A Survey of the Wondrous Cross

This Good Friday I have been asked by our parish church to submit a meditation or theological reflection on three verses from John’s gospel. John 19: 28-30. I submit it to your judgement sisters and brothers.

When I had just arrived in Coventry I had a conversation with the Anglican vicar with whom I was to work in an ecumenical project. He greeted me with these words: “Peter, what did Christ do for us on the cross?” I answered swiftly and clearly quoting the apostle Paul. He then declared in terms, that I was a fit and proper person to work with him in the parish.

I liked him! I liked this emphasis on doctrine. It also brought home to me the importance of another New Testament text namely 1Peter 3:15. “Always be ready to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” I had shown myself to be ready. Are you likewise ready? I merely ask.

All of us in our separate ways must be ready to answer that question. What did Christ do for us on the cross? In framing an answer we are not alone indeed we have gathered here today to do what Isaac Watts did-undertake a survey of the wondrous cross; to probe its mystery and to encourage each other in faith, hope and love. In our thoughts and reflections this afternoon I have been assigned three verses from the fourth gospel-that of John. So it’s his answer to the question posed above that I will be focussing on for the next few minutes.

John sets out his stall very early in his gospel. “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. That’s from chapter 1 before Jesus has uttered a word.

Jesus is the Lamb of God-a sacrifice offered in a new Passover which will inaugurate a new Kingdom-a new world order if you like. Jesus is to offer himself as a sacrifice upon the altar of the world. He is both priest and victim.

Throughout John’s account of the passion Jesus is shown to be in control of events. He declares that he is thirsty calling to mind Psalm 69 but also John chapter 4   when Jesus began his ministry to the Samaritan woman by expressing a need. A sponge is placed on hyssop and lifted up for him to receive. Why hyssop? This is to fulfil another text Exodus 12 v 22 in which Moses cites the use of hyssop as a part of the Passover sacrifice.

Then Jesus declares: “It is finished.” The sacrifice is complete. Or to use a Methodist phrase: tis done the great transactions done. He bows his head and gives up his spirit. This is more significant than first appears. Normally a victim dies and then bows his head involuntarily. But Jesus bows his head first and then gives up his spirit. Does Jesus commit suicide? To us this seems unthinkable but in the ancient world suicide was a noble act. Jesus remember is both priest and victim.

One might also remember the noble sacrifice of Captain Oates lauded at the time of his passing from Anglican pulpits-and his famous last words-“I am going out and I may be some time.” Sometimes I use this form of words when popping out to the shops. Not everybody gets the reference.

In order to get a sense of what all this might mean for us consider the first Passover-that night that is different from all other nights. The night when the Passover lamb is sacrificed and the angel of death passes over Egypt sparing the children of Israel but smiting the first born of all the Egyptians. And in this moment when God shows his power the children of Israel are led out from Egypt into the desert to become God’s holy people and to be made worthy of the new land that has been promised to them.

To be made worthy of the Promised Land is no straightforward matter. Very soon the children of Israel were grumbling about their new circumstances. Egypt had been a real consumer society, plenty to eat and the children of Israel remembered with regret their fleshpots and plenty of public sector employment. Some of the big infrastructure projects are still standing and can be seen from outer space to this day. Of course things had become somewhat disagreeable in recent years and the contributions that the Hebrews had made to good governance in the country had been forgotten. There arose as scripture says a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.

And now behold a new Passover and Jesus is the new paschal lamb slain upon the altar of the world to bring in a new creation for the redeemed people of God. This the invitation, this is the grace freely given and ever given. But it comes with a call to be the people risen with Christ  to declare their faith and show by deeds that their sins are forgiven. And the first of these deeds is the call to leave Egypt and follow Jesus, the way, into the desert and then over Jordan to the Promised Land.

Let’s be clear about Egypt. This is a state of being not a geographical entity. There was a large Jewish community in Egypt, the land, until the late 1940s. It was in Egypt that the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek and in Egypt in Jesus time was a centre of Jewish of Jewish philosophy and scholarship. I well remember visiting John Newton’s parsonage in Olney, Bucks. Over the mantelpiece in his study was this text: “Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondsman in the land of Egypt and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.”

We too are called to come out of Egypt but this is a difficult and costly call. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is a costly grace not a cheap grace.

We too are in bondage to the pharaohs of this world who know neither Joseph not Jesus. You know their names!! We too love our fleshpots, we are almost desperate to go shopping again and we believe that the graces given by economic growth will be ever given.

A sign has been given to us in recent days. A 200,000 ton container ship stuck in the sands of Egypt laden with the products of the east to feed the misguided consumerism of the west. Its name “Ever Given” but not like the grace of God freely given –not at all. This is the devil’s grace and it too is costly grace a cost born by all the poor and disadvantaged people of the world.

In the cross we see clearly our evil-the abuse and misuse of the natural world to make instruments of torture well brought out in the poem you are about to hear. But at the same time God’s sacrificial love his gift of himself as the new Passover lamb which points to the recreation of the world and redemption for sinners like us.  As Paul expresses it:

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us therefore let us keep the feast.

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