Wondering at the Foot of the Cross

Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington on Good Friday at All Saints’, Cuddesdon.


I wonder, I wonder, what does the cross of Christ mean to you?

It’s not often that we are called to go deeper, to look closer at our faith and the belief out of which we live. Doctrine always seems to be a matter of theologians and professors far removed from those of us who just seek to follow Jesus as best we are able. But sometimes, just sometimes and it often comes at the most unlikely times and from the most unexpected places, that we are given an opportunity just to reflect on what it is we actually believe.

This happened to me most powerfully when I was a curate, all those many moons ago. At the time I went into St. Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey each week to be chaplain on the children’s ward. You never know what you might be walking in to, whether you would be accepted and welcomed or whether the dog collar would press someone’s emotional buttons big time. On one such visit I did my usual tentative tap on the door of a side ward and opened it to find a family gathered round the bed of a seriously ill little boy. The women barely looked at me, it was the father and obvious head of the household who stood up and shook my hand in an official and polite deference to what he perceived as a religious authority. I asked about his son but it was clear that this subject was just too painful for him.  Instead he began to question me on the doctrinal basis of Christianity. He compared it to his own Islamic faith and increasingly pointed out the deficiencies of Christians who he believed followed Paul rather than Jesus. His interrogation grew more and more heated until he burst out in white hot anger, ‘How could anyone believe in a God who would let his Son suffer and die?’ I had no reply to give him. Being young, inexperienced and sensitive I crept out of the room with feelings of failure and complete ineptitude. It was only later when still rather shaken, after I had talked the episode through with Judith the Head Chaplain that I came to see that my encounter with this father was not about religion, or doctrine but a personal, human encounter with a man who was desperate and angry that it was his son who suffered and could die. It was his cry of dereliction to the God of us both, Muslim and Christian, who seemed to have abandoned him in his hour of need.

If truth be told, this was not the first time and will not be the last that I have been confronted with incredulity at what is technically known as the doctrine of penal substitution, the idea which we find in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, Corinth and Galatia, that by freely embracing the cross Jesus took on the punishment of sin in place of us, thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive sin. It’s a theology which we find in the hymn ‘There is a green hill’ and which we will sing later in this service:

There was no other good enough

to pay the price of sin,

he only could unlock the gate

of heaven, and let us in.

From the time of Paul through Augustine, Anselm and the reformers, right to the modern day this idea that God the Father allows his Son to suffer and die on our behalf has persisted. Many churches across the land will be singing another hymn, a modern hymn, which makes the penal nature of this act resoundingly clear.

In Christ alone! Who took on flesh,

Fullness of God in helpless babe.

This gift of love and righteousness,

Scorned by the ones He came to save:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,

The wrath of God was satisfied –

For every sin on Him was laid;

Here in the death of Christ I live.

I guess I am not alone when I find it very difficult to sing this verse of In Christ Alone. Yes it has great theological pedigree but in my heart I want to stand with my Muslim brother and cry out with and for him, ‘How can anyone believe in a God who would let his Son suffer and die?’ to satisfy a wrathful desire for punishment.

I wonder, I wonder what does the cross of Christ mean to you?

It is often a relief to find that the doctrine of penal substitution is not the only way one must understand the cross. Over the last few weeks we have heard how three very different thinkers, theologians even, have pondered the mystery of the cross and come to different conclusions, each of which reveal another aspect of this ineffable act of reconciliation.

For many people Julian of Norwich is more of a mystic than a theologian but during this century the depth of her doctrinal thinking has been more appreciated and celebrated than in the past. The problem which has faced many is that when you approach her two versions of Revelations of Divine Love there is no list of doctrinal statements, or well thought out summaries of thought. Instead you are confronted with the experience of a person who is lying on their own death bed, slowly slipping into oblivion. She describes how her parish priest comes to give her the last rites: communion, confession and absolution. Looking at an image of the person of Jesus on the cross the room darkens and it takes on a common light. From this moment of encounter follows sixteen shewings, all of which make up one revelation, centred on the image and narrative of the cross.

In many ways Julian is a child of her time. The cross dominated the devotional wonder of the medieval period. The ordinary, devout lay person was encouraged in this aural and visual world to freely and imaginatively enter into the story of the Passion. Not just to recreate it but to make the past a living encounter in the present. For the medieval person looking at the cross was to see the person who had died for their sin but it was primarily to understand this sacrifice as a great act of sheer love. Their response, as in Julian’s, was to seek to enter into Christ’s suffering, not out of some morbid fetish but because that is what lovers do, seek to share, be one and know the beloved’s pain.

Julian’s subsequent works do not just seek to recount or explain the cross of Christ but to enable us to encounter the love of Jesus on the cross for ourselves and so respond in worship and adoration. In what is often seen as an alarming departure from the doctrine of penal substitution Julian states that she saw no wrath in God. For the Father looks not on the sin of Adam but on the love of Christ on the cross who transfigures the instrument of punishment and humiliation into a triumph of love and humility.

I wonder, I wonder, what does the cross of Christ mean to you?

A hundred and forty years after Julian received her revelations of love on Good Friday 1373, a certain Augustinian prior received spiritual enlightenment as he was preparing to give a series of lectures at the new university at Wittenberg. For Martin Luther it was two biblical passages that changed his life. The first were the opening words of Psalm 22 ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Luther suddenly realised that the Divine Judge, whose wrath needed to be satisfied by a just punishment of sin through the death of Jesus, was in fact the person who hung upon the cross of shame and knew the very desolation that Luther himself felt. The other passage from scripture that has become the hallmark of Luther’s radical new thinking arises from his encounter with the words of Paul in Romans ‘The just will live by faith’. His Theologian Theses delivered at Heidelberg in 1518 expresses Luther’s ‘theology of the cross.’ Namely that a person ‘must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ‘ and that all we can say about God is seen through his suffering and the cross. For Luther the life of the believer is therefore to only ever be able to sit at the foot of the cross in penitence, knowing the depth of our depravity and relying solely on the self-giving grace of Christ on the cross.

I wonder, I wonder, what does the cross of Christ mean to you?

Finally, in the crucible of the horror of war the theology of the cross as presented by Luther came to find depth and meaning for the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann. This is what he writes in his book The Crucified God:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s god-forsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”

For Moltmann, the cry of that father back in the hospital in Chertsey is the cry of God the Father for God the Son, Jesus Christ and he enters into the desolation and despair of the forsaken so that there is no-one and no-where that God is absent. Through Jesus becoming the abandoned, no-one is ever abandoned by God. His Spirit is ever present, as it was at the crucifixion, breathing the resurrection life into the most god-forsaken situations that humanity can possibly imagine or devise, even the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

I wonder, I wonder, what does the cross of Christ mean to you, today? Amen.