A sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22:1-21
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
John 18:1-19:42

Today’s service, The Liturgy for Good Friday, is one of a suite of services, beginning last Sunday, Palm Sunday. It follows last night’s service during which, in a symbolic re-enactment of the Last Supper, people had their feet washed and the altars were stripped. Today we gather before a chancel and sanctuary bare of adornment; empty save for this huge cross draped in red. Tomorrow the Cathedral is quiet with no services – a reminder of that time between; the gap of waiting when you don’t know what, if anything, comes next. Except of course, we do know what comes next and we will be preparing for Easter Day. That begins in darkness and silence until, as if from nowhere, the smallest of lights is lit and grows and spreads – down the central aisle, across the nave, into the darkened choir and sanctuary and then into the full blazing glory of Resurrection.

But today the focus is on the Cross. The long reading from St John’s Gospel, referred to as the Passion of Jesus, takes us back into the Kidron Valley to where Jesus is betrayed and arrested. We have listened to John’s account of the chaotic scenes of trial as Jesus is dragged before the high priests and then handed on to Pontius Pilate. We cringe with Simon Peter, knowing we could all too easily be in his shoes. And we try hard not to believe we could be even remotely like those who mocked and cursed and taunted the prisoner. With Pilate we think deeply about that question which has so intrigued people in every age. In an age where the concept of ‘fake-news’ is bandied around the question seems as relevant as ever: What is truth? To our horror, when we stop long enough to think about it, we discover we too have it within us to shout, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” And, again to our horror, we realise we are not averse to standing gaping at the suffering of another – scrapping over the meagre effects of the condemned one.

This Liturgy for Good Friday invites us to spend time at the cross. To be with Jesus, with Mary his other and the other Marys  – Jesus’s aunt, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene – and John, identified in this Gospel as the beloved disciple. Did he write this account? Tradition has it that it was written by John, the younger brother of James, in his old age – the mature reflections of an old man whose life was touched so deeply by this man Jesus.

There are four clear sections to today’s service.

  • The Ministry of the Word – beginning with the moving reading from Isaiah about the enigmatic ‘suffering servant’. It’s a passage written hundreds of years before Jesus which people like John the gospel-writer found so full of meaning, helping them to make sense of what happened to Jesus. We have heard a few paragraphs of a letter from St Paul to the Church at Corinth. He writes about the scandal of the cross to some, and the utter foolishness of the cross to those who pride themselves as thinking, rational, people. Paul’s words have a remarkably contemporary ring about them as people in the West continue to ditch Christianity, preferring their own gods, their own spiritualities, their own self-focused lives to any ancient Galilean strung up naked on a cross. The foolishness and the scandal remains.
  • The Solemn Prayers invite us out of ourselves for a while to think of others in the context of the world in which we live. It is here we remember we are not alone in worshipping Jesus the crucified today, but are part of a world-wide church. Sorely divided it is true; torn apart by argument, by scandal, by shameful acts of people exploiting positions of power and trust – but drawn today to stand before the cross. The Prayers invite us to consider people whose understanding of God is different to ours, and those who have little or no place for God in their lives, but with whom we share this planet and life. It is here that we bring to God the suffering of the world trusting in the compassion of the one who, in bearing our sins, cried out in thirst and died to bring light into the darkness.
  • The Proclamation of the Cross gives us space and place to bring ourselves – as me, myself – to stand or kneel at the foot of the cross. It’s an intensely personal moment when there is nothing between me and Jesus. No need for words. No need for clever actions or arguments or justifications. Just me at the cross. If the tears flow, so be it. For it is here that love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
  • The Liturgy of the Eucharist takes us back to, and way beyond, Maundy Thursday and the Last Supper. At that Last Supper Jesus gave a new command: Love one another. That command is enfleshed and demonstrated when, looking down from the cross, he sees his mother and the disciple. “Woman”, he says to his mother, “here is your son.” And to John, “Here is your mother.” Not alone but in community we are invited to receive Holy Communion – not with the trappings of a full service of Eucharist, but using only the simplest of symbols – bread and wine. As we reach out our hands to receive the bread and bring the chalice to our lips we receive the Body and Blood of Christ – and know that we are community, God’s family, charged with living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ which cares for others, builds community, takes responsibility for our lives and actions in this world. One small, very practical, way of caring for others today is the opportunity to give generously to prosper the work of the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza – an Anglican hospital run by the Church of Jerusalem.

That’s it really. The service is over except for one last thing, one last phrase uttered by Jesus on the cross. “It is finished.” It is finished – the Greek means more like ‘it is accomplished’, I have done what I came to do and can do no more. It is finished – and it begins. And it begins with us – you and me here today and across the world in services like this. If all that Jesus did and taught is to continue it is up to us – there is no one else. Each week we are dismissed from the Eucharist with the words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” We may wish to stay and sing the story so divine – but we can’t. For while the work of Jesus is finished, completed, ours is not. In a sense it begins each day as we seek to love our neighbours as ourselves, so to live the life of Christ that God’s will is done, on earth as in heaven.