Surprised by the Cross

By Rowan Williams

Once again, let me thank you for your hospitality here.  I know that your brothers and sisters in the Church of England would want me to convey the love and prayers that they feel towards the Anglican congregations in this great city, their fellowship with the bishops and the clergy here, and their gratitude for your witness in this place.

Reading the Gospel for this morning, I was reminded of visiting factories in South Wales when I was a bishop there, visiting the great steelworks not very far from the town where I lived. You entered this enormous space with deafening noise all around you – in fact, in some parts of the factory you had to wear ear plugs as well as a protective hat.  Noise, activity; deafening and intense.  That is what it would have been like to go into the temple in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time.  It would be more like going in to a steelworks than going into a nice tidy church such as we’re all familiar with.

And what were they making in this great ‘factory’ in the temple in Jerusalem?  They were making religion.  Just as a steelworks makes steel, the temple made religion.  It made intense, busy activity, all day and every day; and especially at the seasons of the great festivals literally thousands of priests would have been at work every day, slaughtering the animals for sacrifice. They were making religion; they were making a product with which God would be suitably impressed.

And the theme of all three of our lessons this morning is actually the difference between ‘religion’ that we make in religion factories, and the true God – the love and service of the true God.

At the very beginning of the Ten Commandments, we are warned not to put anything in the place of the true God, and not to make satisfying pictures, ‘idols’, of God.  We can so very easily fill up the space in our minds or in our prayers with the picture of God that keeps us happy, drawn from our own preferences, our own ideals, what makes us safe and comfortable.  We can use that to plug the gap – we can produce something, we can make religion.  And instead of the mystery, the terror, the beauty and the freedom of the true God, we draw out something from inside us, project it onto the screen of heaven, and fall down and worship it: the ‘religion factory’.

The same thing is what St Paul warns us against in the second of our readings.  God’s wisdom and God’s power are so strange, so different from what the world thinks of as wisdom and power – how much easier to step back and say: we’ll settle for the wisdom and the power we can manage.  ‘Some seek for signs and some seek for wisdom.’  In other words, some people look for demonstrations of God’s power in something very like magic, and other look for demonstrations of God’s wisdom in human philosophy, all of it making us feel safer and more comfortable.

Over against all that, once again, the mystery, the terror, the beauty, the freedom of the true God, who is made known to us in the suffering love of Jesus Christ.  There is the challenge of our biblical readings this morning: idolatry or truth?  The ‘religion factory’ or the cross of Jesus Christ?  Our temptations are always going to be strong to go back to the religion factory.  It may be noisy, it may be crowded and uncomfortable, but my word it makes us feel good.  We know we’re doing something, we know we’re giving God a good impression, we know that God can really not refuse to love us and take us seriously if we are so busy.

And against that, ‘you shall make no idols’.  No pictures just drawn from the world you understand.  And you shall set aside what you think is power and success, and what you think is wisdom and common sense.  Against that is the God who takes the immeasurable risk of stepping down into our world, living a human life in Jesus, dying a human death, simply to show that his love cannot be frustrated or turned aside by anything that we call failure, even by the worst violence that we can perform.  God remains God on the cross of Jesus Christ, and because God is God at that moment, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.

I believe that, during Lent, one of the tasks we all have to face is to look into ourselves and ask how far we are involved in the ‘religion factory’.  Because in spite of all this, Christians have been quite good at religion factories in their day, and the cross itself has become a religious decoration – not a call to renewal of life, not a call into a new world, but another thing that religious people make and hang onto.

During Lent, perhaps that’s the time when we need to be surprised by the cross once again.  Isn’t it interesting that during Passiontide, in the Church’s year, we drape veils over the cross in church?  Surely that’s the time when we ought to be thinking about the cross most intensely.  But doesn’t that tell us that the cross needs to surprise us again every year.  We need to veil – to put away – what we think about the cross and just be brought up once again, starkly, against the reality of what the cross means: God in Jesus Christ, overturning all that we think about success and security, all that we think even about ‘religion’ as a nice leisure activity.  Calling us away from the religion factory into faith; calling us into trust in that unbreakable, undefeatable love, the kind of trust that will motivate us day after day to go in service of the poorest and the most unsuccessful and the most forgotten people.

Because that’s where all this leads – away from the religion factory and into service: service, love, silence, receptivity to God, and activity towards the world.  Not to win God’s favour, but to express God’s generosity.

Every Lent, we ought to be looking at the various ways in which we get involved in manufacturing the gods that suit us.  Every Lent is a time to get that little bit further beyond the idolatry, that constantly keeps us prisoner and draws us back to the old world.  When Jesus has cleared out the temple, when he has thrown out those people involved in manufacturing religion, there he stands with his friends in a great silence and a great space.  And he says: this is the space where all people may feel at home; this is a space large enough for all to come because this is where God lives.  This is where God is at home, and this is where all human beings may be at home.

When we come to worship God together, when we come as the body of Christ celebrating the sacrament of the Eucharist, we come to that great space which Jesus has cleared.  Here we stand – not busy, not anxious, not obsessed with what we’re producing and how we’re succeeding, but here we stand – still, listening, receiving.  And we put out our hands, not to lay hold of something and manipulate it and squeeze it into our shapes.  We put out our hands empty, to receive the gift of life and love, the body and blood of the Lord in the sacrament.

The temple, the true temple, is the space Jesus clears – the temple of his body, Jesus making room for all of us in his own presence and prayer before God the Father.  As different as could be from the great pious steelworks of ‘temple religion’ – a religion which goes on not just in first century Palestine but in twenty-first century everywhere.   This morning, let us look into our hearts to see just how busy we have been in ‘making religion’, and try a little bit of spring-cleaning, a little bit of that stillness and that openness, that open-handedness into which the miracle of life, God’s life, may come.  The mystery, the terror, the beauty, the freedom, and above all the love that can never be defeated.

The Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams was the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. This sermon was preached on March 11, 2012 at Saint Paul’s ‘Within the Walls’ Episcopal Church in Rome.


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