Sermon given at Evening Service on Sunday 14th September 2014
14 September 2014 at 18:00 pm
The Reverend Tony Kyriakides, Chaplain
On the night of 14th November 1940, during the Second World War, the city of Coventry was devastated by bombs. The Cathedral burned with the city and was destroyed. Shortly after the destruction, the cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, noticed that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the moving words 'Father Forgive' inscribed on the Sanctuary wall.
On the morning of 11th September 2001, in a series of four coordinated terrorist attacks on the United States, the World Trade Center in New York was destroyed. Following the terrorist attacks, a massive operation was launched to clear the site and attempt to find any survivors amongst the rubble. Two days later, a worker at the site, Frank Silecchia, made a remarkable discovery. The World Trade Center had been built using prefabricated parts which were bolted or welded together at the site. A 17-foot-long crossbeam, weighing at least two tonnes, was thrust at a vertical angle in that hellish wasteland, like a cross. Those with access to the site were using the cross as a shrine, leaving messages on it or praying before it. For one Franciscan priest, Father Brian Jordan, it was proof that 'God had not abandoned Ground Zero'. Within days, he persuaded city officials for it to be lifted out of the wreckage and mounted on a concrete pedestal where he held services each week. Men cut replicas of the cross out of the ruined steel around the site and carried them in their pockets. New York's director of the Office of Emergency Management, Rich Sheirer, who describes himself as a 'short, round Jewish guy,' made this telling comment. 'Intellectually, you knew it's just two pieces of steel, but you saw the impact it had on so many people, and you also knew it was more than steel.'
Today, the Church commemorates the cross of Jesus divorced from the narrative of Holy Week. Today, Holy Cross day, there is a different emphasis as we reflect on the centrality of the cross and its meaning.
Legend has it that the True Cross was discovered in the year 326 by Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was then built at the site of her discovery and dedicated nine years later, with a portion of the cross placed within it.
Legend to one side, to what extent are we, as Christians, concerned more with symbols than with substance? Is the Cross merely a wall decoration or designer jewellery, or is it more: an icon that draws us into a Christ-like way of life of self-emptying and servanthood.
In his letter to the Christians in Philippi, Paul encourages them to reflect on what it might mean to have the same mindset as Christ and, by way of illustration, draws on a hymn of the early Church: that canticle we recited a moment ago, A Song of Christ's Glory (Philippians 2:5-11). It rejoices in the person of Jesus, born in human likeness, humble and obedient, even when that humility and obedience is inextricably linked to his death, even death on the Cross.
Here we have the mindset of Christ – humility, obedience, self-emptying and servanthood – and that adds up to the Cross. Could it be that Paul has in mind those words Jesus spoke to his disciples: 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me' (Matthew 16:24)? Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian who was executed in Nazi Germany, put it: 'When Christ calls a person, he bids him come and die' (The Cost of Discipleship).
What is the nature of this Cross we are encouraged to take up?
There is a common misunderstanding that when my life has to be lived in the shadow of a difficult relationship, a chronic disease, or a soul-destroying job, that is my cross that I will have to bear, much like Christ bore the Cross of Calvary. The assumption is that the Cross is merely a symbol for the suffering and pain which is part and parcel of the human lot.
It is an interpretation that fails to recognise that, central to the Cross of Christ, is self-denial, putting to one side personal gain and self-interest, and actively choosing to accept and embrace a situation or a relationship which otherwise would have no claim on us. Taking up the Cross of Christ is an invitation to discover that good for which I am willing to die; that good for which I would be willing to lay down my life, that good to which God is calling me regardless of the cost: to align my human will to the divine will.
G. K Chesterton described paradox as 'truth standing on its head to gain attention' and nowhere is this more apparent than in the matter of the Cross. Jesus tells Nicodemus that 'just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up.' Here Jesus is drawing a parallel between an episode, found in the Book of Numbers (Numbers 21:9), and what his own death on the Cross mean for us. The Israelites having escaped Egypt found themselves in a desert wilderness with few creature comforts: no water, no food, and only wretched manna day-in and day-out. Their minds had become poisoned against Moses and God. So God punishes them in like fashion. He sends poisonous snakes into their camp and many die. Seeing death all around them, they appeal to Moses and God relents. He commands Moses to make a brass snake and place it on a pole. Anyone now bitten only has to look up to that snake and they will live. That is the paradox. The snake, a source of death, has become a symbol of life.
Equally, the Cross is a paradox. Once an instrument of death, it has become the symbol of life. Jesus lifted up on the Cross is God's response to a broken world, not only for the Jews but for all people. The death and life of Jesus breaks the power of sin and death, and confronts evil by offering us, you and me, the opportunity to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him into new life.
Earlier today, we learned of the death of David Haines, a British humanitarian worker, who in 2013 and on behalf of a French Aid Agency helped co-ordinate the delivery of clean water, food and tents, in order to ease the growing crisis in refugee camps near Atmeh, a town in northern Syria. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury has described David's murder as 'an act of absolute evil, unqualified, without any light in it at all.'
His murder has no light in it, but David's humanitarian work addresses the nature and meaning of the Cross. David undoubtedly knew the risks. He discovered that good for which he was willing to die; that good to which God had called him regardless of the cost.
The Cross of medieval timbers amid the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, and the two tonne steel Cross amid the devastation of the World Trade Center, each was a focus of that light which no darkness can overwhelm. David, too, was a focus of that light. As we hold David and his family in our thoughts and prayers, a question hangs from his Cross. In what way might Christ be calling you and me to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and to follow him? Amen.