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Letting go to walk with God in the greater peace: celebrating Frank Callaway

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on 11 August 2015, at a Memorial Service commemorating the Hon. Frank Callaway QC RFD:

Cross of GloryAs Frank Callaway retired from the Supreme Court of our State, he thanked his colleagues in his accustomed gracious manner, and told them that in retirement he would return to his first loves: ‘history and philosophy and those aspects of human experience that, even now, are best expressed in religious language’ ([2007] VSC, Transcript of Speeches, p. 19). As we give thanks for Frank’s life, we also do well to turn to his first loves to make sense of the hope of the life that is forever: history and the kind of philosophy that is best expressed in terms of the language of our faith.

For Frank shared the faith in a life that is forever, even should our life here on earth be cut short. Just as he scrutinised the history that stands at the heart of that faith: the history of the carpenter from Nazareth, who was revealed to be the Lord of life one Passover eve in Jerusalem, as his life, too, was taken; at the time that the sun hid his face and the moon obscured her gaze, in darkness and alone. The mystery of the empty tomb, with its neatly rolled up grave-clothes, and a somewhat officious young man that turns the grieving away, redirecting them to the place where their journey with Jesus had begun: ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him, just as he told you’ (Mark 16.7).

Frank’s life was profoundly shaped by this story, and this faith. It was this story that led him to excel, to strive to serve a cause greater than self: to seek to bring justice to others. It was the desire to serve the cause of justice that led him, at an early stage in his career to choose to devote his energies to cases in the appellate court. Seen by some to be a risky move, his specialisation, ultimately, led to his appointment to the Appellate Bench, and an opportunity significantly to shape Victorian jurisprudence ([2007] VSC, Transcript of Speeches, p. 3).

At the heart of the desire to serve an earthly justice was, without a doubt, Frank’s conviction that in so doing he would take a share in doing ‘what the Lord does require of you: to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’, as the prophet Micah reminded the people of Israel in our first lesson (Micah 6.6-8). In that sense earthly justice was an expression of divine justice – a justice that did not seek material recompense in the first instance ‘thousands of rams …, ten thousand rivers of oil’, even giving our ‘firstborn for my transgression’, but rather a justice that sought a change of heart, sought metanoia, repentance, and the transformation of life and circumstance (Micah 6.7, cf. Mark 1.15).

This is how Frank himself would put it in his retirement magnum opus of philosophy and faith, Reflections (‘Dougall A. S. Smith’, Reflections [North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2013]): ‘the intution of God led to compassion, not retributive justice’. And that compassion was shown forth most fully in the life of the builder from Nazareth who was himself both the one formed our universe, and was himself God in human form; the divine logos at the beginning of all creation, and the divine Son, Jesus Christ the Lord: the author of this world, of all life and, as our second lesson knows, the author of our salvation (Romans 8.31-35).

Through the incarnation of Christ, the ‘intution of God’ turned a retributive justice into compassion, opening a way beyond the material principle of repaying evil to the principle of justice itself, whereby neither ‘hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword’, neither ‘death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’, as St Paul reminded the Roman church (Romans 8.35, 38-39).

In the last few years, Frank pondered these questions deeply. In doing so, like many of the first hellenistic Christian writers, he drew on the work of the Greco-Roman philosophers to make sense of the ‘inexpressible and glorious joy’ of knowing and believing in the invisible, risen Son of God. The apostle Peter put this act of believing like this in his first epistle general: ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy’ (1 Peter 1.8-9). That joy, Peter knew, was motivated by the telos, the end result, of our faith: ‘the salvation of our souls’ (1 Peter 1.9).

Frank grappled with the concept of the truth, the validity, of St Peter’s claim in his Reflections: ‘if Christianity is true, the image and likeness of God would become the goal or telos of humanity and that image and likeness would be revealed in Christ’ (Reflections, p. 48). If Christianity is true, then the goal of our human journey is the inxepressible joy of knowing that divine justice. The justice that by right could demand full repayment for our tresspasses, but instead is reflected by the selfgiving compassion of the author of our salvation.

And it is that knowledge, that can enable us to bear the burdens of seeing others suffer; whether through illness and pain, or through injustice and ill-treatment. And it is that strength which can enable us to do, in this life, what ‘the Lord requires of us: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6.8).

In his Reflections, Frank hedged his bets on what the reward for a life lived according to the maxim of Micah and the apostles Peter and Paul might be like. For him it seems to have been not so much inexpressible joy, as simply inexpressible. This is what he wrote: ‘In the final analysis, life after death can be intuited or believed in, but it cannot be understood or imagined: … to do so, is literally impossible’. Frank concluded: ‘I often think that one should therefore live this life as well as possible and leave the afterlife to take care of itself’ (Reflections, p. 32).

