Good Friday, Year B, 2015

Good Friday is a day that exposes us.

The rest of the calendar year we can imagine that we are one of the disciples, lovingly following Jesus, doing our best to live as God wants us to live.

But on Good Friday we remember.

We remember that before human beings could be united to Jesus, first we had to be exposed.

We had to be exposed as traitors, like Judas.  We had to be exposed as cowards, like Pilate.  We had to be exposed as fair weather friends, like Peter.  We had to be exposed as murderous and gullible, like the crowds.

We had to be exposed as people who would sacrifice their own God in order to ease their anxiety.

On Good Friday we think about Jesus on the cross, and we shudder because we aren’t so sure we’d be one of the faithful women who stays by his side even through death.  We are afraid we’d be a member of the crowd.  If Jesus were killed today, we might just be one of the internet commenters sure that if he had just followed the rules, just done what he was supposed to do he wouldn’t have been killed. We would shake our head, and found a way to blame him for his own death.

Good Friday exposes us as complicated people.  We love God, but are too broken to follow him perfectly.  We are Christian, but we are also sinners.  We are redeemed by God, but we are still anxious, judgmental, addicted, selfish, controlling and out of control.

You would think Jesus would wash his hands of us.  Any rational God would roll his eyes and walk away from humanity as a lost cause.

But Jesus does not walk away.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus calmly walks toward his own death.  Jesus never loses control.  Jesus knows he will be betrayed by these disciples who loved him, even Peter who swore up and down that he would be loyal to the end.  Jesus knows the crowd will betray him.  Yet, calmly and in confidence he continues to follow his Father’s will and stays connected to humanity, even at the cost of his life.

God sees all of us.  Everything about us is exposed to God.  He knows every nook and cranny of our hearts and minds.

The miracle is that God sees all the worst parts of us and still treats us with unlimited love and affection.  He remains loyal to us, even though we are disloyal to him.

God looks right at us, full on, and asks us to follow him–just as we are, broken and all.

If you go back and look at Jesus’ speech to his disciples before his death, he does not spend the speech berating them for their sinful natures.  No, his speech is full of encouragement.  He doesn’t blame the disciples for his impending death. He tells his disciples when he goes to be with the Father he will prepare a place for them.  He assures them that they will never be alone, because he will send the Holy Spirit as an advocate for them.  He reminds them that their job is to love one another.

Even when he encounters them after his resurrection, Jesus does not seek recrimination for his death.  He says, “Peace be with you.” and then he sends them forth into the world.

Good Friday exposes us, but God calls us his own and wishes us peace.  He liberates us from our sin, he offers us freedom from the broken parts of our souls that hold us back.

This Good Friday, as you sit exposed before God, may you experience God’s peace and love.  Amen.


Good Friday, Year A, 2011

Beware of crowds.

Crowds are dangerous and fickle.  Crowds don’t use logic and reasoned explanations.  Crowds are easily manipulated.

Even crowds with virtuous intent can suddenly turn, the collective energy turning to violence.  We saw that in Egypt, where parts of the crowd of peaceful protesters turned into a group that attacked Lara Logan, a western journalist.

We’ve seen how easily crowds can be manipulated.  Three years ago our national crowds were yelling for the heads of bankers.  Suddenly this year, with a few nudges here and there, the same crowds were yelling for the heads of teachers and public employees.  All we need is someone to point to an enemy and our collective imagination will paint the rest of the picture.  We love a scape goat.

There is a reason police are called out any time a large crowd gathers—something about being in a crowd makes us anonymous, makes us feel like we lose our identity, that we have become a part of something larger.  That something larger can be a thing of beauty—as we all gather to hear a piece of music together or witness a new beginning like an inauguration.  But that something larger can also be our collective discontent, which can fester and overflow leading us to say and do things we would never do on our own.  Suddenly we’re helping the Nazis round up Jews or murdering thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda or Muslims in Bosnia.  Suddenly, we have become a vehicle for death.

In the end, Jesus’ death can be attributed to a fickle crowd.  The crowd greets him at the entry to Jerusalem, cheering their hosannas, but by the time Jesus is in Pilate’s grasp, the cheers have turned to muttering.  In the Gospel of Matthew’s version of the passion, which we heard last Sunday, the chief priests and elders start whispering into the collective ear of the crowd, encouraging it to free Barabbas.  The crowd has stopped thinking independently.  The crowd asks Pilate no questions.  The crowd just simmers and churns and shouts “Barabbas!” not thinking through the consequences of its action.

Tragically, even Jesus’ disciples are not immune.  One by one eleven of the Apostles slink away.  Peter outright denies Jesus, terrified of being outed.  Terrified of someone identifying him as other, as separate from the crowd.

Not everyone slinks away, though.  A few of Jesus followers somehow manage to stick by Jesus, despite the fear, despite the enormous cultural and political pressure to betray him.  Conveniently, in the Gospel of John’s version of events, John appears to stick around, as well as Jesus’ mother, and Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdelene.  For these women, their love for Jesus overrides all things.  They do not fear the authorites, they do not fear the crowd, they are able to remember love in the midst of all the fear.

