A sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos
Isaiah 10 v33 - 11 v9; John 14 v1-29
Over the course of this Armistice weekend I have found myself more than once reaching for the poetry of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. For those of you who have not heard me quote him, Studdert Kennedy was awarded the Military Cross for his service as an Army Chaplain during the bloodiest years of fighting on the Western Front. He is honoured in the Calendar of the Church of England as a priest, a poet, and, I would add, a prophet.
Studdert Kennedy wrote two poems based on the passage from the Gospel of St John that we have heard this evening, a passage from what scholars call the Farewell Discourses, spoken by Jesus at his Last Supper. The second of these is entitled ‘My peace I leave with you’, and in it Studdert Kennedy asks hard questions of the crucified Lord whose promise of peace for the world has seemingly not been honoured, with such devastating consequences for his generation. ‘Thou pale despised Christ!’ he asks ‘What peace is there in thee, nailed to the Cross that crowns the world, in agony?’ This agony Studdert Kennedy sees repeated again and again down the years, up to the era for his writing and his ministry. ‘For millions come to Golgotha’ he writes ‘to suffer and to die, forsaken in their hour of need and asking, Why?’
He finds the answer to this suffering and this forsaken-ness in Christ’s life and Christ’s death. Here is the last verse, in which he paraphrases Christ's words:
'Take up thy cross and follow me,
I am the Way, my son,
Via Crucis, Via Pacis ,
Meet and are one’.
The way of the cross and the way of peace are one and the same.
That conclusion must have been irresistible to the poet priest who had seen the horror of war. If God was remote from the suffering of thousands then God was a heartless tyrant. But if God was as he was revealed in the pale despised Jesus then each soldier’s death must be a Golgotha, an agonizing pathway to an empty tomb and new life. God, Studdert Kennedy came to believe, suffered among his people and accompanied them through suffering to resurrection.
He is one of the great heroes of my faith. I thank God that my faith has not been tested in the brutal slaughter of total war, as his was, and I pray that it never will be. But I cling to his insight that the way of the cross is the way of peace, even if for many of us, in this part of the world, at this time its meaning is not what it was for his generation.
You and I are free from the threat of conscription and free from the drumbeat of imperial war. The way of the cross is not something that is forced upon us by Lord Kitchener's famous poster. For many of us the way of the cross, the way of self sacrifice, the way of self-forgetfulness involves only the battlefield of our hearts, our minds, our choices and our habits. The way of the cross means renouncing our thirst for revenge, our desire always to be right, our longing to win, our fear of coming last. The way of the cross means learning the habits that make for peace and practising them: the habits of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of seeking the good in our opponents, and of seeing Christ’s face in theirs.
Such is our way of the cross, our way of peace. The choice of taking it - or not - has been won at a great price. But if we do we may find it as costly as that taken by those whose brave memory we honour today. Amen.