Good Friday

6 April 2007 at :00 am

Chapel Royal, St James's Palace

The Dean of Westminster has preached the Good Friday sermon at the Chapel Royal every year for at least 250 years.

When I was a child, I struggled with the idea that this Friday was 'Good'. I remember saying to my mother that we should call it 'Bad Friday' and being barely satisfied with the explanation that it was 'Good' for us. The childish questions are often the most profound. Certainly the question is entirely legitimate precisely how the death of one man outside an obscure Middle-Eastern city two thousand years ago could possibly be good news for our lives and our world in the 21st century. The claim that this man was the Son of God doesn't of itself answer the question, any more than the answer that, if it hadn't been thought to make a difference, you would certainly not be sitting here listening to me. Even granted that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, and even recognising that the existence of the world-wide Church and the extraordinary penetration and persistence of the Christian faith offer in themselves some evidence of truth, that still does not explain precisely how the event we today commemorate is 'Good' for me.

St John tells the vivid and familiar story of the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ with little overt comment or explanation. His teaching about what was actually going on in the succession of events he described - what theologians would call his doctrine of redemption, or of the atonement - can only be discerned from the story itself and the manner of its telling. By contrast, John's gospel contains no account of the birth of Jesus, unlike the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but his teaching about the purposes of God in the Incarnation is clear and explicit in the Prologue to his Gospel.

We might think the reason for this difference of approach to be the comparative difficulty of the two exercises, as if the Incarnation were easier to explain than the Atonement. The Church in the first few centuries of its existence had an almighty struggle defining precisely what Christians should believe was happening in the Incarnation and who or what precisely was born on that first Christmas Day. The final answer is found in the declaration of faith in AD 451 that we know as the Nicene Creed.

The same attention was never given to the issue of the Atonement, possibly because the Church was exhausted by debates over the Incarnation, or possibly because the nature of life was fast changing with the dissolution of the Roman Empire. Therefore it is still possible for people to reach widely differing understandings of what precisely is the connection between the events in Jerusalem in the year of our Lord 33 and our life in London in the year 2007.

It has been suggested that Atonement theories fall into three broad categories, described as classical, subjective and objective. Putting this simply risks doing violence to the theories but is inevitable. The classical theories of the Atonement focus on the idea of an eternal battle between the forces of good and of evil. This is perhaps a more familiar notion to younger people or others who have absorbed the products of Hollywood or lived in the electronic world of computer games than those of us in the older generation firmly rooted in modern rationalism. However, its application to the doctrine of the Atonement should be clear: the death of Jesus on the Cross appeared to be the triumph of evil and the final defeat of good, personified in the perfectly good man. But death's power was itself overwhelmed in the Resurrection and evil's temporary triumph turned into final defeat. The last book in the Bible, the Revelation of St John the Divine, is redolent with this tradition of understanding the Atonement, as are Great Easter hymns such as 'The strife is o'er, the battle done'. The subjective theories are quite different, deriving instead from the example Jesus sets of self-giving love and the challenge to follow his example. His spirit enables us to imitate him and to live not for ourselves but for God and for others. We can see this most clearly expressed in the great early Christian hymn quoted by St Paul in his letter to the Philippians, 'Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who ... became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.' The third group of theories of the Atonement is classified as objective. Here the death of Jesus is understood as a sacrifice offered to God the Father. The old animal sacrifices of Judaism do nothing to appease God, to reconcile man to God. Instead God has sent his Son to offer the one eternal and perfect sacrifice, God himself offering himself to God, which finally takes away the sins of all those who are born again in him. This is the message of the letter to the Hebrews which also finds expression in St Paul's letter to the Romans.

None of these groups of theories should be thought of in isolation from the others; since all find expression in the Bible, all must be seen as complementary. Not all will command the same understanding and acceptance. In particular the objective theories have been found difficult and criticised by theologians. What they say does it mean to say with the first Epistle of Peter that "Jesus bore our sins in his own body on the cross"? Why does a penalty need to be paid for sin? What sort of God is it that demands the death of His Son as a price for sin? Surely, it is said, if God wanted to forgive sins, He could do so, just as we can and should forgive sins. Why does God need a blood sacrifice? Does it make sense, some ask, for us to worship a god more primitive and unethical than ourselves?

On the other hand, do these objections take full account of the nature of sin, its damaging effects and its potentially lasting impact? If a price needed to be paid not because God was a Judge Jeffreys figure but because of the inevitable consequences of sin, would that not look a little different? The price of sin has been brought home recently in a particularly vivid way. Last month at Westminster Abbey a service commemorated the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. The profile of the occasion was high. A protest interrupted the proceedings, against the fact that no apology had been offered by Her Majesty's Government for the nation's financial gain through the slave trade. The protest took place during the specially written confession, in which we said, "...we look at the past and we lament", and confessed to having sinned "in my action and in my silence, through prejudice or ignorance or my own deliberate fault". The service would have been better without the protest, but for many who were there, it served to heighten the sense of the persistent pain and corrosive damage of slavery.

Sin's effects are deep-seated and not easily eradicated, powerful and lasting; the remedy must be equally powerful. The sacrifice of Calvary is that powerful remedy. What sort of God would it be who overlooked a world ravaged by the effects of sin and yet remained inviolate, immune? He himself bears the pain. He redeems suffering by suffering, and transforms the world from within.

The God whom today we worship wages warfare against the power of evil and is victorious. He gives us an example of humility and of self-giving love and empowers us to follow his example. But more, he "bore our sins in his body on the Cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness." By his wounds we have been healed.

This Good Friday we hear three distinct but interconnected words. Jesus said to his disciples before he suffered, "In the world you face persecution." But he reassured them then and he assures us now, in the face of the pain and suffering of the world and the cruelty and violence of humanity, "Take courage; I have conquered the world." Jesus told those who would be his disciples to follow his example: to take up the cross daily and follow him. Finally, from St John's Gospel, we hear that "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." Truly this is a Good Friday.

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