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A sermon preached on the Feast of Pentecost, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, 24 May 2015:
I bring you warm greetings from the clergy and congregations of St Thomas’ Fifth Avenue New York, and the National Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, Washington DC, with whom I spent the past week. During my brief journey to the United States I reflected on with my colleagues what it may mean to belong to, to be a member of a Cathedral, and thinking more about how our ministry as Cathedrals or civic churches at the heart of our metropolitan cities, can enable people to belong and to become equipped for the ministry of making known the good news of the transforming love of the Holy Spirit.
It is a particular pleasure to welcome this morning two new members of our Cathedral Chapter and their families and friends, welcome to Canon Rosemary Maries and Lay Canon Campbell Bairstow, who have come to join us in sharing in our mission of proclaiming the good news of Christ at the heart of our city, and taking it to the places where they worship and minister: to Barwon hospital and Geelong in the case of Canon Rosemary, and to Trinity College, the University of Melbourne, in the case of Lay Canon Campbell. It is a joy to welcome you to your home church, and to reflect with you, and our congregation, on the promise of this morning’s readings. That we are called to be people who live the life of Pentecost; people who, by the way we live, minister and worship, give others an insight into the values of God’s kingdom, and so show forth the way to walking close with God.
This morning’s lessons not only call us to live out the good news of Pentecost as a community of believers, and make it known so that each may hear ‘in their own languages … about God’s deeds of power’, as our as our first lesson tells (Acts 2.11). They also invite us to be open to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and to recognise the gift of the Spirit in others. Both men and women, young and old; people from across the known compass of the globe: ‘Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs’ (Acts 2.9-11). Our readings invite us to recognise that all people are called, to be bound together by the Holy Spirit, as a community of believers that together makes known the transforming power of God’s Spirit.
Christ calls people from all backgrounds, with different languages and stories, from different ages and with diverse gifts, with differing abilities and skills, to follow him. Today’s festival reminds us that the way by which Christ calls people, the agency through which we and others are enabled to hear, follow and share his call, is God’s Holy Spirit.
It is the Holy Spirit who unites God’s people on earth, who amplifies God’s message, and enables people to respond to and testify to Christ’s call. Our Gospel reading tells us how ‘the Holy Spirit will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and … declare to you the things that are to come’ (John 16.14). And it is the same Holy Spirit who enables people to live and work together as a community of believers, and equips them with the needful gifts of ministry.
Those who have responded to Jesus’ call already and have chosen to follow him, are invited to live according to the promptings of his Holy Spirit (John 16.14). For it is the Christ-given values declared to us through the power of the Holy Spirit that will equip us for our journey of discipleship on earth. And not only on earth: the Holy Spirit’s guidance and promptings have the capacity to bridge heaven and earth: for ‘the Spirit of truth comes from the Father’ (John 15.26). Those who obey Jesus’ call are to live knowing that by their actions they have the capacity to bring about here on earth something of the life of heaven: ‘all the Father has in mine’, Jesus assures his followers; all the things of heaven are already Christ’s (John 16.15). And the Holy Spirit will make those heavenly gifts known to us, to equip us for our pilgrimage on earth: ‘the Holy Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you’, Jesus promises us (John 16.15).
Jesus tells his followers that living the life of Pentecost has the capacity to transform all relationships. Not only the relationships between individual humans will be changed through the agency of the Holy Spirit. The values of this world have already been fundamentally changed: ‘the Spirit will prove the world wrong about … judgment’, Jesus asserts, ‘because the ruler of this world has been condemned’ (John 16.11). The values declared by the Holy Spirit also will transform the relationship between God and us. By reminding us that righteousness has given way to grace ‘the Spirit will prove the world wrong about righteousness’ (John 16.10). And it is the Spirit who will help us testify, on Jesus’ behalf, how God loves to bring home the lost; will enable us to extend to others the invitation contained in our first lesson from Acts, that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 2.21).
