Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

Isaiah 52: 53 – 53: 12, Psalm 22, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31, John 18: 1 – 19: 42

This morning I want to offer you three stories. They will, I hope, help us as we gather here today, Good Friday. The focus of course, is the cross – how could it not be, being so dominant a feature and right before our eyes.

The first story is about a poem and the poet, the second about a tune and the composer, the third – well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Samuel Crossman lived in turbulent times. The Reformation had seen many changes in his native England, changes which included kings and queens coming and going, putting to death their rivals and themselves being put to death or sent into exile. Among other things, the English Reformation, as in much of Europe, saw big changes in the way services were structured and conducted, and the sort of music sung in churches. The Bible, now translated into the common language so that people could read it for themselves and not be dependent on the priests to interpret it for them, provided the text for music to be sung, especially in the form of metrical psalms.

Crossman, like the better known George Herbert a generation before him, wrote inspirational poetry using biblical themes but putting them into his own language. The opening lines of one of his poems were “My song is love unknown, my Saviour’s love to me, love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.” We know the words well and sing them often, including in this service.

Crossman, along with some 2000 other Anglican ministers with Puritan leanings, was expelled from the Anglican Church following the Act of Uniformity in 1662 – which, of course, saw what we still know, and use, as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. A short time after this Crossman, who had been looking after both an Anglican parish and a Puritan congregation, renounced his puritanism and was ordained as an Anglican priest. He ended up as Dean of Bristol.

While his poem about Love Unknown, a poignant reflection on the Passion of Christ, was published in 1664 and included in the Anglican Hymn Book of 1686, it was not sung to the tune we know.

Which brings us to the second story some centuries later and another Englishman, John Ireland. He was a talented musician, composer and organist. One day in 1918 his friend Geoffrey Shaw, a fellow musician and compiling a new hymn book which was published as the Public School Hymnal in 1919, took Ireland out to lunch. During lunch Shaw produced the poem written two centuries earlier by Samuel Crossman and asked John Ireland to write a tune. The story is told that Ireland reached across for a menu and, in a few minutes, composed the tune known as “Love Unknown”. It continues to be a much-loved masterpiece.

What then of the third story? That is the story contained in the Bible, parts of which we read earlier today. It is the story of God’s love for the world, a love reflected in the Passion of Jesus, a love that has fascinated and disturbed countless people for the past two thousand and more years. At the heart of the story is the unfathomable question of why people reject God’s love, and why God keeps on loving, even, to use Crossman’s words, the loveless.

The early Christians dug deep into their scriptures, what we know as the Old, or First Testament, to find answers. Among the passages that jumped out were four songs or poems from the prophet Isaiah. They spoke of the Servant of God who was nothing special and yet had these words written about him:

“Surely he has born our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Isaiah 53: 4 & 5)

They discovered Psalm 22 which Jesus quoted from the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” If you’ve not done so before, read the whole psalm and see the way the sentiment turns from one of utter despair and helplessness to trust and praise of God.

Those early Christians struggled to make sense of the cross and recorded the way the people around them reacted to it – a stumbling block to the Jews and utter foolishness to the Greeks. But, says St Paul in 1 Corinthians 1: 24, “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

And of course they recorded the stories that developed around the life of Jesus, especially his final days on earth. We have listened to one of four accounts which have come to us – that which is known as the Gospel of John. Each of the Gospels is slightly different and each should be read as a whole.

This is the end of the first part of today’s service, known as the Ministry of the Word. We will shortly move into the Solemn Prayers when you will be invited to pray for the world and the church.

  • To pray for a world where Coptic Christians are bombed and killed on Palm Sunday; where warring factions in Syria continue to tear their own people and country apart, egged on and supported by other self-interested nations; where, on Maundy Thursday, ‘the mother of all bombs’ is dropped in an attempt to wipe out one of our times worst groups of fanatics
  • To pray for a world where there are more refugees and displaced people now than ever before; where images of suffering have become so common place we scarcely react anymore; where leaders too often appear swayed by the interests of lobby groups rather than constituents
  • To pray for a church still wracked by division, scandal, and people damaged by those they trusted
  • To pray for a world where acts of random kindness and beauty are cause for celebration; where people of vastly different culture, belief and practice welcome each other as human beings; where, following the example of Jesus towards his mother and the beloved disciple, people welcome the stranger as family
  • To pray for a church where people turn to Christ, are baptised and marked with the cross, receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, and sing of God’s unfathomable love for all

Having prayed for others we are then invited to pray for ourselves, not necessarily using words, as we come forward and spend a few moments kneeling at the foot of the cross – the symbol both of man’s inhumanity to man, and a man’s love for all human beings.

This third story of my sermon is unfinished, the words not all written, the tune still being composed. It is our special privilege to be part of the writing, part of the composition. It is our special calling and privilege so to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to proclaim the love of God shown forth through the cross, that many will join us in both singing and living the song of love unknown.

As we stand to sing Samuel Crossman’s words to John Ireland’s tune, embrace the knowledge that God so loves you and me that he gave his only Son to die on the cross that we might have Eternal Life.

My song is love unknown,
my Saviour’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die?