Strangely, the other two figures who are able to distinguish themselves from the crowd are actually part of the establishment.  Neither Joseph of Arimathea nor Nicodemus were public followers of Jesus.  Joseph, a wealthy man, considered himself a disciple, but was a secret one because he was afraid of the authorities, afraid of the crowd.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee who was intrigued by Jesus, but only would visit Jesus under the cover of night.

For these two figures, the death of Jesus becomes a crystallizing moment.  Suddenly they are able to distinguish themselves from the crowd.  Somehow Jesus’ death helps them to put everything in perspective.  Whether they act out of guilt, out of a newfound faith, out of a sense of responsibility, they step forward and claim Jesus’ body.  They were not able to publically claim Jesus’ teaching or believe in his divinity during Jesus’ lifetime, but now they are ready.  Now they are able to take a stand.  Now, when the violence has been done, when the threat to them is still very real, they are able to faithfully care for Jesus.

Joseph claims Jesus’ body.  Nicodemus brings myrrh and aloe and together they anoint Christ’s body and prepare him for burial.

These men who would not be publically associated with Jesus, now care for his body in the most physical, personal and tender way.  They have gone from being part of the larger crowd to identifying specifically as followers of Jesus.  They are differentiating themselves.  Aligning themselves with Jesus.  Pouring thousands of their own dollars worth of myrrh and aloe over his body.  Giving him the burial Jesus’ own apostles could not.

They are claiming this crucified Christ as their own.  The apostles all come back, of course, but not until the resurrection.  For them, this crucified Christ was too much to bear.

Where do we stand?  Do we stand with the Pharisees, who cannot tolerate Jesus as he claims his own divinity?  Do we stand with the crowd who mocks and betrays Jesus?  Do we stand with the disciples, who run from Jesus’ death, living into fear instead of into faith?

Or do we stand with the Marys, with Joseph and Nicodemus who are willing to stay with Christ, even through his humiliating death.   Who are willing to stand up after the madness of the crowd and quietly align themselves with this broken Jesus.  Who are willing to be publicly known as followers of this mortal God.

Standing with the resurrected Jesus is easy.  Standing amidst hope and joy and a promise of a new life does not challenge us.  But that resurrection comes at a cost.  The resurrection could not have happened without the senseless, brutal death of Jesus at the hands of a fickle, unruly crowd.  Good Friday invites us to remember.  Good Friday invites us to stand with Joseph and Nicodemus as they reject the crowd and choose Jesus.

Good Friday calls us to account for our choices, whether they are made deliberately and privately or in the heat of a moment as a crowd carries us away. Will be stand up for what is right and true?  Will we stand up for love when everyone around us is calling for death and destruction?  Grace will come, but not yet.  Today we are left with just ourselves.  What do we see within?

Good Friday, Year C, 2010

My favorite musical of all time is West Side Story.  I have watched the movie dozens of times and seen the play in the theater several times.  No matter how many times I watch it, though, I root for everything to turn out in the end.  I cross my fingers and hold my breath and think maybe this time Tony won’t kill Bernardo.  I think this time maybe Maria and Tony can hide safely away somewhere.  Maybe this time, Tony won’t die in Maria’s arms.

Of course, no matter how hard I wish for the outcome to change, West Side Story always ends the same way, with Maria’s heartbreaking speech as she holds the gun that killed her lover and with the Jets and the Sharks finally joining together carry away Tony’s body.

I experience a lot of the same feelings around Good Friday.  Maybe this time the Pharisees will listen to Jesus.  Maybe this time, Judas won’t betray him.  Maybe this time Pilate will actually take a stand and follow his instincts instead of caving to the desires of the crowd.

But both these stories always have the same ending.  Tony always dies because Laurents and Bernstein were following the plot of Romeo and Juliet.  And in a Shakespearean tragedy, things always end badly.

Our Good Friday story, though, is more than a story.  The Good Friday story was not written by an author to manipulate our emotions.  Jesus does not die because literary convention demands it.

Jesus’ death can seem inevitable, something that was always fated from the moment he started claiming to be God’s son.  All the circumstances line up that way.  He angers those in power, they create rhetoric around him, a friend betrays him, and then he ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Jesus can be seen as a victim, someone like Tony in West Side Story, who died unnecessarily, pathetically.

The only problem with this theory, is that the Jesus portrayed in The Gospel of John is anything but pathetic. Jesus knows that death is his destiny, and he walks toward it full of confidence that his death and resurrection are what is needed for humanity.  In John 16 he tells his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but he world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.”  Jesus gives his disciples a long final speech that sums up what is happening and gives them encouragement and hope for the future.  Immediately before his betrayal, Jesus prays a long prayer to God.  And this is not the cry for help in the garden of Gethsemane found in the synoptic gospels, this is a prayer full of confidence.  He prays that he may be glorified, but also prays for his disciples, that they might be sanctified and gain eternal life because of his actions.