The key to this profound transformation of relationships between God and humans, and individual humans, can be found in this morning’s epistle reading from the letter to the Romans (Romans 8.22-30). Paul reminds the people of Rome that our hope of restored and transformed relationships was wrought by the redemptive power of Christ. By Christ’s death on the cross, by his resurrection, ‘creation itself [was] set free from its bondage to corruption and [we are enabled to] obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’, we read a few verses before our epistle reading begins (Romans 8.21). By his dying, Christ broke down the rule of any other power once and for all: ‘Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us’, Paul assures the Romans (Romans 8.34).
The death and resurrection of Christ is a cosmic event, both the writer of of Gospel and our epistle readings know. Christ’s death on the cross broke down of powers that stood opposed to the values of God’s kingdom. Christ’s resurrection brought us the promise of a new life that is forever. These cosmic events assure us of the certainty that relationships can be transformed, where people accept Christ’s invitation to enter into life in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the hope to which we are called, the unseen hope for which we wait with patience: that ‘those whom God predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified’, as Paul tells the Roman church (Romans 8.30). And we are assured that this hope can sustain each one of us during our life on earth, and prepare us for life in heaven.
Paul speaks of this hope in terms of an inheritance into which we enter when we respond to Christ’s call. And the pleage of that inheritance, our epistle reading affirms, is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8.22). The first fruits of the Spirit are already at work within us, Paul assured the Romans. The gift of the Holy Spirit is freely granted to all who desire to enter into the new life that Jesus offers. And in order to equip his people for this new life, with all the riches we are promised and all the hardships of which we are forewarned, we are given Christ’s ‘advocate’: the Holy Spirit who is given us as our guide through life.
As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, the Spirit ‘dwells in us so that God might give life to our mortal bodies’ (Romans 8.11). It is this Spirit that will enable us to face hardship the disciples were foretold, the ‘sufferings of this present time’ (Romans 8.18). It is the Holy Spirit that ‘helps us in our weakness’, assisting us to reach out to, and include in our community, people from all nations and languages. And it is the Holy Spirit that helps us reflect here on earth something of the certainty of the life of heaven, helps us to be the community of God’s people—his saints—on earth: ‘because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God’, Paul assures the Romans (Romans 8.27).
All of us are called to be God’s people, his saints, this morning’s readings assure us. All of us are invited to become, and to be, people who live life in the assurance that the ultimate battle against sin and death has already been accomplished, when ‘God raised Christ from the dead … and put all things under his feet’ (Ephesians 1.20-22). And in the strength of that conviction we are called to reflect in our lives something of the life of heaven: are inbvited to lead lives lived in the convictions that the kingdom of heaven here on earth can be ours, lives where we live out the values of the Holy Spirit (and do not shrink away from the kingdom-promise, should life become difficult or should we encounter hardship, rejection and ridicule because of the hope that lies within us).
In my time as Dean I have come to appreciate that as Cathedrals we have a special role to show forth and make known that way of Spirit-filled living. We are uniquely placed at the heart of our city and diocese to testify to the good news of Pentecost, to introduce others to the ways of the hope that motivates us as Christians: ‘that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 1.21). And this has very practical implications for the way we conduct and resource our ministry: whether by a ministry of intentional reconciliation that seeks to bring together Aboriginal and other Australians, or through our ministry of Christian education that enables and encourages frank and searching conversations about our convictions and hopes. Whether by reaching out to those who are the object of racial hatred or those who find themselves on the margins of society; by ministering to the homeless or those who are reduced to begging from others, or by comforting those who come to our Cathedral broken-hearted, who know the pain of ‘inward groaning in labour pangs’ our epistle reading speaks of (Romans 8.22).
I am grateful that as the home church of our diocese at the heart of this wonderful city we have countless opportunities to make known, through our ministry, the powerful hope of Pentecost. I give thanks for the assurance of Pentecost that the kingdom of heaven is ours already; is growing among us now. I give thanks that it is both when we see and experience difficulty and hardship, and when we experience growth and blessing, we are assured that the ‘Spirit intercedes on our behalf’ as a sign of our hope (Romans 8.26).
