“Love Unknown”. A Sermon for Good Friday 2019.
“God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” [Romans 5.8]
We’ve just sung, “My song is love unknown”. This hymn is full of contradictions and paradoxes. The author of this hymn, Samuel Crossman, had a life that was marked by contradictions and paradoxes. He was born in 1624 in Suffolk and he studied divinity at Cambridge. He was ordained a priest in 1647, during Cromwell’s Puritan regime. While serving as rector of an Anglican parish, at the same time he was also pastor of a Puritan Congregational church. He worked to reconcile these opposing factions. Crossman was part of a group that attempted to revise the Prayer Book so it could be used by both Puritans and Anglicans. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, the state church re-established traditional Anglican usage. Crossman was thrown out of his parish, and in 1662 he was imprisoned for preaching. His poem “Love unknown” was published in these wilderness years. By 1665 he had conformed to the Church of England’s statutes, he was re-ordained and he was appointed a chaplain to the king. He was vicar of a parish in Bristol, and ultimately he became dean of Bristol cathedral. In this city a powerful group of Dissenting Puritans opposed Crossman. A contemporary wrote, “[he had the misfortune to fall] under the lash and scandal of several reproaches.” [Oxford Dictionary of National Biography] Despite facing bitter hostility, his sermons called for peace and unity between the factions within the Church of England.
Samuel Crossman’s life and times were troubled by conflicts, contradictions and questions of loyalty. His hymn, “Love Unknown”, wrestles with paradoxes. “Love to the loveless”; “Hosannas / yet Crucify”; “Sweet injuries”; “That he his foes…might free”; “a murderer they save / the Prince of Life they slay”. Christ’s death is itself a paradox. “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” [Romans 5.8] Why should Christ die for us who are sinners? What kind of love is revealed by death?
“My song is love unknown”. By calling God’s love “unknown” Crossman suggests the difficulty of trying to understand God’s love. The type of love God shows in the crucifixion is unique. We cannot compare it to any other event in history. No logical reasoning will give us a rationale to understand Christ’s sacrifice. God’s love is “unknown” because it is far beyond the grasp of our human understanding and intellect. God’s love transcends our human imagination. God’s love is not only a gift, but a gift given generously, willingly, “cheerfully”. God not only “loves a cheerful giver”, but he is himself a cheerful giver. The full extent of God’s love cannot be known by humans. Only God can comprehend the boundless range of God’s love.
“Love unknown.” God’s love is unknown, not known, by those who refuse to know Christ or to recognise Christ as their saviour. Those who cry for Jesus’ death regard him as a stranger and refuse to know him. “Made strange” may also refer to the mob’s strange actions, which don’t make sense. They hoped for the messiah, yet when “the longed-for Christ” comes to bring them salvation, they refuse to recognise him. Christ is a stranger, he is unknown.
“O who am I?” Crossman questions his own identity and his own lack of worth. He describes the crucifixion as if it’s happening in the present moment. Is he one of those who watch passively while Jesus is killed? Therefore, is he complicit in Jesus’ death? For Crossman, Christ is not a stranger, but a friend: “my friend, / my friend indeed”; “this is my Friend”. Jesus’ sacrifice is experienced in very personal terms: “Love to me”, “for my sake”. Because Christ is not only his friend, but died for his sake, Crossman will “stand”, he will remain faithfully by the cross. He will stand, despite his own unworthiness. “O who am I / that for my sake /my Lord should take / frail flesh, and die.” Here is the paradox of the Crucifixion. As St. Paul said, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” [Romans 5.8]
Crossman’s response to the cross is not only to stand by his friend, but also to sing praises to his “dear King”. Why? There’s no obvious promise of a happy ending at Easter. Christ’s purpose is implied: “salvation to bestow”, “his foes might free”. Yet there’s no reassuring Easter dawn on the horizon. Crossman is strengthened, not only to stand, but also to praise by God’s “love unknown”. St. Paul explains, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” [Romans 5.5]. Crossman doesn’t attempt to explain the Crucifixion. His response is to stand and praise.
“O who am I?” We’re not just innocent bystanders hearing about an event that happened centuries ago. Today we are forced us to stare at Jesus on the cross as if he’s dying right in front of our eyes. What can we do when the cross confronts us? Like most of us, I go out of my way to avoid trouble and suffering. If I really saw Jesus dying on the cross, I would run away, like those disciples who fled. “O who am I? Our response to the cross shows who we really are. The cross exposes our true selves.
God’s love is so strong that it overcomes our weaknesses, our fears, our deliberate sins. God’s love may be “unknown” by human understanding, yet God’s love is supremely powerful. The Holy Spirit gives us courage both to stand in front of the cross and also to praise Christ’s sacrifice. The Holy Spirit enables us to accept the paradox of God’s love for us as sinners, even though this love is “unknown” to human understanding. The vastness of God’s love perplexes our minds. The forgiveness in God’s love overwhelms our hearts. Therefore we can only stand in front of the cross and sing praises to God’s love unknown. AMEN.