Walking in the Way of the Cross
There are few books or movies that have spoken more to people in the past decades than Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. In this story we are witnessing the battle between the fellowship of the ring and the dark lord Sauron. It is a battle between good and evil, between freedom and slavery, between life and death. Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas lead the battle against Sauron’s armies. At the same time, two small hobbits, Frodo and Sam, make the difficult journey up to destroy the ring of power in Mount Doom. On both fronts it is a hopeless battle, the fellowship seems not to be able to destroy the power of darkness and evil. Yet the heroes of the story hold on to what is good and true, despite these hopeless prospects.
This is strongly based on Tolkien’s own experience of fighting in the horrible trenches of the First World War. Recently I visited Ypres, a small place in Belgium where hundreds of thousands died in battle in course of this war. It was explained to me there that in remembering these soldiers in the 1920s and 1930s they chose not to focus on the war as unnecessary, meaningless or horrible, but on the idea that every soldier, with his courage and with his comradery (laying down his life for his friends) facing the horrors of the war was seen as having followed Christ in suffering, in walking the way of the Cross.
This is a rather grim message in the midst of the joys of Easter season. This season we celebrate the victory of Christ over the power of death and sin, we celebrate that He returned from the dead. And we celebrate that this means that when we follow Christ, ultimately death and sin have no real power over us.
Why then do we find ourselves back on the way of the Cross again? In this sermon I will explore three reasons to answer this question.
Firstly, walking the way of the Cross is not the end of the story. Jesus’ walking of the way of the Cross does not end in death as everyone expected at that time, but in the sudden and glorious resurrection from the dead. To describe this, Tolkien introduced the word ‘Eucatastrophe’. It is a catastrophe: a disaster, that Jesus dies on the Cross. But Tolkien adds the Greek word for good: ‘Eu’ before it. This makes all the difference. It is a catastrophe, but by a sudden and miraculous grace, everything is turned around for good. Jesus rises from death and the Cross becomes the hope and salvation for mankind. This phenomenon of eucatastrophe comes back in many stories and fairy tales. Tolkien argued that this expresses the longing for mankind for the one and true story of God, Jesus Christ who lived, died and was resurrected, making the world new. The story with the real Happy Ending.
There are many things that reflect this concept. For a Tottenham Hotspurs fan (I don’t know if any are here and maybe it is better not to reveal yourself at this time) the winning goal in the final seconds of extra time against Ajax, definitely counted as a eucatastrophe.
So Jesus is telling us that walking the way of the Cross was not the end of His story, and he promises that it is not the end of our story.
The second reason that we find ourselves back at the way of the Cross is that after the first euphoria that follows such a eucatastrophe as the meeting with the risen Lord Jesus was for the disciples, we slowly come back to this world that is still broken. This is beautifully expressed in the remembrance Sunday prayers for soldiers who have fallen in the war: ‘They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.’ These lines have a clear sense of us being left on the way of the Cross and they already fully sharing in Christ’s resurrected life.
Perhaps this is why in the readings for this third Sunday after Easter that were put together over a thousand years ago, the church returned to Holy Week. Turning to John 16, to the last Supper, just before Jesus’ betrayal and death.
The Gospel of Today
Today’s reading is a part of the large section of John’s Gospel that goes from John 13 to John 17 that describes the Last Supper. It contains Jesus’ so-called Farewell discourses to his disciples. At this meal, Jesus washes His disciples’ feet, institutes the Holy Communion and explains to them what is to happen to Him. He also warns the disciples about the persecution they will suffer and prays for the disciples to be protected. He promises that after He has gone, He will send the Holy Spirit to them.
In today’s passage Jesus tells his disciples they will not see Him for a little while, referring to his death and burial, and that they will grieve. But then, after another little while, they will see Him again and they will rejoice, referring to his glorious resurrection with Easter. St. John Chrysostom points to the significance in these words as a comfort for the disciples: Jesus is telling them that what is about to happen is not for nothing, there is a purpose, God’s purpose, behind Christ’s suffering and death.
Many Christian theologians and commentators over the centuries have seen these words of Jesus as not only speaking to the disciples at that time, but also as a message for the universal church now. It will only be a little while between Jesus’ ascension until he will return for the final sudden and miraculous turn of events, the ultimate eucatastrophe, when He will return to make all things new.
Yet there is more to these words. Through these words Jesus is speaking to us in our daily lives. We all recognise that in our lives there are times that we have a much clearer sense of the presence of God than at others. When we don’t see Jesus, we stick to and trust in the moments we have seen Him. And Jesus then promises us that we will see Him again.
So the second reason why we’re back on the way of the Cross is because the brokenness and suffering is still part of our human lives as it was part of Jesus’ life. And this will be the case until He returns.
The Joy of the Resurrection in our daily lives
Thirdly, even though we’re still walking in the way of the Cross, it does not mean there is no Easter joy in our life now. Easter changes everything. We can trust in a Eucatastrophe: a sudden and miraculous turn of events for the good, because we know Christ is risen from the dead. The joy of this event spreads to the rest of our lives, and through us to the people around us. Sharing in Christ’s risen life means sharing in his ministry of love, reconciliation and the spreading of God’s love and forgiveness in the world. Every time enemies become friends, or someone in need is helped, this is a miraculous grace turning around the expected course of events.
Today’s Old Testament Lesson is telling us the story of Joseph who is reconciled with his brothers. They had sold him as a slave to Egypt after he told them about his dreams in which Joseph saw his brothers bow before him. Things go from bad to worse for Joseph when he arrives in Egypt and it seems his life will end in prison. Until by a miraculous turning of events, a eucatastrophe, he becomes, after pharaoh, the most important ruler of Egypt. And when he meets his brothers again because they travel to Egypt for food, they all bow to him. But Joseph doesn’t keep his blessings for himself. This expression of God’s love and grace for him he spreads to his brothers by forgiving them, reconciling himself with them and providing a place for them to flourish in the famine.
So the third reason we find ourselves back at the way of the Cross is because there is a connection between the joy of Easter and the brokenness of the world. God’s love, grace and joy are supposed to be brought to brokenness of this world, and we’re called to be part of that.
This third Sunday after Easter is bringing the Resurrection of Christ to us in our times of suffering and when we’re following Christ in walking in the way of the Cross. Not only because reality forces us to recognise the brokenness of the world, but also because Easter has power even over the suffering and death that still is in the world. Easter tells us that the love, grace and joy of the resurrection of Jesus are so great that it spreads through the rest of our lives and to the lives of the people around us. So we are sent out to turn the world around for good by grace until He will come again to make all things new.