I give thanks that the ministry of Pentecost is a shared ministry, which brings together people from all cultures and backgrounds and all ages, binding us all together in fellowship, and equipping us for our shared mission. I give thanks that through this joint Pentecost minstry, we can live out the promise that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’; the promise that we and many others have already become, and will be, God’s Saints (Acts 2.21).
I pray that we may be richly blessed in living out the shared ministry of Pentecost as members of our congregations, as Cathedral volunteers and staff, as those entrusted with the leadership of our ministry here in this place, and as those charged with the oversight of that ministry as members of our Cathedral Chapter—old and new. I pray that we may be richly blessed in our shared ministry of inviting others to walk with us in the power of the Holy Spirit. As we commission our new Chapter members, I invite you to recommit yourselves with them to our shared calling.
It is my prayer for you and for me, that God the Holy Spirit would continually equip us for the work of ministry: that he would give us all needful gifts for building up the body of Christ, so that we can indeed be people who know, believe and trust, that ‘those whom God predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified’ (Romans 8.30).
‘Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.’ (Ephesians 4.20-21).
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Thomas’, Fifth Avenue, on the Feast of the Ascension 2015:
Thank you Fr Turner, for your kind inivitation to be with you today. It’s a delight to share in your celebration of Ascension Day in this magnificent church at the heart of New York.
I bring you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, the seat of the Anglican Primate of Australia. At the east end of St Paul’s Cathedral stands our beautiful Ascension Chapel, with a magnificent golden mosaic, framed in gothic alabaster, depicting the risen Christ departing from his disciples. The ascending Christ stretches his hands out in blessing on his disciples as he is from them.
Our mosaic shows the disciples watching in worship, as Jesus stretches open the starry night sky, depicted in costly lapis lazuli, to enter a golden heaven. Two angels hold up scrolls with words from our first reading: ‘Men of Galilee’, the scrolls record their spoken words, ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ (Ac. 1.10-11).
Whatever the disciples may have thought as they looked on, it seems that for two angels Jesus’ ascension into heaven was no surprise. Indeed, Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles recounts the story matter of factly, as if these things happened every day. And while they may not exactly have occurred every day, Scripture does tell us about a number of people who ascended to heaven: the prophets Elijah (2 Ki. 1.11-12), Isaiah and Baruch all went up on high (Asc. Isa.), Scripture records.
Ascension to heaven, in Jewish tradition, was a gift of God to those whom he loved. Rather than see death, they would be lifted directly into God’s presence. In the case of Elijah, this took a spectacular form: the prophet was carried on high in a whirlwind, on a chariot of fire, drawn back to God by horses of fire (2 Ki. 1.11-12).
Jesus’ ascension, which we celebrate today, shares this aspect of the prophets’ ascent to heaven: it is an incredible display of the divine power at work within him. But unlike the ascension of the prophets, who attained glory without first tasting death, Jesus’ ascension certainly was not a way of entering heaven that bypassed death.
During a night-time conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the third chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus had spoken at some length about the idea of ascending to heaven. Then Jesus had told Nicodemus: ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’ (Jn. 3.13). In order truly to ascend to heaven, he first needed to descend to earth. In order to show to others the glory of God, he first needed to empty himself of that glory, by taking on our mortal life, Jesus explained to his secret disciple.
In our epistle reading from the letter to the Ephesians, St Paul echoes this insight: ‘When it says, “He ascended”, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?’ (Eph 4.9). For Paul, ‘Jesus ascended’, doesn’t just mean ‘Jesus went into heaven’. Before Jesus could ascend to the heavenly glory, he first had to ascend to the cross, Paul assures his readers.
And you only need to look beyond me to the great stone reredos of this church to see what Paul meant: there, in the central panel, the ascended Jesus blesses us, his worshippers. He stands above the cross, to reinforce, in stone and statue, the point that it was when Jesus was lifted up high on the cross that he did, in fact, make his first ‘ascension’. Jesus ascended to the cross only to descend, to plunge the depths of suffering and death into hell in order to chain the powers that kept humankind captive. Paul explains: ‘he who descended is the same who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things’ (Eph. 4.10).