Frank himself chose to let go of the constraints of this life and embrace the inxepressible, indefinable life of eternity. As part of his reflections on life, justice and the life after death, he also spent time reflecting on what it means to let go: ‘It is of the essence of the spiritual life … that one must first “let go”: … [this is first of all] a matter of stopping and, as it were, doing nothing. Later it extends to letting go of ideas, as well as mental habits that cause unnecessary suffering. For some people there is a release from anxiety and a sense of inner peace.’ (Reflections, p. 1). ‘Put very simply’, he would conclude his work, ‘to let go of the ego, the source of separation, anxiety and much else that is destructive, [is] to walk with God’ (p. 74).

At the end of his own life, Frank did let go, and entered the simply inexpressible life to walk with God. Now, having himself ‘let go’, Frank shares the closer walk with God, and the greater peace – that peace which passes all understanding. And we, who are still facing the complexities of this life, who still live by faith and not by sight, are now invited to ‘let the afterlife take care’ of Frank.

For us who are left behind, remains the task to celebrate his having succeeded in his intent to live his life as well as possible: touching the hearts of many, hearing the pleas and appeals for justice of many, meeting them with fairness and compassion and, wherever appropriate and possible, a justice tempered with mercy. We now may ‘let the afterlife take care’ of Frank. We now may let Frank go into the greater peace to walk there with God, because we share his hope and trust in the compassion of God that shone forth in the person of Jesus Christ. We now may let Frank rest in God’s peace because Christians believe that the author of the life of the universe at the beginning of all things is also the author of resurrection, ‘the conqueror of death’ (Romans 8.37).

And so, in this hope, let us commend Frank to the mercy and protection of the God who calls the departed to walk with him, live with him, in his peace; the One who invites us to become ‘more than conquerors with him through his love’ (Romans 8.37). The One who convicts us by his mercy, and bids us believe ‘that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8.37-39). Amen.

Remembrance: the God who takes up our brokenness and makes all things whole

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at Holy Trinity, Hampton Park, on Remembrance Sunday 2014:

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This morning’s readings (Ezekiel 37.1-14 and Matthew 26.17-19, 26-30) assure us that God remembers each one of his own who has died; that he will bring together, at the end of all ages, all those who have lost their lives; and that it is by our corporate remembrance, our active recalling of those whose lives have been lost, that we can share in that assurance of lives restored.

Our word ‘to remember’ is the direct English equivalent of the Latin verb ‘re-memorari’. The second part of that word—‘memorari’—comes from the noun ‘memoria’, from which we derive our word ‘memory’. The Latin prefix ‘re-’ often means ‘again’ or ‘back’. To remember a person or an event, therefore, means to have an intensive awareness of someone or something in one’s mind: to be intensely mindful of someone.

That is one, and the most conventional, way of looking at the word. Now imagine the same word with a hyphen. If you add a hyphen between ‘re-’ and ‘member’, the word suddenly changes its meaning altogether. To ‘re-member’ may look very much like our first word, but has very different roots. Yes, it shares the Latin prefix ‘re-’—‘again’ or ‘back’—but its second part comes from the Latin ‘membrum’—‘limb’ or, somewhat archaically, a ‘member’.

To ‘re-member’, then, means to bring together, reassemble, members and limbs. It means to bring to life someone or something that was broken and therefore is the direct opposite of the word to ‘dis-member’. This morning’s readings invite us to put our communal remembrance of the conflicts, wars and acts of terror that have brought us together this morning, in the context of both of these words.

Our first reading, a momentous vision from the prophecy of Ezekiel, illustrates well the second—the hyphenated—meaning of the word re-member. The prophet finds himself in a vast plain, surrounded by dismembered, dried out bones; a valley full of dead bones without any hope of life. At first he is not told where these bones come from, God’s hand simply leads him around the bones. Ezekiel may be standing in the middle of a mass grave, or a place where generations of the dead have been placed; at this point the prophecy doesn’t tell us more about their provenance. All we know is that there ‘are very many bones lying in the valley, and they were very dry’ (Ezek. 37.2).

