A Sermon preached on Good Friday, April 18, 2014
Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12, Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9, John 18:1 – 19:42, Psalm 22
Episcopalians are on the whole a lot more comfortable with the Incarnation and the Resurrection, than with Jesus’ Passion – his painful death on the Cross. This is understandable, the other two events are much more appealing: a baby, albeit one born in a shed, God sharing our lives with us, the glory of new life and of Jesus’ triumph over death. And then even though we proclaim the Resurrection and echo Paul’s words that death has lost its sting, we are still a bit reluctant to talk about death, especially long drawn out and painful ones. We are also not happy with some of the more common interpretations of what Jesus’ death on the cross really means, especially not those that describe as it in some way willed by God as a punishment for our sins with Jesus taking that punishment on our behalf. But if we skip over Good Friday we leave its interpretation to others. Death is part of life, and Jesus’ death was an important part of his life and witness – we cannot leave out that part of the story. We are saved by Jesus’ life and witness, and by his death, as well as by his resurrection.
One early Christian heresy, Docetism, simply claimed that Jesus only seemed to suffer and die. It was not real and it was only “zum Schein.” Surely God cannot die. And even though for Muslims Jesus is ‘only’ a human messenger from God, the Qur’an too cannot imagine God letting Jesus die such a shameful death: “They neither killed nor crucified him; but it was made to appear unto them.” (Surah 4:157) But God’s Son did suffer and die that day, today. Jesus went through the same pains as the two men crucified with him. When Jesus’ side was pierced by the spear water and blood flowed out. Joseph and Nicodemus laid a dead body in the tomb.
Who killed him? God? No, we did, humanity did. The forces of evil in the world, the powers and dominions as Paul calls them, believed that in killing the messenger, the message too would die. After all, how can a message of hope, life, and love survive death? And out of fear, out of denial, and out of our own ambivalence we, the rest of humanity let it happen. On the one hand we desire God and rejoice in God’s presence among us, with all the blessing and new life that brings. But we also resist God, because following God in Jesus can be very costly indeed. God wants our total commitment – and where would that leave our desire for self-satisfaction and independence? And so in the words of one of our hymns, though not one we are singing today (Hymnal 158): “’Twas, I Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.” At least in this sense Jesus did die for our sins – for the sins that had him killed. The sin of denial, the sin of wanting to do without God, the sin of putting own interests above all others, the sin of desire for power and control.
Later in the service I will bring up a wooden cross for veneration with the words: Behold the wood of the Cross, on which was hung the world’s salvation. So just what has Jesus’ death to do with our salvation?
Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected both as man and God. He did not stop being human after his death. That is part of the promise of salvation. God the Son became human to know our lives and loves and hurts, God the Son became human to know our suffering, God the Son knew death as a human, and God the Son was resurrected with all of his nature, both human and divine. God has shared the human experience and through Jesus we as humanity already share in the divine. I don’t think Pontius Pilate realized how right he was when he brought Jesus out with a crown of thorns and robed in purple with the words: “Here is the man.” For the author of the Letter to the Hebrews Jesus’ humanity was essential because in him we have a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses and “who in every respect has been tested as we are.”
In his life and teaching Jesus showed us what God’s kingdom is like and he embodied its values. He took these values with him to the Cross, the same values that Isaiah describes in his portrayal of the suffering servant: radical and unconditional love, the willingness to lay down his life for others, calm, nonresistant endurance, total devotion to God and to God’s purposes. Two weeks ago, when preaching on the story of Lazarus, I said that resurrection is not just an abstract doctrine, but a person. Unconditional love, grace, undeserved forgiveness are also not abstract concepts, they are an event, and they are what Jesus shows on the Cross.
Like Isaiah’s suffering servant Jesus really does bear our infirmities, transgressions, and iniquities. Our sense of sinfulness and inadequacy is what alienates us from God. God does not reject us, but we fear God and fear the punishment we think we deserve. Well we don’t have to any more. Jesus has set us right with God by his death on the Cross. Not even the sin of killing the Son of God has the consequences we fear – it leads not to punishment but to salvation. Even in his death Jesus offers us a sign of this salvation: water and blood flow from his side, the symbols of the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion, of forgiveness and reconciliation.
It turns out that the message of hope, life, and love can not only survive death, but actually needed this death, Christ’s death. Death has proven to be impotent against the power of God’s love. Hope was not in vain and new life beckons for all who want and ask for it.