(Matthew 21:11 and 27:1-54)
“God proves his love for us in that while were still sinners Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8
St Paul and the whole of the New Testament in clear on this: that it is in the death of Jesus, on the cross, that the fullness of God’s love for us is revealed. Here the height, the depth, the breadth of God’s love for sinful humanity is declared, displayed, shown forth – proved.
And that word ‘proved’ is a suggestive one. God’s love is not just being shown to us (in the form that it has always existed, as it were), but it is really being put to the test. Put on trial. As if it were being tried out (like metal is proved in a fire to test its quality). To see if it will last. To show its quality. Here in the crucible of betrayal, violence and suffering, we discover how far God’s love is prepared to go. And not
give up. And not give in.
Crucifixion was the Roman equivalent of bombing with chemical weapons. Its brutality and inhumanity is hard to contemplate. Greater perhaps than we can imagine. And what makes it worse is knowing that, in some sense, we are in the crowd of those that did this to Jesus. And it was not only because of me, it was also for me that he hung and suffered there. Love such as this demands my soul, my life, my all. And I am ashamed to say, that is more than I find myself able to give.
For these reasons we find it hard to survey the wondrous cross. And the probability is that there won’t be large numbers of people in church on Friday.
The cross is hard. It is hard to contemplate, and hard to understand. The Palm Sunday story, by contrast, falls more easily on our ears. A man on a donkey is a little more digestible than a man on a cross. And the themes are obvious enough. And a gentler way into the meaning of the cross.
The people hail Jesus as a king, even the Son of David. Jesus doesn’t reject that, though his coming in peace not in power is made evident in his choice of transport. The crowd thinks it’s a victory parade. For Jesus it’s more about obedience and humility and humiliation than triumph.
But therein is the great paradox. Jesus’ humiliation and suffering and death is the triumph of love. Of God.
Jesus took all they could throw at him. The rejection. The betrayal. The mockery. The shame. The pain. And he doesn’t retaliate. Or shy away. Mankind does its very worst, and God goes on loving. And forgiving. And bearing all.
His love is not to be defeated by violence, denial, or even death. We do all this, but God goes on doing what God does. What only God can do. Indeed he can do no other, because God is love.
It is in this that the victory of the cross lies. And the hope. And the good news. The good news that, though we are sinners, God loves us, and in every failure of ours, in our forgetfulness of God, in our arrogance and pride, in our doubt – or rather beyond and transcending these things – there is God, ready to begin with us again, to build a new relationship, to pour out upon us the renewing gifts of his grace.
And because of that, we need never feel alone, ashamed, afraid, or without hope. I don’t just mean hope for ourselves, but hope for our desperate world.
That is what the strange events attached to the end of the passion story point towards. The rending of the veil. And the resurrection of the saints. We may despair at times, but God has not given up on his world. His love is never spent. But bears all things and then breaks out to make a new start and do a new thing.
Of the hope that is in God we are called to be signs in the world, and to the world. We do that by imitating God in Christ, in so far as we are able. By trying to maintain the same love for others regardless of whether we find them very loveable; by forgiving others even if they have not recognized or repented of their sins; by enduring suffering regardless of whether we thinks it’s deserved or not; by going the extra mile, by refusing to answer evil for evil, by treating others not as we would wish to be treated but better.
In these ways we are beginning to be signs of God, demonstrations of God, enactments even of God in the
world. Of the goodness that keeps on going and the life that keeps on giving, even, or especially, when things are at their worst.
It is by no means easy, of course. In the bearing of his cross, Jesus proved God’s love for us. So in the taking up of our cross, our love is forged, refined, proved, made perfect. And the way of the cross becomes, for us and through us, the path to life and joy and hope.