This, then, is the first difference between Christ’s ascension and that of those who had ascended to God before him: Christ’s ascension is not a passive homecoming to God’s glory, but rather his active engagement with the powers that had kept humankind imprisoned in sin and death. It is, in fact, two ascensions. One that concluded Christ’s work on earth; the ascension witnessed by the disciples at the Mount of Olives celebrated this day. And preceding that, the ascension to the cross, celebrated on Good Friday. An ascension Christ made alone, deserted by almost all his followers, on another hill outside the city: on Calvary.
The second difference between Christ’s ascension and that of the prophets is this: unlike Elijah’s ascension, which really concerned only one man, Christ’s ascension was not a singular event. His two ascensions, both at Calvary and on the Mount of Olives, include and transform all people. Jesus not only takes captivity captive, but he changes those bonds that enslaved us and makes them the bonds that bind us together, so that we might become Christ’s own body.
Christ’s first ascension on Calvary meant that the lives of his followers and friends could be set free from death and sin. His second ascension on the Mount of Olives brought them the promise of the Holy Spirit, who would strengthen and equip those who love him. That, surely, is the true gift of Christ’s ascensions: the gift of people’s lives, redeemed and renewed, bound together in the power of his resurrection to be the body of his resurrection on earth.
‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive’, Paul cites the Psalms (Eph. 4.8). But equally important is what the Apostle says next: ‘He gave gifts to his people’ (Eph 4.8). And while these gifts are clearly of heavenly origin, they are not bestowed as it were by remote control, by a resurrected and ascended Christ safe in his heavenly home, but by the Jesus who, following his resurrection, walks among his disciples to teach them about the work of resurrection; who calls them back to enter into his service, and encourages them to become a body of believers that reaches out to the ends of the earth. The Jesus who, following his resurrection, bestows precious gifts upon them.
These gifts are various, and given in a multitude of ways. Firstly, the gift of resurrection itself, shown to the women at the empty tomb; the gift of understanding God’s word, given to the disciples fleeing Jerusalem on their way to Emmaus; the gift of peace and his Spirit, given to his frightened friends hiding behind the closed doors of the upper room; the gift of calling, bestowed to a disillusioned band of disciples ready to trade in their apostleship for their old lives at fishermen on Lake Galilee. And, as we anticipate the feast of Pentecost, we look forward also to the gifts of the Spirit: equipping, as Paul says, ‘some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the Saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’ (Eph. 4.11-12).
There may well be times when we feel like those ‘men of Galilee’, the people who watched Jesus ascend to glory on the Mount of Olives. There are times when we, like them, may feel left behind, full of sorrow and unresolved questions. And it is at these times, I believe, that we need to remind ourselves that the spiritual gifts bestowed on them are still alive today. It is at times like these that we need to understand that the angelic word spoken to them is also addressed to us: ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’ (Ac. 1.10-11).
It is my hope that you and I will come to experience in our lives, and nurture in ourselves, the same gifts that Christ bestowed to his friends in the time between his ascension on the cross and his ascension to the Father. It is my hope that by these gifts we may be equipped to teach to others the work of resurrection. And it is my prayer that we may be shaped into the body of Christ, ‘joined and knit together by every ligament … building itself up in love’ (Eph. 4.16), to make known this message to those around us that even today find themselves ‘captives to captivity’.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
A webcast of the service at which this sermon was preached can be heard here.
© Text: Andreas Loewe, 2015, Photography: The Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, Wikimedia
A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 25 May 2014:
This morning’s lessons (1 Peter 3.8-22, John 14.15-21) invite us to live by the principle that lies at the heart of the Trinity—the principle of the love Christ has for his Father; the love that flows from both the Father and the Son: the love of the Holy Spirit. They give us powerful insights into how this principle of sacrificial love was lived out in times of persecution and great insecurity about the future of the Christian church. They encourage us to believe that, whatever external circumstances we may face—whether we are buoyed up in times of growth and strength, or weighed down in times of hardship and persecution—‘those who love Christ will be loved by the Father’, and that Christ ‘will love them and reveal himself to them’ (John 18.21). Finally, they invite us to share ourselves in the work of transformational living—living so that others may be brought to the love we know and believe in—through our giving and our living.
