(Amended from sermon Good Friday 2012)
Good Friday attracts us to safe familiar paths. Each year there we find the call to the in-group of religious spectators and church-goers to rehearse once more the familiar sufferings endured by Jesus, to listen again to the reminder that in some way these sufferings were for our sins, and to hear those familiar words that Jesus died that we might be saved.
Yet I wonder if the story has become too familiar and even too remote to matter in the way we currently live and order our lives. It’s not that the standard formula, that Jesus died for our sins that we might be saved, is intentionally shallow or dishonest, but today’s attitudes mean we should be cautious before rushing too quickly to the familiar religious phrases without first checking we have grasped their relevance and found meaning there for lives now set in a very different world.
It is true that Jesus is the centre piece of the Good Friday story yet he acts almost as if his suffering is inevitable. According to the gospel accounts, although he makes it abundantly clear he would like to avoid the cross, Jesus certainly makes no attempt to run from his impending fate.
Nor does he make an attempt to find a safer path. The clearing of the Temple had been brave – but in terms of his personal safety, some would have called it foolhardy. He appeared to have permitted Judas to betray him to the authorities, and when the soldiers arrived to arrest him, he prevented Peter from defending him with his sword. He made no recorded plea for mercy and nor as far as we can tell did he curse his enemies. Even on the cross he was concerned for others, praying for the forgiveness of his enemies, concerned for his mother – and even reportedly concerned for others crucified with him.
That he was able to do so in the knowledge he was abandoned by virtually all his followers – and that he could remain true to his cause when under extreme duress – gives his message of uncompromising love a genuine authenticity.
However I want to stress Jesus’ suffering is only one aspect of Good Friday. Listing his sufferings and presenting the collection as the way he died as our deputy to save us from our sins may be good theatre but claiming this is guarantee that Jesus will deal to our problems is hardly encouraging us to step out to face whatever life sends our way.
There is even a question of whether we are facing reality if we talk about Jesus dying as the ultimate answer to all our problems. I have no issue with the claim that Jesus died so that the victims of suicide bombers, the child prostitutes from the hill tribes of South East Asia, and the war refugees fleeing for their lives might have life ………but surely life for victims comes in part through the potential actions of Jesus’ followers??? I guess my concern is that our focus on what happened to Jesus might take our attention from the suffering that continues to be.
Knowing what we have been saved from has always seems less interesting than the implied underlying question – not from what – but for what have we been saved?
The answer to that second question may be somewhat less demanding of our skill with theology than we think. Surely if we are saved, what we have been saved for should include continuing the mission established by the one we follow.
Time after time Jesus reminded his followers in a variety of ways that they were simply being called to do what is just, what is right and what is humane. The message about loving one’s neighbour as oneself was nothing more than a challenge to change priorities – to put others ahead of self. I see no reason for assuming that this challenge is any different for us today.
Lest there was any confusion, on Maundy Thursday – the day before his execution, Jesus not only gave the commandment: Love one another as I have loved you, but in case his hearers might have mistaken this for a platitude, by the act of foot washing he demonstrated the humility called for.
In retrospect the disciples seemed extraordinarily slow on the uptake. For those of us anxious to get as clear as possible a view of Jesus through the gospel record, it is salutary to remember that the disciples who could not have had a closer contact with Jesus in the flesh appeared to have been no better than modern Church folk in understanding and accepting their discipleship responsibilities. The disciples’ conviction when faced by the antagonism of the Pharisees and Roman authorities simply evaporated. Perhaps they were expecting some miracle so that Jesus could thereby avoid his death.
Whatever the case, following through John’s record suggests a variety of degrees of faith and betrayal.
From what we now know about psychology perhaps we should not be surprised the Pharisees were numbered amongst his enemies. It certainly seems plausible that Pharisees should find it easy to condemn the one who alerted them to embarrassing issues of conscience.
Jesus is betrayed by Judas, perhaps because Jesus fails to take the zealot’s preferred option of violent overthrow of the Roman invaders. Most of Jesus’ male disciples appeared not so much to betray as to make themselves scarce when the chips were down. It is interesting that John appears to give more space to Peter’s actions and words than to those of Jesus in the events of that final evening. Peter famously betrays Jesus by declaring he does not know the one he early identified as the Messiah.
Yet according to John’s record there were some who remained loyal. A few women- and the unnamed disciple referred only as the beloved disciple – were there at the foot of the cross. We should always honour those who are not afraid to support that which they know to be right. Knowing our own reluctance to speak up when it might draw unwelcome attention, we should also be hesitant about condemning those who were not staying to be counted.
Make no mistake about it. The confusion and inability to stay on course when faced with suffering and death is almost a universal condition rather than simply a weakness which afflicted those weak disciples. Like Peter, we too are tempted to surrender to a loss of nerve and are even alienated when presented with a Love-centred vision for those dimensions of life where love is conveniently absent. Knowing that those who followed Jesus failed him, or even that some who welcomed him with Palm branches may have been among those who a few short days later were prepared to shout “crucify” is now somewhat academic. To admit that we too have these same tendencies to turn from the vision and possibilities of a Love centred life places us back within the Easter scene.
We cannot avoid the prospect of death – either for ourselves or for others who matter to us. The flickering TV images of starving children, news stories of children caught up in prostitution and modern slavery, the destruction of local livelihoods in the name of progress, those who suffer through accident of birth and those deliberately blind to their suffering are unfortunately all common knowledge – we can hardly protest we know nothing of these. Our test comes when we have to decide how we react to the suffering which comes our way. The suffering may well have gained new focus when Jesus was taken to die, but the words of Psalm 22 used by Jesus on the Cross still ring out today.
If Jesus’ suffering is representative then surely it is representative of the suffering that is still part of the human condition. Honoring Jesus and his suffering by coming to worship on Friday is then only the first part. What would give integrity to our intention to give honor is to allow ourselves to first notice and care about the suffering of our community and and world – and then to respond to that suffering: supporting and standing with those prepared to become involved. It may appear a blunt challenge, yet since we can no longer stand literally at the foot of the Cross, if we claim his suffering is important to us, surely we should at least consider putting our money where our mouth is, allowing ourselves to risk position and security, and above all making time available for those swept up in chaos, pain and suffering.
For most of us the challenge is plainly not to die as Jesus died. Despite the sincerity and enthusiasm with which we may sing that Good Friday hymn, we were simply NOT there when they crucified my Lord…On the other hand in today’s world where the issues are changed, the same Love that Jesus used to confront issues of Justice, hypocrisy, misfortune and unkindness is still in need of a voice. The cross of Jesus is not a repeatable event, yet in facing that Cross, Jesus was modeling an attitude of love that can continue to find creative ways to confront suffering, pain and need…. if we will but look.
There is finality in suffering leading to death and the gospels do not allow us to escape the detail. Strangely John’s account never quite leaves us with the feeling that we are looking at one who will be left a corpse of Jesus. John may not have been a particularly good historian in that he leaves us with puzzles and even contradictions when his account is stacked up against those of the synoptic gospels. Nevertheless he is a better poet and theologian. In his account of the crucifixion and subsequent account of the burial we see, again and again, not the finality of a corpse – but rather the evocative “body of Christ”.
As the poetry of our communion reminds us – we too can become part of this body. Whether or not we accept we do so at a meaningful level remains the open question.