The sovereignty of love  

2nd Sunday of Lent

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16

Psalm 22.24-32

Romans 4.13-25

Mark 8.31-38

         ©Suzanne Grimmett

We are used to the sight of crosses everywhere, not only in cemeteries and  in our places of worship but around people’s necks, on t-shirts or tattooed on bodies.

The cross can symbolise the centre of the tension between between opposites. The point where there is a meeting of life and death, transcendent and imminent, divine and human. We can think of the cross as a sign of the vertical relationship between God and humanity and the horizontal relationship with one another and all creation.

But ultimately, “the cross is a sign of suffering, humiliation, disgrace,” writes Rowan Williams in our Lent study. “We can only begin to get some sense of what it might have felt like to encounter the symbol of a cross in the first couple of Christian centuries is if we imagine coming into a church and being faced with a large picture of an electric chair, or perhaps a guillotine.”[1]

The earliest Christians knew how outrageous it was to claim their God was to be found on that cross. The Romans had developed punishments that mandated a level of suffering to be involved in order for justice to be done- suffering that made a public display of the sufferer in order to become a warning to others. But I think we often have a sneaky idea in our heads that increased suffering is required for punishments to fit the crime.  When terrible things are done, the justice, some would say, also needs to be terrible. Some would look to the suffering of Jesus on the cross and try to make it into some horrific equation of pain that was required because of the terrible sin of humankind. This is not the good news, in fact quite the opposite. What we see instead in Jesus on the cross is God pronouncing an end to retributive violence, an end to punishment, an end to sacrifice.

At the recent School of Indigenous Studies conference I attended, Professor Stan Grant made this statement.

There is not enough justice in the world to deal with the harm we have done one another.

There is a profound truth here that we need to hear whenever we may be tempted to think we are weighing the terrible harm we have done to one another on one side of the scales and expecting to balance it with punishment or just retribution on the other.

Archbishop Justin Welby has been involved in many conversations confronting violence between peoples. He says;

In the early 2000s I was invited to facilitate a gathering in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, where government and opposition military and politicians would discuss reconciliation. The long civil war in Burundi that had started around the time of the Rwandan Genocide, more than ten years earlier, had died down to some extent as a result of ceasefires. Travel was still complicated, and flare-ups were frequent. The meeting was held in a hotel. Around thirty attended for three days of discussion, all in French. There was a very suspicious atmosphere as long-term enemies met. On the third day a senior government military officer pointed across the room and said, ‘That man’s militia killed 30,000 people. How can I be reconciled?’ We were near Lake Tanganyika and I pointed out of the window to the beautiful sight of the lake and hills.

‘If you go out in a boat and fall into the water, what do you do?’ ‘Swim!’ came the answer. ‘And if you can’t swim?’ ‘Then you drown.’ ‘And if you do not find a way to reconcile then you will all die.’[2]

There is not enough justice in the world to deal with the harm we have done one another.  

I think of the bloody hell being unleashed in Gaza and wonder if anyone can think there could ever be a point when the terrible harms that have been done will be sufficiently avenged or a moment where everyone who deserves it will be brought to justice.

Perhaps this is part of Peter’s problem. Perhaps he is still imagining this world as one where you get what you deserve…and perhaps following the Holy One of God whom he has recognised in his friend Jesus- perhaps that will help make that kind of world real. And so, when Jesus tells him that he will suffer, be rejected by all the religious leaders and then be put to death, Peter “rebukes” him. Peter can just not imagine anything beyond the mythic realm of redemptive violence where hero Jesus will destroy their enemies with righteous force. Jesus does not just reject this but tells Peter he is thinking demonically when he tries to push him down that path. Redemptive violence is a human construct, and has nothing to do with the way of God revealed in Jesus.

The way of God ends up on a cross. So many would see this way as weak. Wrong-headed theology has led many to believe they need to allow others to take everything from them in order to follow this way of the cross, leading to trauma and self-annihilation. Rather, to choose the way of the cross is a third way between the binary choices of retribution and self-destruction. Jesus shows us the sovereign power of love and forgiveness.

However, this does not take away the challenge of discipleship. I struggle to comprehend how contemporary Christian culture has changed these words about being a disciple into just pray a believer’s prayer, accepting Jesus into your heart;  ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me….’

Somehow so many of our churches have become about membership and not discipleship. Jesus followers had been hearing his wise words, watching him travel everywhere, teaching and healing, but now they are having to come to terms with the huge cost of this way of love and peace. The early Markan community who heard this Gospel would have totally understood, I think. In the grips of violent Roman persecution, faithful endurance and a way of suffering would likely have been a reality they were living. But how can we hear these words now? Certainly, glorifying suffering is not the way, and, we know, even our lives of comparative comfort carry their own kinds of painful burdens.

I heard the enormous challenge of what these words can mean from the same keynote address from Stan Grant. He quoted the French philosopher, Simone Weil;

I must love being nothing. How horrible it would be to be something.

We seem to live in a world where everybody is trying to be somebody. In Weil’s terms, explained Grant, to seek to be something is to seek to be more than God. When we are preoccupied in this way, we fail to hear the person crying out, “Why am I being hurt?” It is a stark question for Australia from the voices of First Nations people. When we are focussed on being something, we may be listening out for the thundering voice of greater gods, but we will fail to hear the cry of Christ on the cross.

While Simone Weil talks about being nothing, I do not think we should be advocating self-abnegation. She is certainly speaking a word of warning about the kind of self-focus which sees the world and community only in reference to itself. The way of being nothing is about stepping into a love so great and a freedom so liberating that we can lay down our need to position ourselves at the centre of everything.

The cross is the symbol of how we find this way. To draw again on our Lenten study book, Rowan Williams speaks of three clear ways which Christians have understood the cross from the earliest days of the movement.

Firstly, the cross is a rescue operation, turning aside terror and punishment and ‘breaking the chain between evil actions and evil consequences.’ Secondly, this rescue operation is on behalf not just of individuals, but communities, exposing the systems of injustice, failure and disordered structures which shape our lives. Thirdly, the cross seals a peace treaty between God and humanity, telling of God’s committed and unfailing love for us, and at the same time making possible a new humanity.[3]

This sign of suffering, humiliation and disgrace has become for us a sign of hope. It is the sign of hope which makes it possible to honour the dignity and humanity of all, including our enemies. It is a sign which points to our belovedness, inviting us to live together without the weight of judgment and shame. In taking up the crosses of our own lives, we learn to hear the pain of others. In taking up our cross, we step into a new life where mercy and love, not fear, is sovereign.


[1] Rowan Williams, God with Us: The meaning of the cross and resurrection, Then and now, SPCK, London, 2017

[2] Welby, Justin. The Power of Reconciliation (pp. 59-60). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[3] Rowan Williams, God with Us: The meaning of the cross and resurrection, Then and now, SPCK, London, 2017