Good Friday Sermon 2008

We split the preaching of the cross up between the cathedral clergy this year. Each of us took one of the words that Jesus spoke on the cross. Mine was “Mother behold your son, son behold your mother” – the exchange referring to Mary and beloved John.

Here’s what I said:

Every year I encounter these words in the liturgy at this time and every year the same thought strikes me. This Christ. This Jesus. He is not like me.

Yet immediately I feel the need to qualify that – for the essence of the Christian Faith that I profess and preach is very precisely that God has become one of us. That God has come here, taken the form of a human being and is in fact exactly like you and like me.

Both things are true.

When I encounter the Christ on the cross who says. “Mother your son; son your mother” I encounter a personality which is not really like me. He is human. Clearly he is human. There is no day on which he is more human. He suffers pain. He bleeds. He dies.

But in the middle of that, he speaks this word of kindness that will link his mother and the beloved disciple together for the rest of their days.

He is not like me. When I am in pain, I am a pain. When I suffer, all the world must suffer around me. When I hurt, I’ll probably make you hurt too. When I’m sore, I’m more likely to lash out than to be kind.

Jesus, hanging on the cross is not like me.

In his pain. In his passion. In his agony, he looks upon these two people – two whom we know he loves and he links them together as mother and son in a whole new relationship.

To love someone is to know pain. It is no coincidence that the word passion has two meanings for us. We use it to describe the most intense loving feelings that we can have. We use it to describe the most painful feelings that we can have.

Jesus seems to have known the intensity of both kinds of passion. God came. Got involved. Took part in life. Felt passionate. Felt pain. He was just like me.

The essence of Good Friday for me, the bit that makes sense, is the fact that God became human. If this were just a noble person’s death, it would be sad. If this were just a prophet’s death it would be something to be marked on the calendar maybe. If this were just the death of a religious figure a long time ago we might be interested, but how much would we care?

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?”

Does it mean anything to us?

No, if he were just a prophet, just a good man, just a religious leader, this day would not matter that much to me. It is the daring, dizzy notion that God became human that makes this day matter to me. The idea of God taking on flesh and knowing pain, knowing suffering – that’s the idea that matters. And that in the midst of his passion and pain he was still kind. That’s what matters.

He was still kind. Oh never was he more human than on this day when he suffered and died. He was like you and I. Oh never was he more godly than by being kind and thinking of others whilst being torn apart. He was not like me at all.


A few years ago, I was on holiday in Turkey. I happened to be near Ephesus and visited the large archaeological site. The sun beat down and there were crowds of folk trying to understand what life was like two thousand years ago.

It was so hot and crowded. The friend I was with said to me, “Is there no-where else we can go near here?” I looked in a guide book and found that there was a site not far away above the local town where John was reputed to have ended up. There he built a community of faith. Perhaps from them or from people like them we have the gospel whose passion reading we have today.

We trekked up this hill. Away from the crowds, away from the town. Up a steep hill. And eventually reached one of the most beautiful places I can remember being. There was no-one. It was still. It was the place. Supposed to be the place where the love that Jesus showed this disciple John was lived out in community. And sure enough, there is another site so very close by which is the house that Mary is supposed to have lived in to the end of her days. It is, to this day, half mosque and half church. A place of pilgrimage for Muslims and Christians. A place where the old Mediterranean tradition of peaceful interfaith integration that seems so horribly absent from our modern world still holds out.

At this hour, we remember Jesus in extremis telling John to look after his new mother and telling Mary to look on the face of her son. A microcosm of passion. Pain and love intermingled for the two individuals for whom he seems to have had intense compassion and love.

My own little unexpected pilgrimage in turkey taught me that old hope – that time can turn pain around. These two folk in older age inspired others and still inspire others. The ended up in older age with all kinds of people around them. Building community, passing on faith, witnessing to the truths that they had come to know in the real presence of Christ.

Mary and John. They were two people who touched Jesus. These were physical relationships. They were touched by him.

Son, behold your mother. Mother, behold your son.

Jesus had a way of muddling up all kinds of human relationships. His word from the cross mirrors that time when his mother came visiting and he looked around at the crowd and said, “These are my mother and brothers and sisters”. He turned family values on their head. He builds community. In the midst of pain, he makes something that will become beautiful.

He loved his mother with a passion that was costly. He loved his friend with a love that hurt.

As we look on him on the cross today, we can hear again his words, Mother, your son, son your mother.

But in the stillness, look on him again and ask what he says to you. Whom is he telling you to love?


  1. what a powerful and heartfelt plea and very thought provoking sermon. Only reading it now in August but pertinent at any time

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