Good Friday Community Service, March 29, 2002
What are we to say? What are we to think about this day that we have gathered to commemorate? And even more importantly, what is God’s word to us regarding this event and to this community? You are the ones who know the cross, and who love the cross, otherwise you would not have taken this time out of your busy schedules to be here. I confess that Good Friday makes more sense to me than Easter Sunday. I can recognize more meaning in the cross than I can in the resurrection. The practical meaning in the resurrection always gives me a hard time. I meditate upon it regularly, thinking that this ought to have a powerful influence on me, but often I am afraid it doesn’t, beyond the fact that it represents to me the vindication of Jesus’ cause – that he was who he said he was – and that he lives and rules and one day will return to sort things out here below. Therefore, if I find myself sometimes in my small way, experiencing the trials and sorrows the flesh is heir to, I can regard these as evidence that perhaps resurrection awaits me as well.
Catholic devotion speaks of the sorrowful mysteries. I hope it is not too much of a shock for a Protestant to say that I have found these very profitable to meditate upon in connection with this day. The first sorrowful mystery is Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. He submitted his will to the Father. This is something I find that I must constantly renew. As John Calvin put it, “we must surrender to Christ the helm of our lives.” Why do we resist? What is the perversity within us that thinks life would go better if we were in control? As our control over nature has spread, death, danger, and destruction have spread as well. Our first parents thought the garden would run much better if they were in charge. They had one limit, but it was one limit too many. They regarded God’s life-giving instruction as an obstacle to their freedom and as an impediment to their progress. Clearly, we are their descendants.
We work on our genealogies, but I have never known someone after such a study to announce, “I’m descended from ordinary, banal, everyday sinners.” However, if truth were to be told, we are all related in that respect.
It requires great grace – supernatural force of the Holy Spirit – to transform us into people who surrender up the control of their lives to God. We fear loss when we do so, but whenever we receive the grace to do so, we experience gain far more than loss. We learn what it is to be sustained by God’s provision and providence, rather than by our own restless and anxious fretting.
The real opposite of faith is not sinful behavior; it is anxious, angry fretting. It is the belief that we must secure our own selves. This is the root that gives rise to sin. There are even religious ways to be an anxious, angry, fretful person. Jesus, in his humanity, gave up to God and God sustained him through his trials and vindicated him at the end. In losing, he won.
My father died about a year and a half ago from a rare disease – a kind of Parkinson’s with a vengeance – named multiple system atrophy. This disease caused him to gradually become a prisoner in his own body. During the last two years he gradually lost the ability to talk, to walk, to see, to hear, and at last to shed tears. Yet, through it all, he relied upon God. He told me once that knowing what was before him, he had been tempted with the thought of suicide. However, what prevented him was that he did not want to miss heaven. Though he could barely see with his mortal eyes, he had a clear sight of the vindication that awaits those who hold on until the end – who fight the good fight. For them, as the apostle Paul says, “is laid up a crown of righteousness which none shall take away”. Many start the race well, but not many finish it well. The cross of Christ is our support – and not just halfway – but the whole way. We must surrender to Christ the helm of our lives. He is the good captain who knows how to bring us through the storms of life to a safe haven at last.
The second sorrowful mystery is the scourging of Jesus. Isaiah tells us that he was bruised for our iniquities and that by his stripes we are healed. What can this mean? How can the unjust punishment of this man do us any good? This question has preoccupied me most of my adult life, and I’m still struck dumb when it comes to trying to explain it in logical philosophical terms. We cannot think this through because our fallen reason is a big part of the trouble. Something has to happen to us at a deeper level – the subterranean corners of our minds where desires are born, where guilt and shame prevail – something has to change there or we will join with the crowd and turn away in disgust at the spectacle. What can there be here that could do us any good?
Whoever sets even one foot on the path that the prophets, Christ, and the apostles trod will view things differently. When we make the least beginning at living the Christian life, we are bound to meet resistance. If anyone does not believe me, let him take the first step and he will soon see. Those who claim that faith in Christ means the end of sorrow, sickness, and poverty, preaching that Christ is the path to health, wealth, and prosperity, are telling only half of the truth. They are offering us theological moonshine – sweet lies – and we prefer the artificial to the real thing.
The recent popularity of the prayer of Jabez mystifies me. Not that what it teaches is untrue for it certainly has sound biblical basis. The theme of relying on God’s promises runs throughout Scripture from front to back. What bewilders me is the number of Christians for whom this seems to be news, and, moreover, the fact that a very obscure figure in the Old Testament – whose biography can be told in two sentences – has become the means of making this news known. Perhaps this is the best evidence that for many Christians today vast stretches of the Old Testament are unexplored territory.
The Psalms are full of God’s promises to us. If you do not believe me, read the Psalms through this week and mark every verse that is phrased as a promise. The idea that we must rely on God’s promises and not on ourselves is a major theme of the Reformation and numerous movements in the Church since. However, it has somehow become news to us – as though we have discovered some great secret of some kind. It reminds me of GK Chesterton’s introduction to his excellent book Orthodoxy, where he says that his early religious quest was much like an adventurer who set out to discover new lands but when he landed and planted his flag was chagrined to find that he had simply discovered England, which had been his home all along.
