Holy Cross Day
Numbers 21:4-9; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17
Ripon Cathedral, 14th Sept 2014
evening. Then that relationship between us and God is broken
by disobedience, by sin. Adam and Eve are driven from Eden
and a gulf is set between God and all mankind; between God’s
holiness and our un-holiness.
‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but in order that the world might be saved through him’
It is that gulf which the cross bridges. Jesus’ death enables the
restoration of our relationship with God. God and humanity can
once again be ‘at one’ with each other. So we come to
‘atonement’ the making of amends and repairing of the broken
relationship; and those two must be held together – the making
of amends is a pre-requisite for the restoration of the
relationship. For here is both the justice and the mercy of
Today the church keeps the feast of ‘Holy Cross’. While Good
Friday is dedicated to the passion of Christ and the crucifixion,
today we celebrate the cross as the means salvation rather
than the Good Friday emphasis on the suffering of Christ to
achieve that salvation. So today is about the cross as a symbol
of the triumph of life over death, of good over evil.
Which is easy to say but, I suspect, rather harder for us to
explain. Think for a moment about how you would explain the
Christian centrality of the cross to someone who is not a
Christian and you might actually find it quite difficult. An
instrument of torture as a sign of hope? Death as a
demonstration of love and life? The cross as a means of
salvation? How does that work? How does the death of one
person, even if that person is God’s own Son, offer salvation to
the world? Those are some of the things I want to try and
unpick this morning.
There are a variety of ways we can understand Jesus’ death
on the cross and its effects but I am going to concentrate on
just three: justice, sacrifice and the defeat of evil.
We need to start at the very beginning of the story of God and
the people of God, with the story of Adam and Eve. Now it’s
worth remembering that what is written in Genesis is theology
– not literal history. The questions Genesis asks and answers
are how and why? It is the archetypal ‘Everyman’ story, telling
of a good and beautiful world, created by God, with men and
women in close and loving harmony with the Creator. A place
where God walks with Adam and Eve in the cool of the
To simply ignore wrongdoing, however great or small, is unjust.
And justice is a key part of creation, as the child’s frequent cry
of ‘It’s not fair’ reminds us. We all have an innate sense of
justice and there surely is part of the image of God in each of
us. So punishment is due but God, in his mercy, not only
demands justice, he also provides the merciful means to
enable it.
In the Old Testament, the book of Genesis is the first of the five
books of the Law. The law by which God calls his people to live
so that their national and individual lives reflect the character of
God to the world around them. So the Law reflects God’s
justice and mercy and also God’s longing for the restoration of
the relationship between mankind and God.
It is a process neatly summarised in the reading from
Numbers, one of those Old Testament books of the Law. The
people reject God’s care and complain against the Lord, so a
recognition of that sin is required. When the serpents cause
that repentance, God provides Moses with a means of healing
and so God’s mercy is demonstrated.
God longs, as he told Abraham for a people who will walk with
him but justice must also be seen to be done and the gulf
between the goodness of God and the sinfulness of humanity
must be bridged. The law given to Moses provides a system of
costly sacrifices to help restore the relationship between God
and humanity, not because God wants the blood of the animals
but because sacrifices should make people stop and reflect on
their actions in the light of God’s holiness. No-one could even
think about entering the presence of God without offering the
appropriate sacrifice, which for sin-offerings was a male goat
or sheep. Each sacrifice prefigures the sacrifice of Christ on
the cross but perhaps one, the ‘scape-goat’, is particularly
relevant here. In Leviticus the instructions given about this
Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and
confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all
their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of
the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness. The goat
shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region
Remember how John the Baptist referred to Jesus? Behold,
the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’.
On this Holy Cross day we are reminded of the way in which
our failings create a gulf between us and God’s holiness; of
how justice requires satisfaction for our sin; of how Old
Testament blood sacrifices pre-figured the final sacrifice of the
‘Lamb of God’ and of the defeat of evil once and for all.
Which all sounds pretty good until we look at our world today.
A world where evil still abounds; where mankind’s inhumanity
continues to tear nations apart; where injustice cries out for
So how do we hold the two together? I think there are a
number of ways we can do that. The first is to remember that
what the cross offers is hope – hope for us and hope for this
world. But a hope not yet fully experienced. St Paul writes of
‘the whole creation waiting with eager longing’ for the day
when ‘creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay
and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’.
However our salvation is no longer, as it was in the Old
Testament, a cycle of failure and redemption. That ways lies
the false argument, which Paul defeats when he deals with the
question apparently raised by the Roman Christians –
shouldn’t we allow more sin so that there can be more grace of
forgiveness? That, says Paul is to miss the point. How, he
asks, can we who are dead to sin through the cross go on
living in sin?
Then I think we need to remember that we must, individually
and universally, act upon this hope. Remember that bronze
serpent in the wilderness? The people had to look at it. It was
not the presence of the bronze serpent but the people’s
acceptance of it as a symbol of God’s forgiveness that made
the difference. So too with the cross – ‘for God so loved the
world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes
in him may not perish but have eternal life’. God never imposes
himself upon us. Rather he waits, open armed upon a cross
and says ‘This is how much I love you.’
And there is the third aspect of our salvation through the cross
that I mentioned. The final defeat of evil. This too can be seen
foretold in the Genesis account when God says to the serpent,
the image of evil in the story:
‘he (mankind) will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel’
On the cross, the powers of sin and evil are defeated as even
death could not hold Jesus down.
Which is one reason why, week by week we recall and reenact that one perfect sacrifice in this communion service.
Here we recognise and confess our sins. Here we are offered
healing and forgiveness. Here the gulf between ourselves and
God is bridged so was can truly go out as his body, to love and
serve the world and to offer it God’s hope, love and salvation.