Sermon (1 of 4) Preached by Fr Nicolas Stebbing CR at St Mary, Bourne Street, London on Good Friday (6 April) 2012

“So they took Jesus and he went out bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Golgotha. There they crucified him”. 

So we have  come to the last stage of this terrible journey. We have seen Jesus betrayed, abandoned, arrested and tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Now we must watch him die. We know we are watching the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the second person of the eternal trinity. Yet what we see is the stark reality of human suffering, suffering such as men and women have endured from time immemorial and even today, all over the world. Jesus took on human flesh and that meant he had to take on the suffering which flesh is heir to.

So we see Jesus slapped and struck in the High Priest’s court. He is mocked, spat on, beaten by the soldiers. He has a bundle of thorns pushed on his head. He is exhausted from a night without sleep, a day without food. He has been questioned, made to stand hour after hour before his judges. Then he is condemned. He is whipped with the terrible Roman scourge and then forced to carry his cross through the hot dusty streets of Jerusalem.

We are not complete strangers to that kind of suffering. We may not have been through it all but we have been hungry. We have been mocked, unjustly blamed for things we have not done. Jesus’ experience was far worse but in our own lives we have shared it. We know something of what he feels. We can identify with this part of the passion. Hunger, tiredness, betrayal, mockery, unjust condemnation are all part of the human experience.

Yet when Jesus gets to Golgotha his physical suffering goes beyond us. It is hard, stark and real. Hammer on nails, nails on wood. There are cries and screams from the other victims as flesh is torn – but silence from Jesus. Then the Crosses are set up. How often we have gazed at a cross, looking at that twisted, naked suffering body. We have tried to imagine the pain – the pain in his hands and feet where the nails bite through nerves; the pain in his arms as they support the weight of his body; the pain of suffocation, the terrible agony of thirst. For the most part this is a pain beyond our experience. We can glimpse it - parts of it - but we know it could be ours. People are tortured today and die horrible deaths at the hands of other men. Cancer can give a pain like that of a Cross. Often it is only when we are called to suffer this pain that we enter the experience of the Crucified Christ.

Yet there is a deeper suffering of the Cross, a suffering which all of us know. The Cross is the ultimate failure. Christ never intended to be crucified. God did not intend his Son to be crucified. Christ took on flesh to bring men back to God. He came to show men God’s love and to teach them to love. He began with great success. Crowds flocked round him, miracles abounded, people were healed, comforted, raised from the dead. Jesus was the centre of a great religious revival, or so it seemed. In fact, it was not so. People came for the miracles, for the fun of hearing a great speaker but they did not understand what he said. Before Jesus ever reached Jerusalem he could see his ministry was a failure. He was not taken in by outward success. People were not returning to God with changed hearts and love renewed. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem he was already disillusioned, frustrated, angry with his people’s failure to respond.

That is something we can share. We begin our Christian life, our married life, our religious life with such wonderful hopes. It is exciting; it is such fun. There is so much to do but God is on our side. Life is an adventure following God through ever more exciting country. it doesn’t necessarily work out. Christian life can get dull; marriages can stagnate and fail and we in the religious life can find our hopes frustrated by a disintegrating, ageing community, by our own failure of vision. The work we thought to enjoy becomes empty. The prayers we used to love become routine. Failure is all around us. Ultimately it is God who fails. God has not kept his promise. He has let us down. For us the temptation is to escape failure. We bury ourselves in activity. We manufacture success. We convince ourselves that God really wants success. We seek happiness, good fun, other people’s admiration and we forget the real cross in our lives.

Jesus resisted that temptation. He could have gone on for years as a successful preacher. He could have gone on with miracles, teaching and public adulation but he would not compromise. He chose instead to enter the mystery of failure. He failed his friends; he failed his Mother. He did not become what they wanted him to be. His talents, charm, wisdom were all wasted. The cross was not a victory, not a fulfilment. It was the destruction of all he could have been. Failure is bleak and desolate. It is a real wilderness – without beauty, without feeling: grey, cold, endlessly depressing. Yet it is only in the wilderness that we can truly find God. When we gaze at the Cross today we pass beyond physical suffering. We go beyond the psychological pain; we enter into the weakness, the waste, the disillusionment, the depression of failure and if we stay there long enough, if we look honestly at the failure of our hopes and joys, then perhaps we will find God.

            Nicolas Stebbing CR