SERMON FOR HOLY CROSS DAY on 14.9.14 at St Mary’s at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Lift high the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore his sacred name. This is the refrain we sang after each of the twelve verses of this great Victorian hymn, when all the Diocesan clergy processed behind a huge cross into the Maundy Thursday Eucharist with our bishop in my last diocese.
Today is Holy Cross Day. It commemorates the dedication in 355 of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which was built over the believed site of the crucifixion of Jesus. Today we are not immersed in the events of Good Friday, as we would in Holy Week: instead we are recalling the core of the Christian gospel. As today’s collect puts it, God has made an instrument of painful death to be the means of life and peace. It is a day when we reflect upon the cross and its significance, alongside the texts we have just heard. Until the story about Nicodemus in today’s gospel, Jesus has been almost silent in John’s gospel. Now John tells us that Jesus is beginning to elaborate on the new birth necessary in order to see the kingdom of God. Three central themes in John are announced here: the lifting up of the Son of Man, the sending of the Son as a manifestation of God’s love, and the consequences of these actions for humankind. The words of the hymn Lift high the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore his sacred name are a reflection of these themes of John. This is one of the supreme passages from John, full of his favourite vocabulary and themes, and particularly his balanced opposites: above and below, life and death, truth and falsehood. John explains the gospel in ideas and words which would have not only been accessible to his hearers, but which have also profoundly influenced human history ever since.
The passage begins with reference to our first reading, where the Israelites grumble against Moses and God and are sent poisonous serpents which bite the people. As a remedy, God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and to llft it high on a pole. Those who look at it will be healed. Later in Wisdom (16.5-6) the serpent is described as a symbol of salvation. And now John uses the Greek word hypsoun translated here as “lifted up”, but which has several layers of meaning. It can mean to raise, to exalt, but here we are to understand that the Son of Man will be lifted up on a cross. Like the dying Israelites looking to the serpent lifted up for their healing, John is telling us (v.3.15) that we are to see Jesus’ broken body being lifted up on an instrument of torture will lead to our healing and to the source of eternal life.
Let us look at Nicodemus for a moment. He is a Pharisee, a leader of Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin. He visits Jesus by night in today’s passage. He seems to be an earnest man, attracted by the character and teachings of Jesus, but afraid to show this interest to his fellow Pharisees. He fails to grasp the metaphors used by Jesus, and then he fades from the scene, while we are left with Jesus’ words to a Judaism which is seemingly in darkness. Later, in John 7.50-52, we hear about Nicodemus protesting against the condemnation of Christ by the authorities, without first giving him a fair hearing.
Finally, Nicodemus appears in the passion narrative (19.39-40) when he comes with a lavish gift of spice to anoint the body of Christ. Here John is once again using one of his contrasts, his opposites. When light comes into darkness shadows are formed: some prefer to remain hidden in the darkness and do evil there. Nicodemus gradually stumbles into the light, and comes to find God. While Nicodemus comes into brighter light, Judas leaves Jesus to go into the darkness of night. So John leaves us with options, opposing contrasts at each critical moment.
In telling these stories of Nicodemus, John is illustrating for us how we are called to respond at pivotal moments in our lives. John reminds us that as believers we need to remember that God so loved the world that he sent his Son, to save us, so that we should not perish, so that we should not be condemned, but have eternal life. This passage reminds us about the Lenten themes of penitence and judgement. But it takes us to the passion when the Son of Man will be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Today is a day when we need to look at these words in 3.16 again. Is this just a text to put on notice boards or leaflets, or as I have seen in the USA, to put it on a car bumper sticker? Or is this a fundamental text for the life of the church? If God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, we need to extend beyond our warm fellowships. We need to do this so that we may shine the light in the dark places of the world and encourage everyone to come into the light and find eternal life.
The cross in many different forms has been used over millennia as a symbol of many fundamental philosophical and religious themes. The life of Nicodemus seems to draw our attention to seeing the cross as a crossing point: a point we come to where a choice of direction has to be made. Nicodemus came to a crossroads in his life. He gradually turns at the crossroads and follows the light and found the love of God through Jesus’ life and also his passion.
Nicodemus is an example to us of a person who followed the spirit of today’s collect. It seems very likely that he would have glorified in the cross in the sense that he would gladly suffer for Christ’s sake. But suffering in this way is a tough calling for us. How are we to respond? I think that this is firstly a day when we are called to pray for all those who have come to a crossroads in their lives, as Nicodemus did, and as the people of Scotland do as they vote on Thursday. Secondly, it is a day when we also remember in prayer the great number of Christians who face persecution and homelessness and statelessness in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria. Their suffering has as it were coaxed within them a commitment to Christ rather than to return the violent hatred to which they are being subjected. May it be our prayer that they will find that light somewhere within the darkness of the present time. Lastly, let us pray that we shall have the grace to overcome the darknesses of our own lives so that we find that we too can sing Lift high the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore his sacred name. Amen.