A sermon by the Rt. Rev. Albert Rhett Stuart, Bishop of Georgia given at
Washington National Cathedral
At the heart of the Church’s life is the great sacrament of Holy Communion. At the climax of this act of worship is the Prayer of Consecration in which we are reminded that we are making an Offering to God “having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, His mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.” Benefits passion and death which took place on a Cross outside Jerusalem on a Friday. Benefits which make this Friday good.
In our time, we seem to place more emphasis on the Gospel of the Sermon on the Mount than on the Gospel of the Cross. It is the teaching of Christ – not his death – that is supposed to be of the most value to mankind.
On this Good Friday here in this great cathedral raised up to glorify Him, we will not think of Jesus as Teacher, Jesus as Example, Jesus as heroic Sufferer speaking to us moving words from the Cross. Rather we will reverently bow down before Him as the Saviour of the World who by His Cross and Precious Blood has redeemed us. We will have in remembrance His blessed passion and precious death rendering thanks for some of the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.
In the Gospel record of Jesus Christ practically a third of the narrative is occupied with His death. In most biographies, the achievements and teachings of a person are given greatest attention. It is what he did that matters, not how he died.
It is not so with the record of Jesus Christ. In the early Christian writings such as the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles there is strangely little about the teaching of Christ while references to his death and its significance are on every page. Notice too these references sound no note of sorrow or regret. There is no suggestion of how much was lost to the world by the early death of Jesus of Nazareth. No New Testament writer ever says, “If Jesus had lived longer he would have transformed the world.” Instead, the writers glory in Christ’s death. They are sure he accomplished the work he came to do and that his death was an essential part of it. He came to save mankind and he accomplished that salvation by dying on the Cross. His dying words – “It is finished” mean It is accomplished.
From the outset the Church put Christ’s death in the forefront of the Gospel. It was the central point of the whole message. St. Paul summarized the Gospel when he said, “We preach Christ crucified.” Christians sing “In the Cross of Christ I glory.” By His death he won innumerable benefits for mankind chief of which are the forgiveness of sins, spiritual power, and eternal life.
This was the good tidings which Christian Missionaries carried all over the world. It was not Christ the sublime Teacher, but Christ the Crucified Saviour who by his death won for all men forgiveness, power, and life. Let us look at these benefits.
It is easy to misunderstand the phrase “forgiveness of sins.” It generally means to us getting out of consequences, being let off from penalty and obligation or the obliteration of the difference between right and wrong. It means much more than the remission of penalty and certainly isn’t the destruction of morals. This much more is the important part of forgiveness. It is the restoration of a broken or damaged relationship.
Forgiveness included the remission of a penalty which might have been inflicted. However, when there is a definite personal relationship forgiveness means much more than this. The deeper the relationship the smaller is the part of remission of penalty and the greater the part of restoration of relationship.
Here is a young man and his father –they are on the best possible terms—the son loves and admires the father—the father loves and trust his son. The son takes his inheritance and throws it away, breaks the relationship, brings disgrace on his family. The father could say, “It doesn’t matter. Forget about it. I am not going to penalize you in any way. You’ve learned your lesson. I’ll help you get straight, but of course, I can no longer think of you as I used to do—things cannot be the same between us.” Does this satisfy the son? Can he say “Father has forgiven me and all is well?” If he really loves his father, he will say—“What’s the use of all this?” I deserve any punishment I can get. I don’t want to be let off. What I want is that father should take me back and let me be to him what I was before. This is what happened in the famous parable of our Lord. The father went out to meet the boy and cried “This my son was dead and is alive, was lost and is found.” The boy was restored to his relationship.
Man was made for sonship with God. Sin makes that relationship impossible. Jesus Christ came to bring about the impossible. By His blessed passion and precious death He restored man to fellowship with God and makes possible forgiveness of sins. Our real prayer as sinners is not “let me off” but “forgive me,” “take me back.” The Cross of Jesus Christ brings to you and to me forgiveness of our sins and restoration to God. We participate in this deliverance and restoration through repentance, confession of sin, and baptism. God of his love accepts the sinner who accepts Christ in faith. This my Son was lost and is found.
Bishop Stuart also preached this sermon on 3/27/1964 at St. Matthew’s in Savannah, 3/27/1970 at St. John’s in Savannah, and on 4/9/1971 at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Augusta.