In previous years, when I have spoken at the Good Friday service it has often been to do with one or another aspect of the theology of the cross. I’ve tried to teach about what the Trinity went through with the universe-shattering reality of God the Father turning his back on God the Son as Jesus took on our sin, and became sin for us. But this year it’s not about the theology but the principle - the principle of the cross being central to our lives.
In effect, by talking about giving throughout Lent this has been the principle we have been engaging with, the giving of our selves, which finds its true focus here, at the cross. Everything up until now has been milk though rather than solids. At the cross, if we engage with the vital need for all Christians to place the principle of the cross at the centre, we are weaned and become spiritual adults. The self-sacrifice Jesus made is our model for life.
Our main reading this afternoon was from Isaiah 53. Written several hundred years before Jesus was born, it seems to describe him exactly. A man of sorrows, acquainted with suffering who was crushed by the Father in order to make his life an offering for our sin. These are unpalatable bits of theology. They are politically incorrect.
We are rightly uncomfortable with the idea of God doing this to a part of himself for the sake of drawing us back into relationship with him, but I wonder why. Is it because we don’t like the idea of God inflicting and undergoing suffering in order to take away our sin, or is it perhaps more because on some deep level we are disturbed about the lengths that Jesus would go to for our sake?
Let’s not be in any doubt about this. Jesus died on the cross because of us. If any single one of us had been the only sinner in the world, the love of God is so great that he would still have gone to the cross to bury the differences between us, to destroy the chasm that sin opens up. The only difference is that we would have been the one who had nailed God to the cross.
The theology of the cross helps us to understand what Jesus accomplished by being crucified, but the principle of the cross is, in a practical sense, much more challenging. The theology of the cross explains things in such a way that allows us to say, ‘Oh yes, I understand, that’s very interesting’, but the principle of the cross is in these very disturbing words of Christ:
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”, Luke 14:27
It’s not about theology. It’s not about styles of worship. It’s not about what we wear to church. It’s not about whether we get to robe up, or lead prayers or have a seat on the PCC. It is about this ultimate principle of giving, of giving ourselves for the sake of others without there being anything in it for us. That’s what Jesus did and it’s what Christians are meant to do.
But do we? Why do you think there are church disagreements? Because we’re not carrying our own crosses. Why are there power struggles in the church? Because we’re not carrying our own crosses. Why are people dying for lack of food and water? Because we are not carrying our own crosses.
As long as it is about what ‘I’ want, not what ‘you’ need, we are not carrying our own crosses. And Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Why is that? I think there are two sides to it. If we carry our own cross the needs of others will take precedence over our own needs, but also, in caring for the needs of others we will learn a great truth about God that cannot be taught by words.
Let me see if I can explain what I mean. Henri Nouwen was one of the most profound spiritual teachers and writers of the twentieth century. He was a Dutch Roman Catholic Priest born in the 1930s. He was ordained at the age of just twenty five and studied psychology and moved to the US to study in the 1960's.
Such was his academic brilliance in his subject that he went on to teach at the University of Notre Dame, and the Divinity Schools of Yale and Harvard, but in 1985 he left it all behind to join L’Arche in Trosly, France, the first of over 100 communities founded by Jean Vanier where people with developmental disabilities live with assistants. After a year he moved to L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, Canada.
It was there that he met Adam, a man with profound disabilities who could do nothing for himself. Henri Nouwen, international teacher and priest, became Adam’s carer. He began with the question, “Lord, is there any way Adam can know you as I do” but ended up asking the question, “Lord, is there any way I can know you the way Adam does?”
He called him, ‘Adam: beloved of God’ because in Henri laying down his own life and abilities and taking on the role of a carer he learned a great truth, which was that Adam was like Jesus. Adam did not need to accomplish anything in order to be loved by God. Adam was so profoundly disabled that he couldn’t accomplish anything; he could barely even feed himself.
By laying down his own life and taking up the cross, living the life of self-sacrifice, Nouwen learned at the very depths of his being that God loved him as a person and not his accomplishments, or how he looked or what he had acquired.
Now I can stand here and teach you and I this until I’m blue in the face, but unless we try and live it, we will never understand it. Henri Nouwen had been a priest for decades and had taught spirituality and written dozens of life-changing books, but it was in laying down his own life and taking up his cross that he finally learned the truth on a profound level, that God loved him for who he was, just as he was.
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” says Jesus. Why? Because unless we lay our own lives down to one side we cannot appreciate and respond to his love for us. We will go on trying to earn it, when we can’t. Remember, if you had been the only sinner, he’d still have come. And still he comes, day after day, to ask us to lay down our lives, take up our cross, and live for others.
Do not expect this to happen overnight. The true reality of this is that we learn to carry our own cross and there are absolutely no short-cuts. It is in the day-to-day principle of living like this that we begin to grow. Yes, becoming a Christian can be a true conversion which takes place in a moment of time, that one day you are not a Christian and the next day you make a decision and you are. But being a disciple is far more involved. Being a disciple is about learning discipline, learning as an apprentice from your master who is the Lord Jesus.
So what, then, is this principle of the cross? It is a lifetime journey of learning simply to live as Jesus did, in the shadow of giving of yourself away for others. It is dying to yourself. It is the ultimate act of giving. It is a path we all have to tread, and if we are forever asking whether we are getting what we want, or moaning because things are not going how we want them to go, then we must look and see what path we’re walking on, because the chances are it’s not the one to Calvary.
And if we walk on our own paths we will never understand or appreciate the love of God.
So let me ask you a few questions.
In Matthew 10:39 Jesus says, ‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
This is what Henri Nouwen did, and he discovered the truth of it in caring for Adam.
Are you tired of trying to get things the way you want them?
Are you weary of trying to be seen to be better than anyone else?
Are you holding on to your life so tightly, trying to get your way, that you are losing your life?
If the cross is central, then we will be prepared to die to all of our desires for the sake of the one who died for us. He showed us the way. We need only follow, because that’s what disciples do.
But don’t expect to get there immediately. Don’t expect to feel the weight of the cross on your shoulders on your first day on the job. But do expect the splinters to begin to bite when you start trying. And be prepared to see the effect it has on the lives of others. Amen.