And God charges Ezekiel to prophesy to these very many, very dead bones. God commands him to proclaim his word to them. And as Ezekiel makes known God’s word to the assembly of dried up dismembered bones, we hear him speak words of resurrection: ‘Thus says the Lord God to these bones’, Ezekiel proclaims to the valley of dry bones, ‘I will cause breath to enter in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord’ (Ezek. 37.5). Immediately, at the very time that Ezekiel proclaims God’s message of resurrection to the dispersed bones, they are re-membered: ‘the bones came together, bone to its bone’ (Ezek. 37.7). As the prophet speaks the words of resurrection, the disconnected bones become assembled, limb to limb, member to member, in this divine act of re-membering. And, as he continues to prophecy the words that God gives him, suddenly ‘sinews were on them, … flesh had come upon them; and skin had covered them’ (Ezek. 37.8). A valley of bones, re-membered, re-clothed with sinews and skins standing before Ezekiel, ‘but there was no breath in them yet’ (Ezek. 37.8).

And now Ezekiel is commanded to call on the breath, to fill the empty bodies with life. He calls on God’s spirit, speaks into the four corners of the earth—wherever their breath had been scattered—to fill the bodies, blows on them as one would kindle a fire, in-spires the empty bodies ‘that they may live again’ (Ezek. 37.9). And as God’s spirit filled them, the bodies stand and live, and God reveals to the prophet that the vast multitude before him is the whole house of Israel, a people once dispersed and dead, now re-membered and resurrected.

Yet although they stand, looking to all intents like real people—with fresh skins on their dead bones and the breath of life within their bodies—deep down they remain people who remain disconnected from one another and from God, we read. They tell the prophet: ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are lost completely’ (Ezek. 37.12). And the word of God spoken by the prophet addresses them in their hopelessness, prophecies how God will bring them back, not only from their graves, but restore them to the heavenly kingdom that he had promised; how God will put his spirit within them, so that they may live. And all so that they may know that the Lord alone is, indeed, their God.

God will bring life, even in the midst of death, the prophet tells the vast army of the people of Israel. God has re-membered them, and will not forget them either. Another Dean of another St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne of London’s St Paul’s, reflected on this hope like this in one of his sermons:

God knows in what part of the world every grain of every man’s dust lies … and he whispers, he hisses, he beckons for the bodies of his saints and, in the twinkling of an eye, that body that was scattered over all the elements, is sat down at[ the right hand of God, in a glorious resurrection (Sermon LXXXI, 19 November 1627).

God re-members, brings together, his broken people, by remembering, recalling each one that has been lost to death.

Just as our first reading proclaims God’s mighty works of re-membering, of putting together again those who were broken, wherever they may rest, so our second reading shows us how we, too, can engage in the work of remembrance. For at the heart of our gospel reading from St Matthew stand words that form the centre of our own worshipping life, as we gather round Christ’s table: ‘This is given for you; do this in remembrance of me’ (Mt. 26.26, Lk. 22.19). Do this, so that you may remember me, Christ says, and points to the broken bread that symbolises his body, the body that is about to be broken on the cross.

And so our daily sharing in the broken bread becomes not only the ultimate act of remembrance—a time when we recall intently the work of our salvation and the fulfilment of God’s promise that all may one day come to share in the promised heavenly kingdom—but also is meant to be a share in his work of re-membrance, of bringing together the members of the body of Christ, however dispersed, however disconnected from one another and from God they may feel, however broken they may be. At Christ’s table, as we come to remember him, we are all re-membered, are brought together, are given a share in God’s mighty work of deliverance in the death and resurrection of Christ. At Christ’s table, we make present this deliverance in our midst, and we do so by our act of remembering, as each individual member of his body shares in the bread and wine and we, ‘though we are a many, become one body, because we all share in the one bread’ (1 Cor 10.17).

We stand at Christ’s table not merely as a living assembly of humans—like the multitude of dried bones, now covered in flesh and given breath though still without hope, that once filled the valley of Ezekiel’s vision—but as living members, as limbs of Christ’s own body, connected to him, sharing in the pains he feels in the hope that we, too, might come to share the risen life he brings. As we remember him breaking the bread, the sign of his body, at table with his disciples, we also re-member—bring together—his broken body, become members one of another and of Christ; all by doing this ‘in remembrance of him’ (Mt. 26.26, Lk. 22.19).

On this Remembrance Sunday, as we remember the centenary of the Great War and the enormity of its cost, I invite you to share in the remembrance that both recalls in our minds and brings together again what has been broken by illness, suffering, war or hatred. I invite you to remember—to recall—how by letting his own body be broken on a cross, Christ has taken up in himself all brokenness in order to make it whole. And as you receive the bread and the wine of Holy Communion I invite you to re-member—to build up and become—his body on earth: be re-connected with one another and with Christ himself, as members of his body, so that together we may make known the work of his healing, wholeness and redemption in an age still marred by conflict and war.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Heaven on earth: living in the places in-between

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at Choral Evensong at Magdalene College Cambridge, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 18 May 2014:

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I bring you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, the metropolitical Cathedral for the province of Victoria in Australia. It is a great pleasure to be back in Cambridge, and to reflect with you on the promise of tonight’s prophetic readings: the promise that we are called to be people who inhabit the in-between places between heaven and earth, and that, in the strength of that hope, we are invited to become people who share with God in the work of becoming a world where ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more’ (Revelation 21.4).

