When the printing press was invented in 1440, collections of sermons were, following the Bible, the first books to be printed. Since then, books of sermons have occupied an important place in Christian history and theological discourse, and have been read not only from the pulpit by clergy, but by people of faith in their own homes.
Bob Cornwall, pastor of the First Christian Church in Lompoc, preached a series of sermons on the last seven words of Christ over the course of seven years, at the Santa Barbara First Presbyterian Church Good Friday observances. Written between 1999 and 2005, these sermons have now been compiled into A Cry From the Cross, a book which Cornwall expects to be available in select Santa Barbara bookstores within the next few weeks.
Good Friday, the commemoration of Christ’s death on the cross, falls three days before Easter – which itself marks Christ’s resurrection. Traditionally, Good Friday sermons are taken from the topics surrounding the death of Jesus – more specifically, from what are referred to as the seven last words of Christ. These are really phrases, and come from three of the New Testament’s four gospels: those of Luke, John, and Mark. For Cornwall, and for many Christians, these statements thought to have been made by Jesus during his last moments of life are central to the concept of what it means to be a Christian, and what the symbol of the cross ought to represent.
But taken together, these seven present a fascinating picture of a man who is acknowledged by many to have been a historical figure, in addition to the originator of Christianity. The words, reproduced here in the order in which they are treated by Cornwall’s sermons, each suggest another aspect of Jesus the man, in addition to Jesus the religious figure.
Father, forgive them. (Luke 23:32-34)
Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)
Woman, here is your son. (John 19:26-27
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34-35)
I thirst. (John 19:28-29)
It is finished. (John 19:30)
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:44-49)
Cornwall’s belief is that the faith, the sense of abandonment, and the physical agony suggested by these phrases illuminate what is at the center of theological discussions of the crucifixion: the idea that Christ was a human being, that he suffered, and that this is in some way an example that ought to be followed by Christians in their daily lives, and not simply in professions of faith. Pastor Cornwall has published this book not only to provide sermons that may be used by other clergy, but also in the hope “that non-preachers will read these as meditations on what the cross means,” as he told me in a recent interview.
He is disappointed with the fact that the cross, as a symbol, is frequently used either to represent the gory execution of Christ as it has been recorded, or simply as decoration. “The cross has become a piece of jewelry for so many people – and that’s all it is,” he said. These Good Friday sermons, then, can be taken as an effort to redirect attention to the message of Christ’s death, rather than the trappings of the story and to encourage Christian readers to use their faith for daily good.
Bob Cornwall has been the pastor of Lompoc’s First Christian Church for four years, and before that served as the pastor of Santa Barbara’s First Christian Church for five and a half years. He has also served as the president of the Santa Barbara Clergy Association.