Meditating on the stripes Christ bore on our behalf can give us more patience with the minor discomforts we experience as we attempt to follow him – as we try to raise our children – provide for our families – put up with the frustrations of work – and fulfill the ordinary duties of our Christian calling. Our tendency is always to be seeking some special secret, while we despise the plain and the ordinary. Yet, Isaiah tells us that Jesus was among the ordinary, at least in appearance. If dandelions were rare and hard to grow, we would go to great trouble and expense to acquire and to cultivate them. However, because they are ordinary, we spray them, we dig them, we kill them, we hate them – unless we are children. Then dandelions fascinate us. Jesus tells us that in order to understand him we must become as little children.
The scourging of Jesus at the post teaches us that the little discomforts we feel in doing good are entirely normal. If we genuinely seek to be followers of Christ, we will prepare for even more troubles, instead of always thinking of how we can avoid the cost of discipleship and obtain more pleasure and more comfort even though we realize that pleasures hardness against the knowledge of God and the Gospel. “By his stripes we are healed.”
The crown of thorns is the next sorrowful mystery. This is what the world gave to our Lord in return for his life and teaching. This is how he was rewarded, who brought the world life, hope, and health. We are so attentive to the opinions of men. We are so careful about our image, but we are so careless of our character. All that God regards is character. We will leave no stone unturned to gain the esteem of the godless and dying world, but for the honor that comes from God we care very little.
Many books are written today aiming to teach pastors and churches how to do a better job of cultivating the world’s esteem. George Barna has taught pastors to regard themselves as operating a business and that the way to grow a business is to adopt marketing principles. Such books are heavily promoted because they purportedly “work” that is, they bring in the people and the money, “buildings, bodies, and bucks” as one of my students put it. Of course, every soul is of great value to God, but what happens to the Church’s ability to proclaim the cross of Christ when the Church is playing catch-up to the entertainment industry in trying to peddle a “user-friendly” gospel. This is an approach that may seem to yield short-term successes but it is death in the long run. Crowds are not hard to collect, but it is hard to collect a crowd around the cross. We often hear that if Christians were more genuine, the Church would be more popular. I think the opposite is more true – without exonerating the Church of its sinful shortcomings. One reason the Church is not made more progress in the world is the extent to which the Church is still at least a little bit faithful to the apostolic teaching and to its crucified and risen Lord.
If the world rewards Christ with the crown of thorns for bringing life and healing and hope – would we wish to be honored by such a world? We easily feel injured when we do our best and we receive ingratitude. What kind of a world do we think we are living in? Do we wish to be honored by the world that crowned Christ with thorns? If we understand him, we will lay our earthly crowns at his feet. If we really understand him, we would seek no greater honor than to be unwelcome where he is unwelcome, dishonored where he is dishonored, hated where he is hated. He was despised and rejected but we do not consider ourselves successful until we are well known and highly regarded. The world is, and always has been, a cruel taskmaster and a vengeful god. However, by his stripes we are healed of this disorderly desire to be honored by those who dishonor Christ.
The fourth sorrowful mystery is Christ carrying his cross. It was a feat of great endurance after having suffered such abuse. Along the way the soldiers compelled a bystander to help him. This is something that Jesus has very explicitly told all of his followers that they must also do. Moreover, there is a paradox here. To take up the cross seems to involve embracing death – embracing an instrument of death. God has designed us in such a way that we, by nature, abhor death. This is conducive to our survival. Thomas Aquinas says that “not to fear evil shows more stupidity than courage”. So, what are we to make of this – that if we want life, we must embrace the cross? If we seek life – if we flee the cross – we will not find what we seek, but only death. How are we to understand this? What is our cross, and how are we to bear it after him?
Well, we might decide to fashion a cross for ourselves. There have been those throughout the history of the Church who have pursued a kind of anti-logic logic which reasons that if in my flesh I want to avoid pain, then in order to be spiritual I must seek pain. Therefore, if I want life, I should inflict pain upon myself. I once knew a very unhappy young woman who repeatedly brought herself to death’s door. When this behavior first began, her friends and her doctors thought she was suicidal, but after many, many, near misses, she concluded, as did those who knew her, that she was just trying to hurt yourself, not to kill herself. She seemed to derive some perverse reward out of causing herself pain. Twice she jumped off the bridge over the river that ran through that town, but missed the water both times and only succeeded in breaking her legs and making herself a couple of inches shorter.
That young woman was an extreme example of something that seems far more common – and that is seeking the crosses of our own desire, of our own will, and of our own choosing, rather than the crosses that God chooses for us. This is always dangerous. His yoke, he tells us, is easy and his burden is light. The crosses that we fashion for ourselves are heavy and burdensome. The crosses that we feel prepared for, that we expect, and know how to handle, are not real crosses. The real crosses for us are the ones that seem to come out of nowhere – the ones that we thought we would never have to deal with – those are the real crosses. Often the inward, private crosses are harder to bear than the outward visible ones. At least the public martyr has the consolation of possibly being applauded, revered, and esteemed but what about the crosses that no one sees? What about the inward martyrdom is that no one ever notices? What about the trials for which we cannot find the words? Those trials, the ones that we cannot even find words for, which are so deep that we can scarcely call them to mind well enough even to pray about them, those are real crosses. That is where we really need the Holy Spirit – when all we can do is sigh. God knows the meaning of sighs. Though we cannot find the words, he understands our need.
