One and Only Noble Tree
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The Prior of Holy Cross, Leicester, preaches on its patronal feast.
Why did Jesus have to die? And why did he have to be crucified? Some Christians have a pat answer: it’s because you are a sinner. And Jesus died to save you, a sinner.
I heard an agnostic object to this, saying that he wasn’t that big a sinner, and that he didn’t want anyone to kill Jesus. So he didn’t want Jesus to have to die for him. Is the world truly that wicked that it needs an innocent God-man to die for it?
St Augustine saw in himself a darkness: the willingness to turn a blind eye to evil, to consent to evil, and usually just for the heck of it. St Augustine is a realist. There is something about all of us that inclines to making this world more like hell than like heaven. So we don’t need to be convinced that the world needs redemption. We just need to be convinced that we need redemption.
Quite possibly the most well-known biblical quote comes from the Gospel we heard today. You see it everywhere, on signs at bus-stops, supermarkets, football stadiums:
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’
Although it’s true that God loves the world a great deal, the word ‘so’ is often misinterpreted here. It doesn’t mean ‘so much’ in the sense of ‘For God loved the world so much that?’ but it’s in the sense of ‘thus’ or ‘in this way’.
The passage really means:
‘For God loved the world this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’
Could God have saved us another way? Quite possibly. But the passage tells us simply that this is the way God chose to show us his love.
So God loves the world, and the world rejects the Son. Would we have crucified Jesus if we were there? But we are part of a world that would, that did, reject Jesus. And it prepared a cross for him.
Although the world crucifies God, the initiative and power is always God’s. It is Jesus who embraces his cross, embraces the worst the world has to offer — and killing God is the worst possible thing the world could ever muster. Jesus is not a passive object in his arrest and execution. He goes to it willingly, knowing that his hour has come. It is he who lays down his life, and no one takes it away from him.
Jesus says, ‘When you lift up the Son of man then you will know that I Am’ (John 8.28). It is when Christ is on the cross that we see his divinity manifest.
Medieval images show the Father supporting the arms of the cross, breathing out the Holy Spirit as a dove upon the crucified Christ. On the cross we see the eternal love of the Father for the Son, given freely and utterly in the Holy Spirit. The worst thing in the world, killing God, reveals the best thing the world could ever know: the love of the Trinity.
Later in John’s gospel Jesus says, ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself’ (12.32). Not simply ‘all men’ as most translations have it, but ‘all things’ are drawn to Christ, lifted up on the cross. Christ on the cross becomes the head of all things.
The worst the world has to offer is just not bad enough, nor ever could be. On the cross we see most clearly that love which is the Trinity, drawing an instrument of evil, the cross, and turning it into something glorious. By the cross Jesus draws all things to himself, with himself as head.
And as for us, no matter how dark our shadows, our sins — there is nothing that cannot be lit by the glorious cross.