Our epistle reading from the first letter of Peter (1 Peter 3.8-22) was written in the second half of the first Christian century, a time of incredible uncertainty and hardship for the early Christian communities of the Roman Empire. During the brutal reign of emperor Nero, Christians and Jews were routinely persecuted: it was Nero who put the apostles Peter and Paul to death and, with them, innumerable Christians in Rome. In his Annals, Tacitus, one of the greatest first-century historians, suggests that Nero’s persecution of Christians was an elaborate cover up for the infamous burning of Rome (Annals, XV, 44).Written in the smouldering ashes of Rome and with the memory of the first generation of Christian martyrs very much alive, our epistle speaks a message of peace and love into a world full of uncertainty and hostile to people of faith.
The congregations to whom our epistle was addressed are called to live by the way of love, not share the hatred of their oppressors. They are invited to remain united in face of danger, to share in one another’s sufferings, support one another in hardship and difficulty. They are encouraged to ‘have sympathy’; now the Greek word sumpatheis really means ‘share in someone’s feelings’ rather than warm to someone: ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’ is how the apostle Paul put it in his epistle to the Romans (Romans 12.15). When faced with the persecutions of their Roman overlords, the early Christians were encouraged to bury their differences, to look out for one another and to share in the love that characterised their faith. As Jesus had said at the table of the Last Supper, only a few verses before today’s Gospel reading commences, ‘by this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13.35).
Love, for the writers of our epistle and our Gospel readings, was not just a warm feeling in the heart, or the creation of a deep emotional bond. In the first Christian century to love someone meant first of all to act with righteousness towards them; to treat them as one would expect to be treated oneself. And from this first principle flow a number of important instructions to the Christian community that go beyond the principle of love, of ‘having a tender heart and a humble mind’, as first Peter puts it (1 Peter 3.8). Faced with the ruthless and organised persecution of Christians in the capital and provinces of the Roman empire, our epistle challenges us to love even those who persecute us: ‘Do not repay evil with evil, or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary, repay with a blessing’ (1 Peter 3.9). It is hard to bless those that insult you, let alone bless those that seek after your life. Yet this is what the first epistle of Peter instructs the persecuted Christian community to do: ‘do not repay evil with evil, but repay with a blessing’ (1 Peter 3.8).
Evil that is countered with evil, the writer of our epistle knew, only creates further evil: the cycle of violence and hatred can only be broken where people have an absolute passion for goodness, an utter lack of provocation. Refusal to retaliate where others accuse unjustly, the writer of our epistle tells us, can break the cycle of escalating conflict. Where people return evil for the evil they have received, they only stoke the flames of conflict. ‘Repay instead with a blessing’, first Peter encourages us, ‘because it is for this that you were called: that you, too, might inherit a blessing, might inherit salvation’ (1 Peter 3.9). Those who live by the way of love will receive blessing and salvation, our Gospel reading echoes first Peter. In fact, those who shun the way of breaking evil by love, our Gospel reading suggests, may never know this love-filled way of life, nor the Spirit of God that makes known this life: ‘the world cannot receive this Spirit of truth, because it neither sees nor knows him’ (John 14.17). Rather, it is those who live lives that counter evil with good, hatred with love, who know God and will be known as his children. Who will be sustained by God’s strength to undertake their work of building up and transforming the Christian church: ‘you know the Spirit of truth’, our Gospel reading tells, ‘because he abides with you, and he will be in you’ (John 14.17).
