Sermon for Good Friday
April 6th, 2012
This sermon stands in the shadow of the Cross on Good Friday. The Gospel reading for Good Friday is John 18:1 – 19:42.
How has this happened? How did we get here? Jesus, the one whom we have been following, who has been teaching us about the Kingdom of Heaven, who has shown us a new way to see God, ourselves and one another… Jesus whose entry into Jerusalem we celebrated with a parade as we waved palm branches and cried Hosanna… dead… dead on a cross… dead… at our own hands. How could this have happened, Why did it happen?
We sit here today, our hearts broken, bereft, haunted by these questions as we recount once again the story of the passion.
It is a powerful story, one that has been told for generations, and so as each generation recalls this story as it’s own, it is a story that begins over and over again. It is a story with many beginnings.
We began our telling of the story today in a garden across the Kidron valley, the place that Jesus took his disciples after he had shared a meal with them and washed their feet. But if we are in search of answers to the questions that haunt us: how and why, we need to look back to another beginning, to a dream, to a dream that echoes the words of a prophet:
“…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from his sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1:20-23).
God is with us, among us, as one of us. This claim, this proclamation, this truth which lies at the very core of our faith has proven problematic to many: as Paul says in first Corinthians “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). It was problematic to the early church as well. There were schools of thought within the Christian Community that held that Jesus was not really, not fully human, and there were schools of thought that held that he was not fully God. And while those movements were judged by the early church to be heresies it would be silly to say that we don’t continue to struggle with Jesus’ “dual citizenship” even today.
It seems after all to be a contradiction in terms, a matter of definition, of ontology. How could God, from before time and forever, the holy immortal one, creator and ruler of all that is, be at the same time, flesh, bound in time and space to a body, profane, a creature like us? How could these two incompatible ways of being exist at the same time, in one being without somehow annihilating one another? Could God be among us as one of us and still be God? Wouldn’t one somehow cancel the other out?
And yet, even as we sit here today, with Jesus dead on the cross, dead at our own hands, we have the audacity to say:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ
the only Son of God
eternally begotten of the Father
God from God, Light from Light
true God from true God
begotten not made
of one being with the father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
By the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
“Came down, became incarnate, and was made man…” Unpack these words, these verbs we use to describe Jesus’ life among us and the metaphysical mystery of Emmanuel, God with us, deepens. It quickly becomes apparent that if these claims are true something has to move, to change.
If God has come down, become incarnate, been made man… if God has truly shared our nature then either:
God is no longer God: immortal, beyond space and time, holy, pure, and creator,
the creation, flesh, time and space, are no longer profane, apart from God, or “dirty,” as our definitions seem to demand.
No wonder “Emmanuel” has proven a stumbling block or foolishness to so many.
So what has changed, God or the World? “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” We hear those words in a lot of ways. Their meaning transcends the bounds of a single explication, of even a Good Friday sermon… but the trajectory of this line of thinking helps us to narrow our focus a little.
Ours is an incarnational faith. We believe that God inhabits God’s creation. God’s presence among us, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, in the person of the Holy Spirit, in the imprint of God’s very image on all that is, makes this world real, important, Holy. The world that we experience is not, as some would say, an illusion or a veil that we need to move beyond. The world that we experience is not a prison that we need to escape in order to experience God. In Jesus, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, we see that God is here, in all that is, in the world that has been given into our care, and that God is present in us, our flesh, the very stuff of which we are made.
What has changed? Neither God or the World! It is our understanding of who and what we are, our understanding of the world around us that has changed. “For us and for our salvation,” God has come into this world in a new and unique way, in a person, flesh and blood, just like you and I, so that we can finally see and understand who and what we are: beloved of God, God’s children, made in the image of God, sacred and Holy. This has always been true, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good.”
