06 April 2012

‘God has given us a way to live without answers’

‘I am he that liveth, and was dead’ (Revelation 1: 18) ... a window in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Friday 6 April 2012, Good Friday

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

2 p.m.: Evensong

Psalm 130 (De Profundis); Luke 22: 54-62; John 19: 17-24.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In our reading from Saint John’s Gospel this afternoon, we have heard four of the seven phrases that are known as the “last words” of Christ from the Cross:

● ‘Woman, here is your son’ (John 19: 26)
● ‘Here is your mother’ (John 19: 27)
● ‘I am thirsty’ (John 19: 28)
● ‘It is finished’ (John 19: 30).

This is no passive, isolated Christ on the Cross this afternoon, for two of those cries are about relationships, and two are about action.

In the first two cries, ‘Woman, here is your son’ (John 19: 26) and ‘Here is your mother’ (John 19: 27), Christ’s priority is not for himself but for relationships. His dying concerns are that we should find new relationships. The Church is not about binding contracts but about lasting relationships; the Church is not about making contacts but about building community; the church is not about social networking but about creating family.

The third cry of Christ on the Cross ‘I am thirsty’ (John 19: 28), calls to mind his request earlier in this Gospel to the Samaritan woman at the Well of Sychar: “Give me a drink” (John 4: 7), and the promise that follows: “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty” (John 4: 14).

This Samaritan woman – as a Samaritan, as a woman, as a person with less that Orthodox religious views, as someone with a, shall I say, different sexual lifestyle – would not be acceptable in many churches today. Yet she becomes a role model for discipleship, outreach and mission. It is she, and not the disciples, who engages in creative conversation with Christ, it is she and not the disciples, who brings the people of Sychar to full faith in Christ, it is she who moves beyond networking to creating community.

So, even this statement from the cross, ‘I thirst,’ is about relationship. It can only be responded to by an action that creates relationship. And, at the end of his ministry, what better thirst, what better relationship is there, but Christ’s thirst for the poor, the outsider, the marginalised, the oppressed and the condemned, those he has given priority to in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 3-12), or at the beginning of his ministry in reading from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4: 18-19)?

They are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who demand justice, those who seek mercy, the pure-hearted, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Yes, they are the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed.

His end and his beginning share the same priorities, emphasise the same values. On the Cross, Christ thirsts for a new humanity to be formed and shaped through his incarnation, life, passion, death, resurrection and ascension, a new humanity that looks for his coming again.

This final cry, ‘It is finished’ (John 19: 30), is traditionally called “The Word of Triumph.” It announces the end of Christ’s earthly life, in anticipation of the Resurrection.

So often we move too quickly from this afternoon of Good Friday to the morning of Easter Day, without thinking of what has been accomplished. Indeed, there is no provision in The Book of Common Prayer for anything in our churches from this afternoon until the Easter Eve Eucharist, which is the beginning of Easter itself.

On Holy Saturday, we use our churches for children’s clubs, or to decorate our churches with eggs and little fluffy yellow chickens. But do we allow Christ’s Crucifixion to come to its proper end – in the tomb? Do we contemplate what has been finished, what has been accomplished?

On the Cross, now that his life is coming to a close, Christ knows that all has been completed. “It is finished!” he cries out before he dies. But what is finished? What has been completed?

After his conversation with Samaritan woman at the Well, Christ tells the Disciples: “My food is to do the will of him who has sent me and to complete his work” (John 4: 34). Later, after the Last Supper, he lifts his eyes up to heaven and prays to his Father: “… this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do” (John 17: 4).

What was this work which the Father gave his Son to do?

When it comes to his own self-description, Christ constantly talks about himself in terms of relationship – his relationship with us. There are seven “I AM” sayings in Saint John’s Gospel, seven ways in which he talks about who he is, in which he gives himself a self-description, but always in terms of relationship:

He says he is

● 1, Bread: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry” (John 6: 35).
● 2, The Light: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8: 12).
● 3, The Gate: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10: 9).
● 4, The Good Shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11).
● 5, The Resurrection and the Life: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11: 25).
● 6, The Way, the Truth, and the Life: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6).
● 7, The True Vine: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower” (John 15: 1).

It is no wonder that at his death, Jesus cried out “It is finished!” His death makes those relationships complete, brings his work to completion.

His death shows not just that these were poetic or literary devices on the part of Christ. He totally identifies with us, in life, in death, and in the grave. Death shows us how complete his identification with us is.

It is finished. Not that it is over, but it is complete. His relationship with us has not come to end. It has come to its God-planned fulfilment.

A prayer ascribed to Sir Walter Raleigh says: “O Lord God, when you give your servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same to the end, until it be thoroughly finished, which yields the true glory; through him who for the finishing of your work, laid down his life, our redeemer, Jesus Christ.”

The incarnation makes no sense without the crucifixion. In Christ, God fully identifies with the plight of suffering humanity. Birth is not enough, there must be death too. Or, as the ageing magi asks in TS Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’:

… were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter for us, like Death, our death …
I should be glad of another death.

“It is finished” is not a death gurgle.

“It is finished” is not “I am done for.”

“It is finished” is the last words of Christ on the cross.

“It is finished” is a cry of victory.

“It is finished” is the triumphant cry that what Christ has come to do has been done.

All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled.

Archbishop Rowan Williams reminds us of Pascal’s stark remark that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.”

Of course, we live in the time between the times – the kingdom is begun in Christ but will not be seen in its perfection until the end of the world.

The Archbishop of Canterbury observes that Pascal’s comment on Christ’s continuing agony is an exhortation to us not to become nostalgic for a supposedly less compromised past or to take refuge in some imagined purified future, but to dwell in the tension-filled time between times, to remain awake to our inability “to stay in the almost unbearable present moment where Jesus is.”

Saint John’s Gospel makes explicit what all the Gospels assume – the Cross is not a defeat but the victory of God.

The Crucifixion is kingdom come. This is the great long-awaited apocalyptic moment. Here the powers of this world are forever subverted. Time is now redeemed through the raising up of Christ on his cross. A new age has begun. The kingdom is here a-born, a new regime is inaugurated, creating a new way of life for those who worship and follow Christ.

God’s work, the work of the Trinity, is consummated in Christ’s great declaration from the cross: “It is finished.”

His life, his death, his resurrection, as Saint Irenaeus insists, recapitulates creation, recapitulates God’s covenant with his people, unites creation and redemption in the Incarnation. The new creation is complete.

As Richard Neuhaus says in his Death on a Friday Afternoon: “‘It is finished.’ But it is not over.” God remains at work making us, his creatures, divine.

Now it is possible for us to live at peace, to be God’s agents of reconciliation, in a violent world. We are able so to live not because we have answers to all the world’s troubles, but because God has given us a way to live without answers.

Our sins have been consumed, making possible lives that glow with the beauty of God's Spirit. What wonderful news: “‘It is finished.’ But it is not over.” It is not over because God made us, the Church, the “not over.”

We are made witnesses so the world – a world that has no time for a crucified God – may know we have all the time of God’s kingdom to live in peace with one another.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin ... the seal of the cathedral chapter at the south porch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at Evensong on Good Friday, 6 April 2012, in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

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