The Reverend Canon Alison Joyce looks at the amazing victory of Christ over the powers of death and destruction and tells us what it
means to strive to live the Christian life.
Back in the 1990s, I was lecturing at a theological college in Birmingham which in those days was called Queen’s College. And standing outside the
main entrance of Queen’s, both then and now, is a large and very striking modern sculpture.
Given that the college is in the business of training people for Christian ministry, it comes as no great surprise that the sculpture depicts a
cross. But it is not a normal cross. Because the Queen’s cross is divided vertically, into two halves. The right hand side of the cross is
absolutely conventional: plain and simple, solid and strong; but the left side, rather than being its mirror image, as one might expect, is instead
distorted, and buckled, and leaning at an angle – a symbol of brokenness.
During my time at Queen’s I don’t think I have ever met anyone who remained indifferent to that sculpture. Some people absolutely loved it, others
loathed it with a passion, others again admitted that they were simply baffled by it. And I have to admit that I probably belonged in that final
category: the sculpture was certainly a very striking and a very haunting piece of art, but I wasn’t at all sure what to make of it.
So it has genuinely surprised me that, all these years later, the image of that sculpture (a small model of which now sits on one of my
bookshelves), continues to inform my reflections on the nature of faith – I have found it an immensely helpful image to think with. And I found
myself thinking about it again while reflecting on the two Biblical readings that we have heard during this service.
Our first lesson, from the book of Isaiah, proclaims the might, and the majesty and the glory of God, and the coming of God’s reign, in stirring
and memorable language: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” It is a passage that urges us,
or perhaps challenges us, to look up: to raise our eyes from the routine concerns that occupy most of our waking thoughts, and to look: because
something truly extraordinary is going on around us, and is still unfolding. As our reading puts it: “Lift up your eyes and look around”: God’s
light has come; the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.
By the time we reach the Fifth Sunday of Easter, we are still celebrating the amazing victory of Christ over the powers of death and destruction –
but with the news as full of death and destruction as it has been, it can sometimes be an effort to hang on to that powerful truth. And for me, the
right hand side of the Queen’s cross, the side that stands with simple, firm, clarity, symbolizes that resurrection hope: for it points us beyond
death to new life. Because Christ is risen indeed; death could not hold him.
Our second reading, from the Book of Revelation, makes for rather more alarming reading. The text comes from the very earliest years of the
Christian era, probably around the end of the First Century AD. And depressingly, we can already see what a mess some of those churches are
in. We are told of the church in Sardis – a church that appears to be living, but is in fact dead; its members spiritually asleep.
Which is really quite startling. Because it is tempting to assume that faith was somehow easier for those early Christians, for whom
the Resurrection was an event that was still within living memory – and yet, as we can see, that was very far from being the case. Because
from the very outset those young churches were manifesting all the recognisable weaknesses and frailties of human institutions. Indeed, as you may
recall from Paul’s letters, the church in Corinth was an absolute nightmare of a place, its members abusing their power, fighting amongst
themselves, and behaving completely inappropriately.
Which brings us to the other side of the Queen’s cross: the half of that sculpture that is broken, twisted, distorted – and yet, for all that,
still recognisably part of the cross of Christ. And it is somewhere in the intersection of those two halves that the importance of that sculpture
Because the reason why that image has continued to haunt me over the years, is because it sums up something of what it means to strive to live the
Christian life: for within that single image lie two important truths.
The first is the strength, and simplicity, and power of the cross: the vision of which summons us to follow in the footsteps of Christ. But
secondly, that sculpture also takes with profound seriousness the frailty, the weakness, and the folly of both human beings, and human
institutions, which can serve to make that call so difficult to live out. Which is why I find that at times, an image such as the Queen’s cross,
which captures both of those realities, really does help me to navigate the life of faith.
And the wonderful thing is that when the Church, despite all of its frailty, does manage to become a true channel of God’s goodness and grace, then
people are empowered to live and think and act in a completely new kind of way, no longer bound by despair, or resignation about the world and its
ways. And in those moments, we suddenly glimpse how the vision can become a reality.
A remarkable story is told of the American Civil Rights campaigner, and Christian minister, Martin Luther King. During the darkest days of
the American Civil Rights era, when King was minister to a black congregation in Montgomery Alabama, news came that the Ku Klux Klan, the white
supremicists, notorious for their violence towards black members of the community, were planning to march on the town, intending to terrorise its
inhabitants, and cause violence and mayhem. So, how did King respond to this threat? He could have encouraged his congregation to hide,
or to run away; alternatively he could have urged them to fight back courageously: to arm themselves and to man the barricades.
In the event, he did neither. What he did was this: he gave instructions for all the members of his congregation to put on their Sunday best, and
to gather on the steps of their church, and when the Ku Klux Klansmen marched into sight, the church members were instructed to greet them with
loud cheering and applause. This they did. And the Klansmen, who were accustomed to striking terror into the hearts of all who saw
them, when confronted by this completely unexpected and inexplicable reaction, simply didn’t know what to do. So they marched into the town,
and then, thwarted and nonplussed, they marched out again. Having found to their astonishment and perplexity that they were not engendering
fear, they could neither comprehend what was going on, nor cope with it. So they simply left. That is what a new way of living looks like. A way of
living that means that fear no longer has the final word.
Martin Luther King was, of course no plaster saint. He was a very complex man whose life was by no stretch of the imagination ‘squeaky clean’ – and
he would doubtless have been the first person to admit it. But for me his life incorporates both sides of the image of the strong but also
broken cross that still stands outside the Queen’s Foundation. Because he was a man who was able to lift his eyes to the broader vision, and make
that vision a reality for those around him, despite the frailty and complexity of his own life.
And thanks be to God for that.