The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
John 19.1-6; 19.13-16; 19.16b-19; 19.25b-30; 19.38-42
Preaching of the Passion, Holy Week Address by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
I THE PRAETORIUM – PLACE OF HUMANITY
The Praetorium, Pontius Pilate’s headquarters in Jerusalem, is a place of truth in St John’s Gospel where the archetypal encounter between truth and falsehood is played out. Inside, Jesus speaks to Pilate about bearing witness to the truth, and Pilate asks contemptuously, “What is truth?” For St John, truth is at stake in his story of the crucifixion. In one way, truth itself is crucified in the passion, just as truth is always the first casualty of war.
But precisely because it is truth that is on the cross, Good Friday is the day when truth is displayed before the world as never before: the truth about passion and pain and man’s inhumanity to man; the truth about this innocent victim who has proclaimed himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life; the truth about how his suffering turns out to be redemptive; and above all, the truth of Jesus’ reign that demonstrates to the whole creation how God so loved the world.
“So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the man!’” Ecce Homo, the subject of hundreds of paintings and sculptures from the middle ages to the present day. In the bombed-out ruins of Coventry Cathedral where I once worked, there is a colossal marble statue by the great twentieth century sculptor Jacob Epstein, showing Christ at this moment of the passion, being brought out of the Praetorium. “I wished to make in Ecce Homo a symbol of a man bound, crowned with thorns and facing with a relentless and overmastering gaze of pity and prescience on our unhappy world.” Epstein’s parents were Jewish refugees from Poland. When he carved the piece in the 1930s, he was not to know what would become of Polish Jewry during the Nazi holocaust. But it seems to be etched into Jesus’ face, this solidarity with every victim, this determination that suffering will not have the final word.
“Behold the man!” To Pilate, he is no man in particular, any man who happens to get in the way, one of the many fools who try to disturb the elegant ordered world of Roman imperial politics. But St John capitalises the word “Man” as if to surround Jesus with a halo. Behold – not any man but every man, behold the embodiment of the family of man, behold the one in whom our humanity is displayed in its perfection. O yes, his is a broken humanity, a mortal humanity, a crucified humanity. Jesus knows where the scourging and the mocking and the purple robe and the crown of thorns will lead. When Pilate leads Jesus out to the crowd and announces Ecce homo, they both know that the his destiny is inevitable.
But John’s portrait of the Man outside the Praetorium moves us, not only for its sadness but for its infinite nobility. St John wants us to recognise and respond to the dignity of Jesus in his passion, from his arrest in the garden right up to the moment of his death when he acclaims that he has finished the work he came to do. And on this solemn day, faith sees in the crucified Jesus the Man who was loyal to his Father’s will, the Man who lived for others, the Man who emptied himself and loved to the end. In him we see our own humanity exalted, literally “lifted up” so that we can see once again what it is that we are called to be and do in the world of today. And we glimpse how we can be part of God’s reconciling purpose for humankind for whom the cross stands for all time as the sign of grace and truth and everlasting love.
II THE PAVEMENT – PLACE OF KINGSHIP
A pavement doesn’t sound a very evocative place. But like the Praetorium, its name Gabbathastood out for St John because of what Pilate said there. The first time it had been Ecce Homo, “Behold the Man!” This time it’s another “behold!”, an even stronger one. Ecce Rex Vester, “Behold your King!”
Does Pilate mean this ironically, no more believing him to be a king than the crowd? Or is he recalling those baffling conversations in the Praetorium where he had interrogated Jesus about his being a king, only to be told that “my kingdom is not from here”? What we can say is that each time, Pilate is speaking beyond the words he utters. “Behold the man!” – but not just any man. “Behold your king!” – for the purple robe and crown of thorns proclaim him to be a King indeed. And although Pilate cannot know it, and the crowd cannot know it, and even his faithful followers can no more than glimpse it, we know, because we have read this far in St John’s Gospel, that the cross where he will be lifted up is nothing less than his enthronement.
There is a great mystery here. Crucifixion was an execution reserved for the worst criminals who even at the hour of their death were permitted no dignity, no final act of clemency. Yet in the spectacle of this condemned man who is led out to die, harried and mocked by soldiers and the crowd, John dares to claim that we are gazing upon royalty. The quiet nobility of his bearing, the dignity with which he takes the insults hurled at him, there is a presence about him that is nothing less than transfiguring. At Gabbatha and Golgotha, there is one kingship, one glory, one grace and truth.
In this scene at the Pavement, I seem to be witnessing a drama of universal significance. “Behold your King!” Whose king? I think St John is saying that he is King not only to his own community but to the entire human family. More than that, I seem to see him brought forth before the entire world, the created order of which he said, “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” - this cosmos in its glory and splendour, its brokenness and potential, all that already is and all that is yet to be. He will bring all things to their Omega Point, the consummation at the end of time. And because the cross gathers up the fragments of the whole of life so that nothing is lost, it is the cross that sets forth his reign of triumph before the cosmos.