In setting before us the way of transformational living by sharing in God’s love, our readings also make an important distinction about suffering persecution. While there will without a doubt be many who are called to suffer for their belief in Jesus Christ, not all are called to suffer persecution: ‘if it should be God’s will for you to suffer’, our epistle reminds us, ‘it is better to suffer for doing good than to suffer for doing evil’ (1 Peter 3.17). Though there will be some among us present here who have suffered persecution for their faith—I am thinking in particular of those who had to flee their homelands to escape the kind of persecution our epistle speaks of—for many of us the sacrifices we may be called to bring for our faith may not be through physical suffering. Not all will suffer persecution, our epistle assures us, yet all are called to shun evil and do good; all are encouraged to work for goodness and peace in their own generation. We all are called to contribute, through whatever means we may be able to do so—by offering of ourselves, our talents and our gifts, our finances (and yes, in the case of some, even by facing persecution and hardship because of the hope that lies in us)—to bringing about the vision of transformational living our readings speak about.
At St Paul’s Cathedral we have made the way of life that today’s readings speak of our Cathedral vision. Our Chapter and Cathedral team believe that together all of us can help transform our city and diocese. In the conversations that the Precentor and I have been conducting with our congregations over the past weeks, it is clear that many of our members share our vision. The transformation that our Cathedral vision upholds is both an inner, spiritual transformation, and an exterior physical transformation—as in the case of the physical reshaping of our office facilities and meetings rooms over the next few months, in order to ensure that our ministry is well-resourced for future generations. This work of transformation will not come without effort or even sacrifice; indeed, in the case of our refurbishment project it will create much physical upheaval, and a significant financial burden, that relies on the generous response of many to carry. But we undertake this, and other work, encouraged by certainty contained in today’s readings: the insight that where we all join together in the work of transformation, others will be able recognise the hope that lies at the heart of our faith, and come to share in our work of ministry.
By sharing the Good News of the life-transforming, world-changing death and resurrection of Jesus, this world truly may be changed for good, our readings tell. They also affirm that this message is not only for the first generation of Christians but for all time and all places, including our own generation and this land. Through the grace of God and the gifts, talents and vocations of each one of us, each one of us is indeed enabled to show forth the transformational love of Christ: in our congregations, and our city and diocese. Today’s readings invite to commit ourselves once more to Christ’s way of transformational living. They invite us to show forth in practical ways that we truly believe in our hearts what we profess: that by our sharing in Christ’s ministry of love, that by our bearing fruit that will last in his name, others will know that we truly are Christ’s disciples, and will themselves come to know and love the One who first loved us and called us his friends (John 15.16, 13.35).
‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen’ (Ephesians 3.20).
Into the darkness of the first Good Friday, when sun and moon were eclipsed, Jesus speaks his last, ‘It is finished’. And breathed his last, bowed his head, and gave up his spirit (John 19.30). This work of completion is accomplished alone, in darkness. It is witnessed only by those who cared for him most: his mother, his aunt, his beloved disciples Mary and John. They see the man they love wrestle with death; see him struggle against the human sadism that invented this torturous way of ending another’s life. Parched, dried out like a potsherd, they see his lips purged with hyssop and sour wine (Psalm 22.15). They see his final struggles against death and see him lose. They see him gasp for breath like a drowning man, as his life is ripped away from him. They hear his last words. ‘It is finished’. It is accomplished. All is completed, all is now done. They see his head drop in death, and see him give up his spirit.
There, from the cross, God sends again the Spirit that brought into being our universe. The Spirit that hovered over the darkness of an unformed void on the day when God called our world into being. The Spirit that called into being light in darkness, gave shape to sky and earth, created all the creatures that inhabit it. The Spirit that called into being a man and a woman, made human families and gave them life; a life God proclaimed to be ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.31). The Spirit that taught us of love, and goodness, created bonds of belonging, shaped an entire people chosen by God for living. It is that Spirit which now again is given to the world. On the cross as the world is re-created in the formless void between day and night. As the world completes its descent into the dark that gave shape to the knowledge that so much of what once had been ‘very good’ had become cruelly distorted and broken by human selfishness and sin, God in Christ sends out his Spirit once more. Not to create a new world, but to complete his work of restoring the world which he has made to be very good.
