon and now live in a village just west of Barnstaple. This morning in Exeter Cathedral Tom is being ordained as a deacon by the bishop. Some of you will remember Tom well, especially for his musical gifts – both singing and playing the trombone. While at university in Exeter and whilst attending a local church there, Tom felt called to the ordained ministry. He’s been through the demanding process of selection and three years’ training at theological college. We rejoice with Tom, and the family, as he begins his new life as the Reverend Tom Simpson. I sent him a card for today, from us all.

The other person is Katie Seal. She, like Tom, found St Paul’s to be a place where her teenage life was shaped. Katie explored the ordained ministry that Tom is committing himself to, but discovered that God has something else for her to do, and be. Katie has been living as a Religious Sister with the Sisters of St Andrew, near Taizé in southeast France, for nearly a year. Julia and I are able to speak with her about every two weeks, and she is well and happy. Yesterday Katie began an eight-day silent retreat to seek God’s guidance for the coming year. Eight days of silence may sound dreadful to you, but Katie has done it before and will relish it! She will be using the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola and meeting each day with her spiritual guide. We said that we’d ask you to pray for her, especially during this week. She’s very grateful – thank you.

I began with the death of Jesus on the cross and a bit of biblical background, and especially something about Paul’s faith and joy. Faith and joy are characteristic of both Tom’s and Katie’s lives of faith.

And now let’s develop this for ourselves and our own lives this coming week. Today we celebrate what’s known as Holy Cross Day. Today we give thanks for the cross on which Jesus died, because of what it came to mean for the early Christians, and what it means for us today.

The sign of the cross replaced the previous fish symbol of the early church. Traditionally there are two crosses in our Christian tradition.

First, the cross with the figure of Jesus on it. Most churches have a crucifix cross hanging somewhere. This cross reminds us of the death of Jesus, and of our faith conviction that his dying changed everything. Somehow Jesus’ death on the cross absorbed the sin and pain of the world.

We know that sin and pain continue – the difference Jesus’ crucifixion makes is that this is not the end of the story. And this is hugely important. Sin and death are not the end of the story.

Secondly, there’s what’s often called ‘the empty cross’. This cross is simply two pieces of wood in a cross shape, and with no figure attached. The symbolism here is that Jesus is no longer on the cross but risen from the dead. The resurrection and all that flows from it is the defining conviction of Christian people.

Secular history records references to Jesus’ life and death. His resurrection belongs to a different order. It’s something we believe. It’s part of our faith conviction.

Secular history records references to Jesus’ life and death. His resurrection belongs to a different order. It’s something we believe. It’s part of our faith conviction.

There is a third cross, which we in this parish are privileged to have. As you may know, it is the inspiration and the design of our own Bishop John. What is so uniquely special about it, is that it incorporates both the other crosses. Here we have the shape of a human body, a crucified man, cut out of the cross. The crucified Jesus is both here and, at the same time, not here. He is both our dying saviour and our risen Lord.

With John’s support we are in the early stages of taking out copyright on this design. I have a powerful sense that this resurrection crucifix has a distinctive future, both here in this parish and in many other places.

Dear friends in Christ, Tom and Katie are responding to God’s call to them. They are each stepping out in faith. They are each making significant sacrifices which will go on being costly to them personally. Our calling, like theirs, is so to shape, and to go on shaping, our lives that they become more and more Christ-like.