Back to the Pavement. You would expect this King who is led out to his people to be greeted with acclaim, like he was on Palm Sunday. But a shadow has fallen across this crowd. When they see him they shout “Away with him! Crucify him!” “He came to his own, and his own people did not accept him”: in those words, the crowd speaks for a human race that has turned away from the light. “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” Can it be that the light will go on shining in the darkness, and the darkness not overcome it?
St John says to us on Good Friday: yes it can! Because the cross where Jesus reigns is an immortal throne built on grace and truth. The light that shines out from it never fades. The life it gives birth to never dies. He is lifted up in glory and draws all people to himself. As God’s redeemed crowd standing at the cross today, we acclaim him. “Love so amazing, so divine / demands my soul, my life, my all.” Behold our King!
III THE SKULL – PLACE OF DEATH
If you had to invent a name for the place where death reigns, you couldn’t do better than Golgotha, “The Skull”. Those hard semitic consonants echo the hardness of this site outside the city wall, named not because of its shape so much as its fearsome reputation as a place of execution and death. St Matthew says that the cross was visible from a distance, the “green hill far away”. But green feels too gentle, too kind. You need to imagine it as a barren bleak place red with blood, strewn with bodies and bones and the machinery of torture and death, the detritus of Rome’s way of carrying out efficient capital sentences. On this hill there is no dignity and no mercy.
On Good Friday we shouldn’t gloss over the particularities of death. One way of viewing the cross is to see it as an emblem of human suffering and pain, a sign that even the eternal God himself knows what it is to be cruelly used and to die. “Every man’s death diminishes me” wrote John Donne. We gaze upon this landscape of death that even Jesus was subject to, and are silenced, made to ponder our human condition, our own mortality, and all the other crucifixions we see acted out where inhumanity is a fact of life, and life itself is cheap. You look at Grünewald’s famous crucifixion painting in the hospital at Colmar, and you realise how for him, the cross is a universal image of suffering humanity designed to move all who saw it to pity.
We ask what meaning can there be in suffering when want to believe in a God whose purposes are wise and good? I think suffering is simply a fact of the world as it is, the risk inherent in any creation worth worth living in. What we must do is to care about it, respond compassionately, try to alleviate it as best we can; and where it is the result of human cruelty or neglect, recognise its causes and put them right. On this holy day we gaze on Christ crucified and learn to be sensitised to this, to act in God’s name to help build a gentler, kinder world.
And to act in God’s name brings us close to what St John wants us to grasp in the passion account. In the Gospel, Jesus is revealed to us as God’s beloved Child, God’s own self in our midst, the sign of what God wants for the world he loves. On Good Friday, we see in Jesus’ suffering a vision of how God himself suffers on the cross, how God knows what it is to be abused, to be in pain, to die. Our crucified God is truly a god of compassion, suffering-with, because of his suffering-in the tortured body of his Son.
Golgotha is a profound paradox. For St Mark it’s a godforsaken place of absence. In the desolation and darkness, Jesus cries out in agony and despair “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” But for St John, it’s a hill of profound presence. He has no dark, no desolation, only a marvellous radiance, because God has been in this all along. Yes, the cross should disturb and disquiet us. Yet it’s also the source of all our consolation and hope because this is where God proclaims that he is love, and that he is with us in all our ordeals and suffering and pain. His is a heart that aches for his hurting world. Was there ever a more moving symbol of it in our time than the cross hanging so nobly in the burnt out shell of Nôtre Dame this week? It was glimpse of transfigured night.
At Golgotha we behold the Man. And we behold the King in whom we recognise – and bless - our God of pain and mercy, the Saviour of the World, our God of tender love.
IV THE CROSS – PLACE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT
So the Cross stands for the suffering of humanity and God’s involvement in it. But John tells us that God suffers not only with us but for us. For him it’s all contained in that last single word Jesus cries from the cross in his passion story: “It is accomplished!” We might imagine it was more natural to think of Good Friday as a day of despair or resignation as the other gospels do. St John stands out for his sense of completion, something accomplished, brought to its conclusion. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” Jesus had said. On the way to the cross he had prayed, “I glorified you by finishing the work you gave me to do”. Tetelestai! It is done.
Endings and beginnings seem to meet at Golgotha. The cross feels like a great full stop, a closure, an end. We hear in Jesus’ words an unmissable tone of satisfaction, fulfilment, even triumph. Perhaps that takes us by surprise? Not if we’ve been paying attention to the way St John has told his story. This end is not, for him, the petering out of a life that began so well. It is not the tragedy of a wasted career, the snuffing out of a guttering candle flame. Rather, it’s the great light that has never shone more steadily, more brightly than at Golgotha. This is Jesus’ moment of culmination. His life, said Jesus speaking of himself as the good shepherd, was not taken from him. He laid it down of his own accord. On the cross he draws all humanity to himself. On the cross there is vindication of all that he came among us to be and to do. On the cross his work of love is accomplished. He is bound to the cross not by the nails but by love alone. He reigns over us as the king of love. This is where we recognise glory, full of grace and truth, where we understand what it is to say that he loves us to the end.