Even though these disciples will betray and deny Jesus, they are at the front of his mind, and seem to be his primary concern.  Even on the cross, Jesus seems in control, making sure his mother is taken care of before he takes his final breath.

Jesus was not the victim of fate.  Jesus was in charge of his destiny.  Jesus actively made the choice to sacrifice himself for us.

He chose to die so that we could be redeemed by God.  He chose to die so we could be free to be in relationship with his Father.  He chose to die so we could receive the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter.

Before he died, Jesus left us instructions.  In chapter 14 of The Gospel of John, Jesus is telling his disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit and he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  So, if we want to honor his death we choose to take seriously those commandments to love God and our neighbors.  Because when Jesus redeems us for our sins, he doesn’t just send us on our way.  Once Jesus redeems us for our sins, we belong to him.

And when we belong to Jesus, we are expected to act a certain way.  And in our culture, which is so quick to judge and pit people against each other, there is no more radical act, no better way, for us to show our commitment to Christ than by loving God and loving our neighbor.  We can give each other the benefit of the doubt, we can engage in thoughtful conversation rather than screaming argument, we can reach out to the unloved, we can cross bridges of culture and understanding.  We can show to the world that we serve one who loves all of humanity—people of all colors, cultures and political perspectives—by loving one another.

We have those instructions from Christ, but even following Christ’s clear instructions cannot make us fully grasp Good Friday.  Christ’s sacrifice, given freely, is astonishing.  Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf leaves us in stunned silence.  There is a reason we keep silent vigil between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  Any other response is inadequate.


Good Friday, Year B, 2006

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Cosmic Word.  From the very beginning he is clear about his transcendent nature and his close relationship with his Father in heaven. 

How painful then, for his friends and family, to see Jesus in the most degrading of human positions-hung on a cross.  He has been betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter and hangs before the Marys and his beloved disciple, slowly dying.  O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded, a hymn we sing today, expresses this grief:

Thy beauty, long-desirèd,
hath vanished from our sight;
thy power is all expirèd,
and quenched the light of light.

Jesus was light and life and hope.  Jesus dying must have felt like the most gut wrenching, mind spinning incongruity.  I know I would have wanted to run.  Run somewhere safe, somewhere far away. 

The Marys and the beloved disciple challenge us.  They do not run from the agony.  They do not turn away from Jesus’s pained body.  They do not try to get Jesus off the cross.  They have the courage to sit with Jesus, to commune with him, to be present to him, as he experiences his final suffering.

In the news lately, there has been a lot of talk about the recently discovered Gospel of Judas.  In this text, written about 150 years after our four Gospels, Judas doesn’t betray Jesus, Jesus asks Judas to turn him in.  There’s something comforting about this image-It presents a Jesus fully in control.  But none of the Gospels in our canon presents this convenient story.

Jesus was betrayed.  Jesus did die. Jesus willingly let go of control over his own life for our benefit.  And through all of that, the Marys and the beloved disciple never left his side. 

Last week, I had the opportunity of hearing Charles LaFond, the former assistant at Church of Our Savior, lead a retreat about Holy Week.  He told the story of the experiences of the chaplains to the morticians in New Orleans.  After the waters in New Orleans receded, the city was left with the horrifying task of dealing with tens of thousands of dead bodies.  400 morticians from around the country were brought in and a temporary tent city was built. 

Trucks brought in 40 bodies at a time, and they were distributed among the morticians.  While there were many drownings, there were also as many as 85 murder victims disguised as hurricane victims. After the autopsies, bodies were tagged and stored in refrigerated units. 

The job of the chaplains was to bless the truck with the bodies, to bless the bodies again as they were taken to the refrigerators after the autopsies, and to be with the morticians when they wept between autopsies.  Like the Marys and the beloved disciple’s ministry of presence to Jesus, the chaplains’ jobs were not to free the morticians from their horrific duties, but to stay close with them, to love them and pray for them, to be alongside them as they did their work.

That kind of commitment and presence takes enormous courage.  Facing Jesus’ death takes courage, too.  We worship a God who, while ultimately triumphant, was willing to be completely weak and mortal for our behalf.  While we are Easter people, we are also called to remember the shocking vulnerability of our Lord.  We are called to abide with him in prayer, as many of you did during the prayer vigil last night. 

In the same way, when our loved ones are experiencing crisis that makes us uncomfortable:  when they are losing their memory, dying, getting a divorce, losing a child, we are called to be with them.  We cannot solve their problems.  We cannot always make them feel better, but like the Marys and the beloved disciple, we can show up, we can pray for them, we can love them.

Good Friday invites us to grow into people who can abide in pain.  For we know that it is through Jesus’ pain, through his death that we must enter to experience the joy that follows.  In the meantime, we are asked to wait with Jesus still on the Cross.  Again from our hymn:

In thy most bitter passion
my heart to share doth cry,
with thee for my salvation
upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, well-beloved,
yet thank thee for thy death.