Good Friday Sermon, Year A
Since we are now at a point in political history when there has been much written and said about walls, have you noticed the irony associated with Jesus’ crucifixion? Jesus had spent much of his mission identifying and breaking down the walls between people, and there he was, being crucified at Golgotha just outside the physical walls of the city where he had been rejected.
The walls Jesus encountered weren’t just walls of stone. Jesus appeared to have cared very much about removing the non –physical walls. There were the metaphorical walls between the Samaritans and Jews, between Pharisees and the people, and the invisible walls keeping the lepers, the tax collectors, the women, the prostitutes, the lowly shepherds and fishermen in their place.
So Jesus told his parables showing that compassion should be extended to all, touching the lepers, eating with the prostitute , the fishermen, the tax collector and even the zealot in his band of followers. In a very real sense, this helped shift the non–physical walls. Yet there were also those who insisted on keeping him at a distance with the walls they erected around themselves and their institutions.
The zealots hoped for a Messiah who would lead them to military victory over those who threatened their politics and faith. Jesus, with his gospel of forgiveness, did not meet the expectations of those who sought supremacy for their people or their faith. We note in passing, some commentators suggest Judas his betrayer remained a zealot.
The High Priest and the ruling Sanhedrin did not accept Jesus’ right to give fresh interpretations of the law, or accept his healing and teaching ministry as valid. The Romans considered Jesus’ apparent reluctance to accept the supremacy of their authority and his implied challenge to the Emperor being the Son of God as rebellion. Their walls may have been self-imagined walls of self protection, but in good part, it was the threat to those walls that apparently cost Jesus his life.
The gospel writers paint a word picture of the traditionalists among the Jews becoming concerned at his threat to their extensive habits of custom and tradition. The story of Jesus clearing the Temple of those who were trying to make large profits from their religion, the account of Jesus telling parables about the potential goodness of the hated Samaritans, the challenge to ancient customs of avoiding contact with lepers and the challenge to those who used religion to personal advantage combined to make Jesus’ teaching a perceived embarrassment.
Given the strength of feeling against Jesus – particularly from those who represented the establishment, are we surprised that even Peter the leader of the disciples would be described as having his courage desert him at the vital moment?
Sometimes we need to take the familiar and look at it in a new way.
When we hear of the death of someone significant to the nation or community, it is one thing to acknowledge that the death matters, it is quite another to acknowledge that our personal attitudes might somehow have something to do with the cause of death.
I guess at least some present today have heard the anecdote I am about to share, which as far as I know first had its origin in the events surrounding the Allied landings in France during the Second World War. Even if you do know the story, this time I would like you to revisit it, this time seeing it as a parable. I am uncertain where I first encountered the story but I acknowledge this account is remembered rather than copied.
It seems that the fighting in one forest area in France was bitter and among those who died of his wounds was an American soldier whose fellow squad members were determined that they would not simply abandon his body where it fell. With considerable difficulty they started to carry the body until they came across the walls of a Church cemetery. This, they felt, was the most appropriate place to bury their friend. They went inside, and there they met a priest. He knew enough English to understand what they were asking. He was sympathetic but there was one important issue that needed to be settled first.
“This graveyard is consecrated for Church members”, said the priest. “Was this man a Catholic?”
“Not specifically”, said one of his friends. “But as far as we know he was a Christian and we need to have him buried in an appropriate place. To know that we found a Church cemetery as a place to bury him would be at least a little comfort to his family”
“Well”, said the priest, ” I am really sorry. But I have rules that I have to follow. He is not a Catholic. He cannot be buried in a cemetery for Catholics”.
The men protested. The priest remained adamant.
“OK,” said one soldier. “Well at the very least may we bury him just next to the stone wall, just outside?”
The priest was understandably embarrassed, but he too thought that this might be the best compromise, so gave his permission.
After burying their friend as best they could, the soldiers left. After some discussion over night they decided they would return the next day with some flowers for the grave. They found the walls of the graveyard with no difficulty, yet there was a puzzle. When they went to the part of the wall where they had dug the grave – there was absolutely no sign of disturbed earth. Thinking that perhaps they had mistaken the place they walked further – then went back in the other direction – but all they found was undisturbed earth.
They sought out the priest.
“I can explain,” said the priest. “I was concerned that despite the rules stopping you burying your friend inside the cemetery, it didn’t seem to me to be Christian to ask you to bury him outside the walls. I started to worry about this. I couldn’t sleep, so in the end I went to the part of the wall where he was buried – and shifted the wall so that he is now inside, where he should have been in the first place.”
Now I suggested that we take this story as a parable – because I guess, like the Jewish leaders dealing with Jesus 2000 years ago, our lives are governed by the notional walls we set up to show who we accept and who we exclude. If our faith is to make a difference to our inclinations, maybe we too may have to see if there is a possibility that the walls can be shifted.
Understanding what happened on the first Good Friday has a great deal to do with the walls that the folk in Jesus day choose to make important. Finding the relevance of Good Friday at least in part, is to recognize that even we too have our often unspoken rules about who is to remain outside our protective customs. When we identify with those who are kept out by our customs it maybe like the priest in today’s more modern story, we may have to face admitting something may need to be done, for as long as the walls remain we cannot pretend God is in his heaven and all is automatically right with the world.
Like the priest administering the rules and customs of the Church we too might feel constrained by what our customs have become, but the real Good Friday test is to see if like Jesus staying with his mission, and like that priest in today’s story, we are prepared to do something about it.
Good Friday is a good day to remember that in war, as in peace, there are always those who can be persuaded to do the non-loving act. Of course there is the temptation to rush past Good Friday and on to the resurrection. But if the resurrection is to have meaning, then those who claim they recognize its meaning can hardly carry on to pretend that there are no human contributions to the continuing and very real suffering of Church and non Church people alike. Our institutions may serve the majority well, but can we find amongst us, those who are marginalized by their background?
Our communities – and even our nation has its own way of keeping those beyond our physical borders at arm’s length. When we consider the plight of the flood of war refugees in the Middle East and in Africa, and those simply searching for food, we can hardly claim that institutional violence died on the Cross with Jesus.
Nor can we simplify and pretend that whole classes of people other than us are singly and exclusively responsible for the evil that happened back then to Jesus and continues to happen today.
Despite John’s passing implication that the Jews as a total class were responsible for Jesus death, in reality it was some in the crowd, it was some of the leadership, and the failure of nerve of some of his followers which found Jesus on one side of the wall and, those that might have helped, found on the other.
Certainly sacrifice was part of Jesus’ story. As any responsible parent or community leader must know, sacrifices can make a positive difference. But the transformation which can occur in lives is not some magic wrought by some religious act 2000 years ago.
Telling the child prostitute that Jesus loves them without helping them remove the walls that imprison them, or telling the refugee carrying meagre possessions on their back as they face another day without sufficient food or water, that Jesus has saved them by dying on the cross, simply won’t do it.
For all the talk about how we must best survive the current COVID-19 crisis there is virtually nothing said about the vulnerability of those in the refugee camps outside our walls of indifference.
At one level, Jesus’ sacrifice was refusing to give up caring despite the metaphorical walls erected to his face, and this despite the weight of rules and custom. We are most unlikely to have to face anything like the physical threat of the cross, but its lesson is plain enough. Our challenge is to ask if we too care enough to take Jesus’ example and use it to reshape our lives and shift our “walls” to encompass more of those we do not currently treat as God’s people.