If this is what he is in his incarnation and his resurrection, then this is what he has always been. In particular, this is what he is in his death at Golgotha. How can God suffer and die? we ask ourselves. Other faith communities find this the most baffling question Christianity poses. There are those for whom Good Friday is a real stumbling-block. A crucified man like Spartacus we can make sense of, even if he is innocent or even heroic. A crucified God is another matter altogether. I doubt we could ever reason it out. But faith takes us to a place where I believe we do see how love drives God to embrace the cross and in doing so, embrace his whole creation in a supreme act of self-giving, what Jesus calls laying down his life. If God is not crucified, there is no God as Christians understand him.
I imagine the cross as St John’s burning bush. It’s the place of transfiguration where we take off our shoes because we are on holy ground. We look into this sacred fire, and listen to the voice that speaks out of its midst. What do we see? The flame of love, its glory and its light blazing with divine passion for the world, for the human race, for each of us. And what do we hear? The word that says: I am what I am, all that it means to be God. Here at Golgotha are revealed his nature and his name. I am all that love means, he seems to say, all that meets our longings, hungers and hopes, than which nothing greater, nothing more glorious could ever be conceived, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of all light and life and love.
“It is accomplished.” In my end is my beginning. We gaze on the burning heart of God and sense that the sun is rising on another world. There is a new creation. The day breaks and the shadows flee away. After this long and gloomy winter, spring has come at last.
V THE GARDEN – PLACE OF REST
St John’s passion narrative begins and ends in a garden. It’s in a garden that Jesus is betrayed and arrested. It’s in a garden that his body is laid to rest. And at dawn on Easter Day, it will be in the garden that his tomb will be empty. The garden is the link between suffering and renewal, passion and resurrection, living and dying and living again.
We’ve reflected on Jesus’ cry from the cross tetelestai! “It is finished.” There is nothing left to do. He has loved the world to the end. It’s a magnificent resolution of the conflict that has run through St John’s story. But we need to be brought back to a quieter place where we can gather up the events of Holy Week. The body of Jesus needs to rest and so do we. The garden and its tomb is that necessary place. Here the friends of Jesus lay him. It was the day before Passover, the day of Preparation, like this year - Passover begins at sunset tonight, and we wish all our Jewish family and friends Chag Sameach, a joyful festival. And preparation is what this garden breathes – preparation for resurrection, for new life, for how all of history will be turned in a new direction because of Easter.
But we must stay with St John in the garden. For it’s here that we glimpse how this finished work, this end, is also a beginning, a threshold across which a new world is glimpsed, a door held open to us that no-one can shut, a gateway to possibilities we only dared to dream about. It’s like the mythological garden God planted at the beginning of time and placed our first parents in it. Beyond the full stop of today’s “it is finished”, another sentence begins, opening up the promise of redemption, healing and reconciliation. That word paradise simply means “garden”. The Elysian Fields of mythology tapped into the longing for a paradise of peace and rest. Like singing “Somewhere over the rainbow”, an end to trouble and the fulfilment of our dreams. We mustn’t dismiss these primordial hungers of the human soul.
“In my end is my beginning” was Mary Queen of Scots’ motto, embroidered on a cloth before her execution. T. S Eliot plays with it in his poem East Coker. It starts out with a gloomy recognition of how things are, “In my beginning is my end”, echoing the Prayer Book funeral sentence, “In the midst of life we are in death”. Yet from there Eliot finds his way to a place of expectation: in the midst of death, we are in life. St John would recognise it that way round. If Good Friday is an end, then it brims with hope and possibility. Love is not eclipsed by suffering, nor its glory by death. Jesus’ death is both the end but not the end. So the grave has lost its victory and death has lost its sting.
And this joining up of ends and beginnings makes the garden a tender place, a point of rest where we look back and look forward, and take in the cross and resurrection as Love’s work. One work because the Love that lays down its life is for that very reason unconquerable. So it is raised up in triumph. One day Love will reign across the universe, over every creature, over our broken world and in the heart of every human soul. Love is his meaning and will be to the end of time. We celebrate the Love that gives us back our humanity, heals our wounds, sustains us in life and comforts us in the face of death.
This is my friend / in whose sweet praise / I all my days / could gladly spend. Our Friend indeed, our beginning and our end. This Friday of the Cross is a Good Friday. It is right to give our thanks and praise, and celebrate this solemn day. For Love has done its work.