This year on Good Friday, the priest I live with, Mother Anne-Marie, preached a series of sermons interspersed with prayer and silence on the hymn ‘In Christ Alone’. She concluded with this sermon at the Good Friday Liturgy.
During the two hours before this service we have been reflecting on the Stuart Townend and Keith Getty hymn “In Christ Alone” – in Christ alone my hope is found – so goes its first line.
It is a hymn we sing quite often here at St John’s and I know it is a favourite of many people here. It is a favourite of many in the Christian community as a whole. Written in 2002 it has become well established and has already been voted the modern hymn most likely to stand the test of time.
I think it is very much a hymn for our times – somehow it resonates, particularly for those in the West, who see so many certainties crumbling around them. The pace of change is so fast and there are so many things to worry about. In the last couple of weeks what has been in the news we could worry about? Banks failing might be pretty high up the list, or we can worry about gas supplies running out – the UK seemingly only has two days reserves at the moment. We can worry about Syria and the plight of its people – how is that ever going to be resolved? Then there is that news story that comes and goes – Iran getting nuclear weapons – should we be worried about that? We can worry about our weather – is the coldest March for over fifty years just one of those things or is it ironically global warming? It may not hit the headlines anymore but there is still a famine emergency in East Africa and we can certainly worry about global poverty – and maybe selfishly worry that as the first and third worlds begin to equalise (as surely they should) then our living standards might – and probably already are – falling. And that leads us to our personal worries – never mind the national debt, lots of us have our own debt, be it credit cards or mortgages – we may have a job that is insecure, a pension that no longer delivers what it promised – and those are just the financial things. We may worry about our health, our children, our parents, our grandchildren – it is a wonder any of sleep at night!
In the end, I like Stuart Townend have found that there is only one place to put my hope for the future and that is in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection.
You and I are here this afternoon because this is where we place our hope. We are here this afternoon with all our sorrows and fears, with our anxiety and guilt, with everything that torments us and wakes us up worrying in the middle of the night.
We bring everything that is in us, everything that is around us, and here at the cross we put it down, trusting that Jesus can hold it, Jesus can bear it with us and for us, and that in him and through him we and all Creation will be drawn to new life. We place our hope in the cross of Christ because something momentous happened long ago on that hillside in Golgotha.
It is a bold claim that Christians make. Scientists measure the age of the Cosmos in billions of years – I think it is something like 15 billion years ago that they say the universe came into existence. Primitive life forms emerged some 4 billion years ago and sometime pretty recently – like 300,000 to 400,000 years ago – we, homo sapiens – began to walk on this planet.
Against this enormous expanse of cosmic and human history, Christians dare to say that something pivotal happened over the course of three days early in the first century, something that affected not only human beings but the whole Creation. In a far off, forgotten corner of the Roman Empire, a man was unjustly tried and executed – and everything changed. Christ’s life, death and resurrection exploded into history.
Jesus spent only one week in Jerusalem – that last week of his life, which we re-live in Holy Week every year. One week – and yet it takes up one quarter of Luke’s gospel, one third of Matthew and Mark’s gospels and half of John’s. St Paul devotes far more of his writings to exploring the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection than he does to his teachings. Yet in the church we still seem to spend most of our time on the parables and the sermon on the mount and drawing out moral tales about being “good” people. We are missing the point. “We preach Christ crucified” said St Paul. It seems in the church we often only preach Christ crucified on this day and forget it the rest of the year. What a failing that is!
In those 3-4 hundred thousand years we have been on planet earth, we humans have only had about 2000 years to experience the reverberations of Christ crucified and only 2000 years to struggle to understand what happened. We have found many ways in those years to explain the cross – we explored some of these in the two hours before this service. Sometimes the cross is seen in terms of sacrifice as in our Hebrews reading this afternoon; sometimes the cross holds the suffering servant of our Isaiah reading – the God who suffers with us; sometimes the cross is a ransom, suggesting a payment setting us free; sometimes as reconciliation – bringing us back to God and bringing peace between us; sometimes we describe the crucifixion and resurrection as victory – a decisive victory in a cosmic conflict between good and evil, life and death. All of these can be picked up in the words of Stuart Townend’s hymn – so no wonder it resonates with us – whatever the cross means to us it is there in the hymn.
But whatever metaphors we use to interpret the cross, it is in the end a lived experience in the life of the Christian community, because here at the cross Christians have found their hope. Here we receive forgiveness for what seems unforgiveable; here the love of God meets our selfishness and small mindedness head on; here we see a vulnerable, suffering God sharing our pain and loss; here at the cross we are set free from the power of death, and set free from any futile attempt to earn our own salvation; here at the cross we can throw ourselves into the arms of Christ and receive the inspiration and courage to go on because the love that was let loose on the cross has no limits.
In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
this Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my All in All,
here in the love of Christ I stand.
With acknowledgement to a sermon preached by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts at the Solemn Liturgy on Good Friday 2006, from which I have drawn some of the content of this sermon.