I had the privilege to preach on Good Friday at my sponsoring parish. Here it is.
I’m never really sure how to greet people on Good Friday. You can’t really wish people a happy Good Friday. I have one friend who always wishes me a gloomy Good Friday, but somehow I don’t think most people would appreciate that sentiment.
Which only goes to show what a strange day Good Friday is. A few years back I was at an Easter service, with a friend who is not a Christian, but who had decided to come to Church with me and some other friends on Easter Sunday. As we were waiting for the Service to start we were having a conversation, and she was asking a lot of questions about what exactly Christians believe about Jesus.
At some point my friend asked “so you believe that Jesus is coming back?” of course I said yes, we expect that Jesus will return. “So” she asked “Will he get it right when he comes back?” I was a little confused by this question, so I asked what she meant. And she explained, “Well, obviously he failed the first time he came. I mean, he got crucified. So when he comes back, will he do better the second time.” My friend had the most natural possible response to the events of good Friday. Good Friday looks like a failure. It looks like something we should be a little embarrassed about, not something we should celebrate. Good Friday does not look Good at all.
But I had to explain to my friend, what I am sure you all already know. The cross was not a failure or an accident. From the beginning everything was leading up to this day and this hour, to this hill of Calvary. Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus foretold his death and prayed “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” (John 12:27 ESV).
Jesus prays that God will glorify his name, and God does just that, but he does it in the Cross. Crucifixion was a painful and humiliating way to die; and according to the book of Deuteronomy, everyone who died hanging on a tree was cursed by God (Deut 21:23). The great irony of the gospel is that in this shameful death God’s own glory shows forth most clearly.
Jesus told his disciples “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). When we look at Jesus we see what God the Father is like. And Jesus himself was never more visible than when he was on the cross. He was literally exalted, lifted up, for the whole world to see. And what most people saw in the cross was failure. What Mary and John standing at the foot of the cross saw, and what everyone who understood saw, was justice and love.
The cross was God’s judgment on the world, and the proof of his justice. The judgment of the world is that when the world saw God in the flesh, we rejected him. Those who crucified Jesus took it on themselves to condemn the judge of the universe. In rejecting Jesus they proved that they were not of God, but of the world. Even the priests of God, who should have been ready to receive Jesus as king, turn away from him, and say “we have no king but Caesar!” They cast in their lot with the kingdom of the world, rather than the kingdom of God.
The cross is the place where God judged the world, but at one and the same time it is the place where God forgave the world. On Good Friday, God made our sin his problem. God could have judged and rejected the world, just like the world had rejected him. Instead, God endures judgment himself for our sake. Jesus does not climb down from the cross and call a legion of Angels to destroy Pilate and the high priests. He endures the judgment of the world, and the judge is judged in our place.
There is a story that I heard some years ago, that is probably made up, but which shows very well what Jesus is doing on the Cross. In the story, two boys grow up as childhood friends. As they get older, they go their separate ways. One becomes a lawyer and the other drifts off into a life of petty crime. The lawyer eventually becomes a judge, and years later he and his childhood friend are reunited, unfortunately they are reunited in court when the friend has been brought in on charges of some crime. If the judge was going to be just, he had to follow the law and fine his friend - even though his friend, who has not been a successful crook, cannot possibly afford to pay the fine.
The judge handed down the judgment. He didn’t let his friend off the hook. What he did instead, once the hearing was over, was to come to his friend and say I know you can’t pay this fine, but I will give you the money, I will take the penalty for you, so that you can go free. That’s just what Jesus does on the cross.
God’s forgiveness does not mean ignoring evil - that would be unjust - instead, it means that God recognizes the evil that has been done and judges it, but he does not leave it there. That would be how the world deals with evil. God’s way of dealing with evil is not like the world’s way though. Instead, God takes our problem and makes it his problem.
St John in one of his letters says “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us...” (1 John 3:16). When we see Jesus lifted up on the cross, we see that we have a God who loves us enough to go even to the point of going to the cross in order to save his people from sin and death. This was a shocking idea in the Ancient world, and it should be just as shocking to us. We have a God whose whole heart is love for those who rejected him.
And even though the world rejected Christ, Christ does not reject the world. Instead, in the shadow of the cross, he begins to form a new community. When he looks at his mother and at John the Beloved disciple, he says “Woman behold you son” and to John, “behold your mother.” Partly, Jesus is just being a good son, and providing for his mother. But he is doing more. He is changing the relationship between these two people, and he is forming a new community. This community is a family, the family of God, and it is the community that each of us joined when we were baptized.
If we’re God’s family, there ought to be a family resemblance between God and his children. St. John says that we know God loves us, because he laid down his life for us, and he goes on to say “And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). What God has done for us, we are called to do for others. We are called to follow Christ’s example of the cross, and give our lives for others. We do that, I think, not so much by literal death - although that is sometimes what God calls for - but by being people who show God’s forgivness to the world.
When we forgive, we do something which looks impossible to the world. It looks like we are ignoring evil when we forgive. But we are not ignoring evil or letting people get away with it; instead, we are dealing with evil by way of the cross. This will always involve some sacrifice on our part, just as it did on God’s part. It will mean taking up our cross, and following Jesus to Calvary, where God judged and forgave us.
This will look like foolishness when we do it, just like it looked foolish when God did it. God’s way of dealing with evil is not the world’s way of dealing with evil. But God’s way, as it turns out, is the only way that works at all; it’s the only way that can lead from death to life, and Good Friday turns out to be good after all, because it leads to Easter.
+In the name. . .
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
This is a well know passage from Dom Gregory Dix's classic, but now somewhat outdated book, The Shape of the Liturgy. It is a reflection on Christ's words, "Do this in remembrance of me."
Was ever a command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of human greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner-of-war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc — one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei — the holy common people of God.h/t: The Anglo-Catholic