Preaching the Cross in Dark Times (4)

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Love? Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, and calls them his friends; but
Judas betrays him, Peter denies him, they all run away. Love, like justice,
fails just when we want it to win.

Spirituality? The water of life is a major theme earlier in John, and now,
terrifyingly, Jesus declares ‘I’m thirsty’. Back in John 12 we have a
Gethsemane-like moment: ‘Now is my soul troubled’: the easy commerce
between Father and Son is shaken to the core.
Beauty? The beauty of new creation, shining out in John’s gospel from the
early days in Cana of Galilee all the way to the upper room, is snuffed out
on Golgotha.
Freedom? Passover is stood on its head as a murderous brigand is
released and Jesus dies in his place.
Truth? Pilate just sneers. ‘Truth? What’s that!?’ We are the empire. We
make our own truth here.
And power? – well, Pilate boasts that he has the power to have Jesus
either released or killed. Jesus comments, remarkably, that God has
indeed given Pilate that power, but that it comes with severe
responsibility.
So throughout the story we see what’s happened to our seven signposts.
As I said, you could quite easily construct a series of sermons looking at
each one and following it through the story. I’d be inclined to keep Power
for Easter morning, perhaps looking at Love on Palm Sunday, and
arranging the other five to lead up to those. These, remember, are the
signposts within human culture – the things etched deep into our hearts
and imaginations – which should have provided clues to the meaning of
life, and perhaps even signposts pointing up to God the creator himself.
And we see what’s happened. One by one they are trampled upon,
twisted, distorted, snuffed out. It’s almost as though John is inviting us to
look at these signposts one by one and to watch as they fail to deliver.
Or do they?
Here is the twist – the extraordinary moment which I think helps to explain
the power of the cross, of the message of the cross, from that day to this.
The story of Jesus as he goes to the cross is the story we all know: the
story of what happens when our vision of the world and of ourselves come
crashing down. Jesus comes to the place, not where the signposts
originally appear to be pointing, but where they have collapsed. The noble
dream of justice appears to point up to God; John’s story of justice
perverted points to Jesus on the cross. The powerful dream of love
appears to lift us up to God; John’s story of the failure of the disciples’
allegiance points to Jesus on the cross. And so on. Our postenlightenment culture is based on the quest for truth, real truth, solid truth
you can bet your life on. John’s story of Jesus claiming to tell the truth and
Pilate sneering and sending him to his death is the archetypal postmodern
moment: we’re in charge of truth here, thank you very much.
And this I think is why, paradoxically, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion carries
such power to this day. This is why paintings of the crucifixion continue to
draw people in to a reality they can’t fully explain. It’s why the great
Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach are still such life-changing realities in
our culture.

Even those – perhaps especially those – who have little or no
knowledge of the great theories about the atonement can still be swept off
their feet by this story, because it is, in this sense, the story we all know,
the story of how our best intentions and aspirations let us down, how our
dreams are crushed by an unsympathetic reality. In this story, even if we
can’t really say why, we find that the God who we might have hoped would
meet us in the place to which justice, love, freedom and truth had pointed
has instead come to meet us in the place where justice, love, freedom and
truth were denied and trampled upon. Our place. Our broken place. Our
broken world.
You see what’s happened? (to follow)

Preaching the Cross in Dark Times
(c) 2021 N.T. Wright 6

Preaching the Cross in Dark Times
(c) 2021 N.T. Wright 7

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