‘It is finished’. The work of re-creation is complete and there, in the darkness of Good Friday, all that has to be done to bring about the world that can be ‘very good’ is already accomplished, God knows.
Where those who stand by in the darkness of this death can only see brokenness, God sees the beginnings of a new creation, the potential of a world that can be remade by his Spirit. Where those who stand at the foot of the cross can only see a man ‘struck down by God and afflicted’, God sees his servant ‘wounded for our transgressions’, sees his only, beloved Son, ‘on whom was laid the punishment that made us whole’ (Isaiah 53.5). Where those who bear the weight of grief this first Good Friday, God opens the ‘new and living way’ into his presence (Hebrews 10.20); the way that will transform the finality of death into the gate to life eternal, at the triumph of life on Easter morn. Where those who witness Jesus’ final moments on earth may only feel a dying man’s breath, God sees his Spirit call into being a new covenant. A covenant in which God himself transforms our hearts and minds. A covenant in which God will humble himself to dwell in us, by placing his laws in our hearts and writing them in our minds (Hebrews 10.16). A covenant in which sin gives way to forgiveness, and death to life.
And when, at the end of that long first Good Friday, the soldiers come once again to take Jesus—this time to remove him from the cross—those who saw Christ accomplish all on the cross also witness the signs of that new covenant. They see a soldier pierce Jesus’ side; see blood and water flowing from his body (John 19.34). Blood to sprinkle clean our hearts ‘from an evil conscience’; water to wash our bodies from sin, as we read in today’s epistle reading (Hebrews 10.22). Signs of the new covenant that God established on the cross, symbols of the faithful promise that God made of sin forgiven, lives transformed, and death defeated. Signs for us to share whenever we meet together to worship: water that reminds us of our own baptisms; blood that reminds us of the meal Jesus gave us to remember him. Symbols of our new hope that encourage us to ‘hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful’ (Hebrews 10.23).
At the foot of the cross, those who saw Jesus die, witnessed the death of an old order and the birth of something new. As they were looking on then, they may only have seen death. But as they came to write the story of this extraordinary death, they began to see the signs of new birth even as they documented death. They wrote down this story, ‘so that we also may believe’ (John 19.35). They knew their testimony to be the truth, and tell the story to us, so that we may share their conviction. The conviction that God will remember our sins and lawless deeds no more, where we seek his forgiveness and friendship (Hebrews 10.16). The conviction that in dying, Christ has brought to life a new covenant on the cross. The conviction that because he bore the sins of us all, we might approach God ‘with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, with our hearts … clean’ (Hebrews 10.20-22). The conviction that because he gave his life for us, Christ also opened for us a ‘new and living way … through his flesh’; has opened the gate to life eternal (Hebrews 10.20).
This conviction was informed by witnessing the tragedy of the cross, and the miracle of the resurrection. It was confirmed by seeing life taken by human cruelty and sin, and life restored by God’s grace and love. It was strengthened by seeing soldiers torture a loved one and by touching the same marks of death—the enduring marks in his hands and side—in Christ’s resurrection body. Today, these witnesses invite us to share their beliefs. Today, they invite us to believe with them that the words Jesus spoke from the cross, ‘it is finished’, marked not the end but a new beginning (John 19.30). Today, they invite us to share their beliefs that the signs of death the soldiers saw, the water and the blood that flowed from Jesus’ side, were the symbols of life. Today, they invite us to share their confidence that he, who has promised to make a gracious covenant of life with us by dying on the cross for us, is faithful (Hebrews 10.23).
This Good Friday, I invite you to place your trust in the witness of John and Mary, the beloved disciples, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Clopas. I invite you to share their grief at the loss of one greatly beloved. I invite you to share their sadness at the brokenness of our own humanity, and the sorrow of our own sinfulness. And I invite you to share their certainty that the one who was broken for us on the cross, has conquered death and is alive, and delights in sharing his life with us today. I invite you to approach their beloved friend, Jesus Christ with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, and to find in him your Saviour, Lord and friend. Thanks be to God.