The Glory of the Cross
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
April 12, 2009
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be Glorified; truly, truly I say to you unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains alone; but if it dies it brings forth much fruit.” — John 12:23-24
It’s Easter Sunday by the Gregorian calendar, April 12th and I am sitting in the Newark airport waiting for a plane and listening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor on my Ipod, and I feel the urge to write and preach an Easter sermon.
Two Sundays ago I was in St Peter’s square when the Pope blessed us all from his little window. His message for the English speakers was this passage from St John, ‘Unless a seed die it cannot bear fruit.’ That has become my Easter message, because John’s Gospel telescopes the Cross into the Resurrection and calls the death of Jesus his “Glory.” The Resurrection is the summary word for the fruit of the Crucifixion.
There is much on my mind, things old and things new, as I return most recently from a week in Spain after four days in Rome discussing St Paul, and five days in Naples and Sicily (Messina and Gardini Naxos) discussing the cultural impact of catastrophes like the Messina earthquake of 1908. The latter meeting ended on a Saturday night and on the Sunday night the L’Aquila earthquake hit. All that we had said in Messina and our other venue Gardini Naxos, in the shadow of Mount Etna, about the fragility of human life and order was enacted the very next week before our anguished eyes. “How weak and helpless we really are,” I thought, “where shall we find comfort and reassurance?” I asked.
The Glory of Jesus, which is the Glory of God, is the weakness of a young man in the hands of his torturers, a seed dying alone and thus sowing the seeds of myriads of followers and disciples who shall love him and bear the fruits of his love through all time and in every place. His self-giving love and his humble spirit of non-resistance have turned out to be the strongest enduring protest against the violence of this world and the strongest demonstration of the power of love.
Today is Easter Sunday by the Orthodox calendar and so I still can preach an Easter sermon, and it must be the announcement of the victory of life in the dark soil below the cruel brightness of this treacherous world.
The message is that the Cross and the Resurrection are inseparable, two sides of one coin, the same things but clearly different life and death – no life without death and no death without life. When John says of the Logos in the first chapter of the Gospel that “we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten son of the Father, full of grace and truth (1:14),” the Glory of which he speaks is the Glory of the Cross, and this is the Glory of the expelled Logos of John 1:11, the logos whom the world that he created refuses to receive. The Glory of God in John is the Glory of the expelled Logos, the crucified savior.
Therefore, the Glory of the Resurrection always remains the Glory of the Cross- the risen one still bears the marks of the cross, of the five wounds or stigmata, in his hands and feet and side respectively. He does not negate or expel the consequences of the world’s violence, but he transforms them, he suffuses the violence that is death with the peace that is life, and he does this by sinking into the darkness under the surface and bearing much fruit.
The resurrection therefore is the coming again of the whipping boy, the revelation of the scapegoat, all the figures of speech and specters of deep memory that our sin, namely violence, expels so that our group may continue to cohere, all the garbage that is essential, all the catalyst that is present as absence – the indispensible truth that is not there and does not take place – all the Cross comes again in the Resurrection, transformed.
If things were not like this the resurrection would be the divine revenge for the crucifixion, the taunt, “If you are the Son of God come down from the Cross and we will believe you” answered three days later. If things were not like this the second coming would be a massive project of divine revenge against God’s enemies, (of whom Jesus says that He loves them, and treats all alike, with an indefeasible good will. God never desires the death of a sinner, and would rather be expelled than have to fight for recognition and sovereignty, let alone take revenge on someone). Resurrection without the Cross makes God into the Avenger that He emphatically is not.
We have all experienced the ineluctability of sin’s organized violence. We know the shock and burden of the death of someone we love, and the nagging presence of our own approaching demise. We ask if there is grace to help in time of need and comfort in midst of sorrow. The answer of Easter is yes and yes. There is grace in the midst of the struggle and there is comfort at the core of sorrow; but only if the struggle is really engaged and the sorrow really felt, only if all denials and diversions are eschewed. Only if the grain of wheat dies does it bear fruit, only if you allow yourself to be crucified with Christ will you rise with Christ to newness of life.
The traditional justification for the ascetic way of piety, the intentional sufferings of deprivation and discipline, is that there can be no resurrection without crucifixion, and therefore suffering has to be part of the overcoming of suffering. Unless a grain of wheat fall and die it will not bear fruit. Suffering is an essential part of the overcoming of suffering; death is an essential part of the process whereby we gain eternal life.
I conclude with the traditional Easter exclamations of St John Chrysostomos:
Enter then all of you into the joy of your Master…
Let no one weep for his sins; forgiveness is raised from the tomb.
Let no one fear death; the Savior’s death has set us free.
When it held him chained he struck it down.
When he descended to hell he plundered it.
He destroyed it for attacking his flesh, as Isaiah had foretold:
Hell was dismayed at his coming.
It was dismayed because it was trampled on; it was in bitterness because it was deceived.
It had taken hold of a body and was confronted by God.
It had taken hold of the visible and the invisible had routed it.
Death where is thy sting? Where, hell, thy victory?
Christ is raised and thou art brought to nothing.
Christ is raised and the devils are fallen.
Christ is raised and the angels rejoice.
Christ is raised and life has prevailed.
Christ is raised and the dead are delivered from the grave.
For Christ, risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who sleep.
To him be glory and might forever and ever.