There’s no experience more central to the Christian year than the one we begin today. The events we make present and live through together this week are the heart of the Christian way of seeing the world and of living in the world. Holy Week is the center of spiritual time, and it is the center of the story by which disciples of Jesus understand the world and our own lives.
We just read the entire passion story from the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel that Episcopalians are reading together Sunday by Sunday all year. On Good Friday, we will read the entire passion story from the Gospel of John. These events are so important that we tell them and tell them over and over. Jesus’ death on the Cross and his resurrection on the third day is mentioned in nearly every chapter of Paul’s letters. We never celebrate Eucharist without recounting that same story over the bread and the wine. It is on page after page of the Bible and page after page of the Prayer Book. Why? Why do we Christians center ourselves on the Cross like this?
Well, we might want to ask first, where else could our center be? I can think of two candidates, actually, that are proposed all the time. I’m sure you’ve heard people suggest that religion really boils down to principles, general ideas like “peace on earth” or “you should value diversity” or “there is always hope” or “God is everywhere.” All of those are good enough principles, and in fact, I agree with them. But they are not where Christianity grounds itself. They come later.
And I’m sure you’ve heard people suggest that religion really boils down to efforts to improve human behavior, either our own or somebody else’s. That our mission is to inspire people to be nicer, to be more accepting or more mindful, to fight racism and sexism, to help the poor. All of those are good things to do, and I support them, too. But they are not where Christianity grounds itself either. They too come later.
Christianity can’t be reduced to a set of principles or to a self-improvement or world-improvement program. As long as you try to approach it that way, you will never understand it. Christianity is grounded in the announcement of what God has accomplished in Christ on the Cross and in the empty tomb. It makes the claim not just that the events we live through again this week constitute the center of all history, but that in them God has offered liberation, forgiveness, and fullness of life absolutely free to anyone who is humble and honest enough to accept them.
At Baptism we always ask the candidates questions about turning to Christ, and one of them is “do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” Much of the time, let’s be 100% honest, many of us would have to answer that question, “Well, sort of.” We put some of our trust in his grace, and other parts of it in what we can do, or the principles and values we stand by, or the family or economic class or ethnic group we come from. We put some of our trust in his love, and others in the kinds of love and esteem that get given to us via our skills, our in-group, or our behavior.
But that’s not what God calls us to. God calls us to a life where we do not look elsewhere to justify our existence, but where we put our whole trust in the grace and love that are given freely through the work of Christ on the Cross.
So one of the reasons we tell this story over and over is that it’s so very hard for human beings to do that. We fail, over and over, at surrendering everything to God. Or we do it, but immediately grab some parts of life back to manage ourselves. So we need to hear it over and over again: the work of Christ in his Cross and Resurrection has already accomplished all that needs to be accomplished for us to be liberated, forgiven people, going about life with a kind of fullness that’s not available anywhere else. And the work of Christ in the Cross and Resurrection hasn’t accomplished that just for you, or for me, or for churchgoers. It’s accomplished that for all creation.
Do you put your whole trust there? Even if you fail regularly at putting your whole trust there, because we all do, is that where you intend to put your whole trust? Is that where your trust returns, when you come to your senses and realize you’ve started looking to something other than Jesus to make you enough? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love, or are you hedging your bets?
Principles are fine. Improving human behavior is fine. But the events of this week, the experiences we will re-invoke and walk through together, through the amazing power of the liturgy, have changed human history. They’re going to change the whole cosmos. And if you step in and put all your weight onto them, your whole trust, they will change your life. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.