So now we begin to get to the “how and the why” that haunt us on this day. Emmanuel, God among us, incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth has died. That is the way of all flesh. In the words of a famous theologian, “To be flesh is to be continually dying before God.” The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ did not begin on Palm Sunday. It didn’t begin at the Last Supper when he sent Judas to do quickly what he had to do. It didn’t being in the Garden of Gethsemane where he was betrayed and arrested. The Passion began at the incarnation, when God committed to doing a new thing and became one of us and walked among us, flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood. Even as an infant lying in a manger Jesus was already dying before God.
But why this death? Why not just grow old together? Why doesn’t the story end with Jesus, having spent his entire life teaching us, showing us the way to heaven, and modeling the kind of life that God created us for, dying peacefully in the arms of the beloved disciple, surrounded by his grieving but transformed friends and followers? Why doesn’t the story end with Jesus being carried off in a whirlwind by a chariot and horses of fire like Elijah (2 Kings 2:11), or with him, having brought his people to the promised land, going off and dying alone in the presence of God to be buried in an unknown place like Moses (Deuteronomy 34:5,6)? Why does Jesus die here, on a cross, in the prime of his life, at our own hands? Who would have conceived a story with an ending like this? What sense does it make? What kind of God would demand such a thing?
Not God! Flesh! God became flesh and walked among us as one of us and in so doing committed God’s very self to death. All flesh dies and that reality, that truth, is to flesh abhorrent. It fills us with fear and trembling, with loathing and dread. How can it be that I will die? How can it be that I will cease to be? And so the way of flesh, and Paul is very articulate about this, is to take matters into its own hands. Our response to our own mortality is to struggle and to strive, to meet our own needs, to gratify ourselves and to build ourselves up. We work hard to justify ourselves and to stand in a place where we can say that we have earned the right to an exemption: “we are dust and to dust we shall return? No! Surely I, of all people, will not go down to the pit forever…”
Our desperation to avoid the fate of all flesh is so great that we will even use and manipulate the people around us. We will exploit them to accumulate treasure, to raise our status and profile, and to provide us pleasure in this transitory life. We justify our willingness to raise ourselves at the expense of others because of the sense of scarcity that our own mortality creates in us. Everything, including my time here on earth, is limited. There isn’t enough to go around. I had better get mine while I can and I have a right to build myself up even if it means that others have less than they need.
God comes among us, Emmanuel, and shows us that we are beloved, that we are made in God’s image, that we are holy and sacred and that nothing can separate us from the love of God. That is the Good News of the Gospel! “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son that those who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16,17). Surely this is the answer that our flesh so craves. We will not be extinguished, annihilated! God’s love for us is unlimited and unceasing we will not die but will live forever!
But flesh is not so easily appeased… The Good news might be good enough if it were spoken “just to me.” If God had spoken from heaven, if God had become incarnate and just spent a quiet evening “with me” over some nice seven grain bread and a good glass of sherry my flesh might have been satisfied. But that isn’t what happened. God came into the world and made the whole creation new. It isn’t just me and my flesh that is holy and sacred. It isn’t even just me and my family, my tribe, or my nation. It isn’t even just people that bear God’s image and likeness, that are created and loved by God. It is the whole of creation! And the implications of that truth are staggering!
How does this happen? Why does it happen? We sit here today, our hearts broken, bereft, haunted by these questions as we recount once again the story of the passion and we recognize that Jesus hangs on a cross before us because accepting who is, accepting the gift of grace that he offers, believing that the good news applies to us means that we must also believe that the gift of grace and good news that he brings also applies to everyone and everything in all of creation! . If we are to believe Jesus, and embrace the truth that he brings, we must learn to live with a sense of abundance, generosity and love. We must proclaim the Good News of God in Christ to others, we must seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and we must strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being! Jesus hangs on the cross today because it is so hard for the flesh to let go of its insecurities and needs, of its own fears and anxieties. Jesus hangs on a cross today because we would rather reject the gift that he is offering than learn to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. How does this happen? Why does this happen? Jesus hangs on a cross today because we are so afraid to love our neighbors as ourselves.