Inestimable love

Mary Copping, 16 September 2018

Isaiah 50: 4–9a; Mark 8: 27–38

Today is Holy Cross Day; but why do we celebrate it now? The most obvious time would be on Good Friday, when we focus specifically on Christ’s Passion and the crucifixion. On that day one of our services includes the Veneration of the Cross, as we contemplate the cross on which Jesus died.

According to legend, the True Cross was discovered in AD 326 by St Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was then built at the site of the discovery, by order of Helena and Constantine. It was dedicated nine years later, with a portion of the cross placed inside it. The date of the feast marks the dedication of the church in 335, its actual consecration being on 13 September. Thus, today is Holy Cross Day. The cross itself was apparently brought outside the church on 14 September so that clergy and laity could pray before the True Cross and venerate it. People continue to visit and venerate it today.

In our gospel reading Jesus is preparing the disciples for his death and saying that he must be killed and, after three days, rise again. To Peter, it was not acceptable that this would happen to his master. Peter had just acknowledged to Jesus that he was the Messiah, the Son of God; how could Jesus now be talking about pain and suffering? Jesus spoke quite harshly to him; he needed people to support and help him in all that he knew was going to happen.

The Cross of Jesus – a place of pain and suffering, and yet the means of our salvation. I wonder what the cross means to each of us. It may be something we are reminded of occasionally at specific church services or something that is central to our faith.

And what does the cross mean to a world where it is seen in art, in many buildings and is used as a decorative jewellery item? There is the story of someone going into a jeweller’s shop and asking for a cross, and the jeweller asks if they want a plain one or one with the little man on it. This may be how many see the cross today, as no more than that.

Yet Holy Cross Day is an opportunity for us to focus once more on all that Christ has done for us, and for the world, though many in the world don’t acknowledge it. And for Christians it’s so much more than a work of art or piece of jewellery. It’s the centre of the work that God did in Christ, as St Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 5, ‘reconciling the world to himself’. It is the crux of the Christian faith, the centre of our beliefs.

There are several aspects of the meaning of the cross. Firstly, redemption. This is included in the beautiful general thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer, which says, ‘We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ’. It recognises that we’re all guilty, nobody is perfect and we are in need of being redeemed, bought back (as slaves were), being rescued from our sin. We’ve been brought back to God through Christ’s death on the cross for us.

Secondly, ‘justification’ is a word used to describe Christ’s death on the cross – where through the cross God declares us, who are sinners, to be righteous and acceptable before him because Christ has borne our sins on the cross. We are justified by faith in him.

Thirdly, atonement, or ‘at-one-ment’ – making us one with God, forgiving our sin through the cross of Christ and bringing us into eternal life with him.

We find all these in the New Testament and the meaning of the cross, for each of us, includes various facets of them. My core belief is that Jesus died for our salvation, for the forgiveness of our sins and to bring us back into loving relationship with God.

I was shown a simple illustration of this: a picture of two cliff edges with a vast gap in between, with God on one side and us on the other; sin (all that we do and say that is not in accordance with God’s holiness) in the middle separates us from God. Then the cross of Jesus is placed in the centre, filling the gap to make the bridge by which we can reach God. Thus we are able to have a relationship with him through the cross of Christ – a simple illustration of a complex theological understanding.

This to me is an echo of what the cross can mean for us – a place of healing for our brokenness and pain, bringing us into a deeper relationship with God and a deeper empathy with the world, producing a deeper beauty in us.

The cross – a place of healing for our brokenness and pain, bringing us into a deeper relationship with God and a deeper empathy with the world, producing a deeper beauty in us.

We hear about the scandal of the cross, and in St Paul’s time this was particularly so. The cross was a cruel means of torture and death, used regularly and publicly for criminals. So for people to put their faith in someone who died in this way was scandalous, ridiculous. It made it easy for people in those days to dismiss Christianity as madness, and Jesus as a criminal.

And yes, it is a scandal, but one in which, by faith, we believe and trust. The cross of Christ is central to our faith and to how we can know that we are forgiven sinners, in need of Christ’s redemption. On Holy Cross Day, we are reminded of this but we also realise afresh that God through Jesus is with us in our own suffering and in the suffering of the world, through the cross.

The cross of Christ is central to our faith, central to all that we do as Christians, bringing us forgiveness and the knowledge of God’s love and care for us. The cross of Christ is central to our Eucharist, receiving Christ’s body and blood, sharing in his Passion.

Some here today may be going through some of the pain of the cross – perhaps with relationships, with work, debt, bereavement or illness. We are not left alone; God is here with us in the cross, suffering and weeping with us, and giving us his help, his comfort and his love.

As we will hear in our Eucharistic prayer, preparing us to receive Christ in the bread and the wine, ‘Father, you made the world and love your creation. You gave your only Son Jesus Christ to be our Saviour. His dying and rising have set us free from sin and death.’

As Christians, we follow Christ and experience the love of God through Jesus and all that he has done for us. Let us thank him for all that the cross means to us and for his continued working in our lives and in the world. Amen.