Lent Course – Text

18/3/18 Lent 5 Romans 8.31-39 John 16.17-33
Theme: The Victory of the Cross

‘In this world you will have trouble. But take courage. I have overcome the world.’

Who do you think is the greatest threat to our freedom at present? Whose power would you like to see diminished? Who needs to be overcome?

There was a time in the history of this town when the answer was the Royalists. Ask around now, in church or on the Square, and you’ll get many answers. The Russian menace. The tyranny of North Korea. Jihadi terrorists. Donald Trump. The Tories, or the Corbynites. The Brexiteers, or the Remainers.

And for many in our land, the oppressor is closer to home, or even at home. An employer, a husband, a neighbour, a priest, a teacher.

Jesus was speaking to his disciples, and each one could have named their choice of people to be brought low by Jesus. The Romans, the Pharisees, Herod, Pilate, or the Samaritans.

At first hearing, it appears Jesus has satisfied everybody. ‘I have overcome the world.’ You can’t get more inclusive than that. Whoever it is for you, you can tell them, the writing’s on the wall – they’ve been overcome by Jesus.

Except, after a little thought, I realise ‘the world’ includes me. I have been overcome by Jesus. The same words which speak of a victory for me are also speaking of a victory over me. So we begin to see that Christ’s victory may not be quite the one we had in mind. The Gospel overturns the world, and that includes an overturning of the way we think.

To help us untangle this we need to listen to some words of Jesus from a little earlier in John’s Gospel: ‘Now is the time for judgement on this world… But I, when I am lifted up… will draw all people to myself.’

Jesus isn’t going to be brought low. He will be lifted up, exalted in honour and glory. It’s the language of victory. Remember the vision of Isaiah read here last Wednesday? ‘I saw also the Lord, sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.’

John goes on to make clear that Jesus was showing ‘the kind of death he was going to die’. And earlier he had said to Nicodemus: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up’.

So this lifting up or exaltation – this victory of Jesus, is nothing other than his cross. Raised from the earth, hung to die, he declares (and only in this Gospel) – ‘It is finished’. The work is complete. The victory is final.

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
sing the ending of the fray,
o’er the cross, the victor’s trophy,
sound the loud triumphant lay:
tell how Christ, the world’s Redeemer,
as a victim won the day.

That’s not an Easter hymn – it’s a Good Friday victory hymn from the 6th century.

For John the cross is a place of glory and that is all of a piece with the way he tells the whole life of Jesus, from the very beginning: ‘the Word was made flesh… and we beheld his glory… full of grace and truth’. It is sometimes said that John is the only evangelist who doesn’t tell of the transfiguration of Christ because he doesn’t need to, for the brightness shines out all the way through.

Today is sometimes called Passion Sunday, for we’re near Holy Week. But Jesus’ way of passion began at birth, because it was always the way of grace and truth. A different way pervades our world: the way of oppression we’ve already noted, the way of violence and lies. It flows from fear and anxiety about our survival, about our identity and about our status. It believes that the best way to avoid passion, in the sense of suffering, is to inflict it on others.

We spot this way very easily in other individuals and in other societies. We are far less sensitive to its more subtle grip on our own hearts and its thinly veiled presence in the culture of respectable society.

It is a way which goes against the grain of creation, because creation is of God, and creation’s basic laws are rooted in the nature of God. It is a way which never brings peace, for violence and self-interest only breed more of the same.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a place for the use of force in civilised society and sometimes between nations, but that is always a compromise to achieve a very partial containment of evil. It never addresses the root cause.

For that, we need someone who can live with the grain, who can reverse the cycle of violence. And that someone is Christ, who uniquely gave each moment of his life as an offering to God in the service of the world. Christ’s self-giving culminated in the sacrifice of the cross, and left the world fundamentally changed. The victory was won.

We know deceit and abuse generate only more of the same. Can we trust that the reverse is true, that love allows more love to blossom and opens the world that bit more to God’s riches? So when Christ lived a life of one perfect act of divine love, the blessings of heaven were released, the gates of hell were broken open, the prince of this world was driven out, the victim won the day.

Use whatever imagery you like, the point is that the resurrection was sure to follow just as day follows night. Such is the logic of this world. Sometimes the story of our salvation is told as if the cross were a defeat and God had to spring into action to raise Jesus. But God only had to carry on being God, and then Christ must be raised, and the Spirit poured out, and the Church called out, and the world transformed.

What do you think is the deepest logic, the most fundamental law of this universe? In Dante’s Divine Comedy, at the end of his long, arduous journey into God, he says ‘At this point high imagination failed; but already my desire and my will were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed, by the love which moves the sun and the other stars’.

As you look into the heavens, and I hope you sometimes do, what do you think is the drive behind that celestial movement? We think we’ve advanced from Dante to Newton who taught us about gravity. Or even more to Einstein and his theory of general relativity. Or to Stephen Hawking who began to marry that with quantum mechanics.

But last week, as we have remembered Stephen Hawking, I was struck by these words of his: ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love’.

We rightly honour the brilliant scientists, but they and we know at heart that love is the bedrock, not the equations of physics. And love has won, on the cross.

It’s a victory over us, because we have to say ‘No’ to our self being at the centre, and ‘Yes’ to God. We have to say ‘Yes’ to our desire and will being turned like a wheel, by the same love which moves the stars. It’s a victory for us, because nothing can ultimately overwhelm us and separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

‘In this world you will have trouble. But take courage. I have overcome the world.’

Mark Hart

"Know God, Show His Love, Grow His Church."