Tonight’s readings both speak words of encouragement and hope to God’s people: our first lesson from the prophecy of Zechariah, speaks words of renewal and hope to the people of God exiled in Babylon where they were unsettled, far removed from their spiritual roots, with little hope of return and recovery. Our second lesson, from the Revelation of St John the Divine, speaks into a similarly unsettled context, but some six-hundred years later. Both communities—the Judean exiles settled at the banks of the meandering rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and the early Christian communities nestled on the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean—shared a sense of uncertainty and volatility: whether in exile, or as a minority faith in an established Roman colony in Asia Minor. And our two prophets both speak words of incredible hope and radical change to their communities. They forsee nothing less than the coming among them of the living God: ‘I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy’, God declares to the Judean exiles through the word of Zechariah: ’my house shall be rebuilt in it’. (Zechariah 1.16). ‘The home of God is among mortals and he will dwell with them’, John speaks to the Churches of Asia Minor (Revelation 21.3). And that home for God, both our lessons assure us, is the Holy City Jerusalem.

In our first prophecy from the book Zechariah, the coming of God among his people is centred on the physical restoration of Jerusalem: God himself will rebuild his city. And in preparation for this return, God himself will measure the city and judge its people (Zechariah 1.16). God’s survey of the physical topology of Jerusalem goes hand in hand with his assessment of its people and their values. His new Jerusalem requires a new way of life altogether: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts’, Zechariah prophecies, ‘render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor; and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart’ (Zechariah 7.10). God reaches out to those in exile in Babylon and those living in the ruins of Jerusalem who ‘have been hearing the words from the mouth of the prophets’, in the knowledge that those who believe God’s promises will be the people who enable their fellows to re-enter Jerusalem and there to dwell with their God ‘in faithfulness and in righteousness’ (Zechariah 8.8-9). They will rebuild the spiritual life of God’s people in the same way in which God’s surveyors will measure out Jerusalem’s Temple sanctuary to be rebuilt by human architects (Zechariah 2.1-3).

Tonight’s first lesson, then, is not only a vision of what God’s new City and Temple will look like, but what it will be: graced by a great, golden menorah that either pours golden oil or pure gold—the Hebrew is ambiguous—and which clearly signifies God’s presence. The Temple is God’s home on earth: flanked by two olive trees, each symbolising a descendant of the House of David—Joshua, the high priest and Zerubbabel, the governor—it will be a place where spiritual and temporal rulers will act in unison to make Jerusalem a place where people ‘love truth and peace’ (Zechariah 8.10-13).

Because Joshua and Zerubbabel act unitedly and decisively they are the ‘two anointed ones’—or in Hebrew, Messiahs—‘who stand by the Lord of the whole earth’ (Zechariah 4.14). They are God’s ‘proto-Messiahs’ who will fulfil his vision until the day when God himself will reveal himself as Messiah, and give his own life for his own people.

God’s coming to dwell among his people is begun when God sends his two anointed ones to restore the sanctuary of God’s people: sends Joshua and Zerubbabel to lay the Temple’s foundation and bring out the chief corner stone in order to commence God’s work of spiritual renewal (Zechariah 4.8). God’s coming to dwell among his people is completed when God himself accomplishes the work of grace, when God witnesses, as Zechariah foretells towards the end of his prophecy, the death of the One ‘whom they have pierced’ (Zechariah 12.10). The Christ who, by ‘letting himself be pierced’, will ‘open a fountain [of grace] for … the inhabitants of Jerusalem’, as Zechariah promises (Zechariah 13.1). The Christ who, by allowing his own body to be broken on a cross, will ‘cleanse them from sin and uncleanness’ and thus complete the work of redemption (13.1). That work is completed ‘not by might, nor by power, but by God’s spirit’: is completed when the final high priest from the line of David, the final and greatest ruler, God’s own anointed Son, gives up his own Spirit for God’s people (Zechariah 4.6). And it is at that moment that heaven comes close to earth, is from that moment onward that God may indeed be found in Jerusalem and makes his home there (Zechariah 8.22).