St. Augustine marvels in his Confessions that when the infant makes its hungry cry the mother’s milk immediately starts to flow. God’s care for us is not hindered by our lack of comprehension, our lack of consciousness, or the limitations of our language. The hungry cry itself is evidence that the sustaining response is already on the way. Our hunger for God may well be the best evidence that God exists. Every other hunger that we are capable of having is capable of being satisfied. If there is nothing that can satisfy our hunger for God than that is the one hunger that makes no sense.
It is easy for Christians to speak about the cross of Christ, but we are often dumbfounded when we find one across our own path, as though God has made some tragic mistake, but the way forward, just as for Joseph when he took up Christ’s cross, is to pick up our cross and follow after. “For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross despising the shame.”
We hear a lot of talk about tolerance in the Church and in society in our day, some of it good and noble, but much of it very silly or worse. We have become so tolerant that sin no longer troubles us. Isn’t that about tolerant enough? Instead of more tolerance, the Church needs more “despising” in the archaic sense in which the book of Hebrews uses the word, that is, to hold as of no account. The Church has given too much credit to the opponents of the cross – the opponents of the gospel. They cannot win, but the devil does not have to get us to abandon our faith, if he can only preoccupy us with things that do not really matter, or intimidate us with the threat of the world’s offense. Christ despised, that is held as of no account, the world’s offense at him. The world still finds him offensive.
I have often thought that the worst part of the judgment will not be hearing about all the sins I have committed – but rather hearing about all that I might have done for the glory of God if I had just had a little more faith.
We must rely on God and bear the crosses he places in our path. I saw a painting recently which portrayed a child carrying the cross, and the child was being carried by father. That is how it is with us before God. We are his children, and when we take up the crosses that he gives to us, he takes us up into his arms and carries us. I am reminded of the popular poem “Footprints in the Sand”. It has consoled many, I’m sure, but it seems to me to be bad theology. It implies that sometimes God is caring us, and at other times, we are on our own. That is not true. There is always one set of footprints. That is, God continuously sustains us, whether we notice it or not. How much more can we expect to be carried in his arms when we call out to him in trouble?
The last sorrowful mystery is the crucifixion. Jesus died almost entirely alone. All of his disciples, except for John, deserted him. This fact is well worth meditating upon if we are inclined to think that God has chosen us because he has foreseen our faithfulness. Even the best cannot live up to that standard. Peter is an especially noteworthy example, and we can be grateful that he was honest enough later to tell of his failures. This gives us hope. The women remained to the end. As they gathered there, in grief and sorrow, they heard him cry out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” How this must have added to their sorrow! God had seemed to desert him in his hour of need. How ironic, how paradoxical, that the one who made God’s love so real to others should find himself bereft of comfort in his time of need.
The soldiers sought to increase his torment. When he cried out in thirst, they offered him wine mixed with myrrh. Myrrh is among the bitterest substances in existence. To offer a thirsty person a drink of any kind mixed with myrrh can only intensify their misery.
Then, he offered up his spirit to God and died. Jesus really died. Even though he was fully God, as well as fully man, yet he really died. He did not just seem to die and then spring back to life on his own. He really died. He clung to God’s cause to the end and placed his future entirely in God’s hands.
The Apostles Creed tells us “he descended into hell.” What he was doing there is not clear, and Scripture does not really give us much to go on, but perhaps we have the clue that we need in an earlier discussion that Jesus had with the Pharisees. After Jesus had performed many signs and wonders, the Pharisees came and said to him “you now, we would believe in you, if you would just give us a sign.” Jesus responded that the only sign they would be given was the sign of Jonah. What might that mean?
If we look at the story of Jonah, we find that God was closest to Jonah when God seemed farthest away. Jonah ran from God, but God pursued him. The belly of the great fish became a sanctuary for Jonah. After three days in the belly of the fish, Jonah began to pray. Jonah’s darkest moment became the time when God was closest.
On the cross, as Jesus cried out, God seemed far away. Yet there, God was closer to us than at any time before or since, until the end of time. That hour of darkness has, for us, become theophany. We do not have to climb up to heaven to find God, we only need to gaze into the face of Christ. Climbing up some other way will never succeed. No amount of our own effort will solve our predicament. But thanks be to God, he has taken upon himself the entire burden of our iniquity and provided for us the opportunity to begin again.
In the cross, the moment of God forsakenness becomes the moment of nearness. Therefore, we never know enough to give up. The death of every dream can become the cradle of the new hope. As Karl Barth said, “whenever we think the thought of God, we make a new beginning. We become able to speak of life for all we see is death.” Oh God, in our meditation upon these events which we remember this day, help us to more fully obtain what they promise. Amen