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The cornerstone of grace which brings God close to his people, that Zechariah spoke of, for Christians surely is the bedrock of Calvary. For the threshold to God’s home on earth is found at the foot of the cross. And that is why, throughout the ages, poets and painters, church musicians and sculptors, have given expression to this hope through their artistic gifts. At the heart of the High Altar sanctuary of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne their confidence is reflected in a spectacular, golden, Venetian mosaic of Christ’s crucifixion. There Christ is depicted on the cross, not in darkness or isolation, but surrounded by sun and moon and stars on a vibrant dark blue canopy that forms, as it were, a second lapis lazuli nimbus within the larger silver and gold nimbus that already envelopes the arms of the cross. At his feet the disciples and the believing centurion, both faithful Jews and one time sceptical gentiles, gaze up in worship at the moment when God came to make his home with his people: the moment when God’s Anointed One died on the cross; the time when we, people who have come to faith through contemplating this event, were given a place on the approach to the City of the living God.

The altarpiece in Melbourne’s Cathedral does not place us in the historical city of Jerusalem—Zechariah’s ruined city where people longed for their temple to be rebuilt at the time when Joshua and Zerubbabel laid its foundation stone. Nor does it place us outside the city walls of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death, when those who lived there continued to long for liberty from Roman oppression (and would continue to yearn for freedom of faith long after Christ died). Rather, the reredos in St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne places us at the place where the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalem intersect. It places us at an envisaged place, where we stand the foot of the cross so that we may approach the heavenly Jerusalem, so that we may come close to the place where all have been set free to worship God. In our second lesson, from the Revelation to St John the Divine, that envisaged heavenly place is described as the haven of our redeemed humanity: it is the place where all is made new by the One who has accomplished all when he gave up his Spirit on the cross. For the Divine John that place is ‘the home of God among mortals … where death will be no more’ (Revelation 21.5).

As Christians, we are called to live in the hope of what is yet to come, while also inhabiting the messy realities of our here and now. As Christians we are called to inhabit that envisaged threshold space between the earthly and heavenly Jerusalem. St John’s ‘first things’ that used to enthral people may have passed away, but we can still feel the effects of those ‘first things’ today.

While you and I may never have to face exile for our faith like Joshua’s and Zerubbabel’s contemporaries, many of us will know—first hand or through media reports—people who have had to leave behind their homelands and families in order to enjoy the freedoms we tend to take for granted—I only have to think of the significant number of young Iranian Christians who worship with us at St Paul’s Cathedral. The visions of the new Jerusalems, whether Zechariah’s or John’s; the vision of the city of God where all tears will be wiped off our eyes, and death shall be no more, is not absolution from accepting the many injustices we observe in today’s society. Rather it is encouragement to us to occupy the threshold space between the here and now and the hereafter, encouragement through our action to address some of the wrongs of our own times. That is why at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne we have sent a strong message the government of Australia to protest against Australia’s inhumane and dehumanising asylum seeker policies by displaying an eight-metre-high banner urging the people of our city to ‘fully welcome refugees’. And I am certain that the same reason motivated your Master [Rowan Williams] to speak out so eloquently and prophetically about fighting poverty in this prosperous nation, promoting the work of our volunteer foodbanks.

Today’s lessons of a heavenly place redeemed by God so that his people may live life to the full, are encouragement to us to remember what has already been accomplished. Our lessons are assurance that to those who trust in the work of God, the world has already been set free. At the same time, our lessons challenge us to address the many injustices of our present age. They urge us to take action against the things that still make people ‘mourn and cry, hurt and die’ (Revelation 21.4). As Christians we are called to inhabit a difficult in-between place: not quite in the city of the living God where God will wipe away all tears; still surrounded by the things that still cause those tears; yet already fundamentally delivered from the things that separate us from God.

And because we live on the ‘not-yet-but-already-there’ threshold to the City of God, I give thanks for the prophets’ assurance that the home of God among mortals is among us even though we may often see and experience difficulty and hardship in the communities in which we live and study, worship and minister. I give thanks that, through in our ‘showing kindness and mercy to one another’, we already are, and can become, God’s fellow workers in the cause of making the good news of God’s City known to others (Zechariah 7.10). As we seek to show forth the way to God’s Heavenly City through the ministry of our Cathedrals, Collegiate chapels and parish churches—whether here in Cambridge, in Melbourne, or elsewhere—it is my prayer for you and for me, that God would continually equip us for his work of living and ministering in the ‘in-between places’: that he would give us all needful gifts for building up the body of Christ, so that we can indeed be the messengers and inhabitants of his City in our own generation (Ephesians 4.12).

‘And now him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.’ (Revelation 1.5-6).

 

Sent from the Cross: the Spirit that renews the face of the earth

ImageInto 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.