A sermon preached Good Friday at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church, 4/14/17; John 18:1-19:42.
I’ve preached Good Friday for five years now, and I have to tell you, I’m tired of glorifying, romanticizing, and theologizing this day. This day is simply a terrible day, and it’s about us much more than it’s about God. Today is about human brutality, hatred, ignorance, senseless violence, and the abuse of power. And there’s no good way to clean any of that up.
Today we remember the brutal murder of the one who last night gave us the commandment that we love one another as he has loved us. The one who humbled himself and washed our feet. The one who shared bread and wine with us as a sign of his own self-giving.
Today we watch this same beautiful, beloved one be senselessly tortured and publicly executed. And I say “senseless,” but the truth is, his murder, from the perspective of the power structures, wasn’t senseless at all—it was actually very pointed, sending a clear, intentional, and deliberate message. His murder represents the forces of Empire and institutionalized religion saying “Don’t mess with us. Don’t buck the system, don’t fight the status quo, or this is what will happen to you.”
And not much has changed; these same forces and structures are alive and well—we’ve seen them on grand display in our government of late—and human beings go on being brutal and cruel and violent. And so yes, I am tired of glorifying, romanticizing, and theologizing this day—because it deserves none of those things. There is very little “good” about this Friday, and we continue to live this day out every time children are killed by military violence, every time racial epithets are spray-painted on a building, every time a Christian kills a Muslim or a Muslim kills a Jew, and on and on and on. Every time.
We see the exact same death when Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are crucified with bullets, when innocent black men are gunned down by police officers. The truth is, there’s nothing special about Jesus’ death. It’s utterly banal. And anyone living in 1st century Palestine could have told you that. The crosses literally lined the roadside.
The truth is, Jesus didn’t suffer more than anyone else. He was just one of countless criminals crucified in the exact same way, and many of them certainly took longer to die than he did. In the first century it was a cross, but it has also been the guillotine, the electric chair, the lethal injection.
And so, today is not good, or special, or glorious. It’s senseless, evil, ignorant, and stupid, and we go on doing it, again and again and again. Huston Smith, beloved scholar of world religions who died this past year, put it this way: “Every time we abuse the poor, every time we pollute our God-given planet, indeed, every time we act selfishly, God dies naked on the cross of our ego.”
And so I think it’s best that we not try too hard to clean this up with nice theology. “Isn’t it wonderful that Jesus died for our sins?! What a good day this is! Thank you, Jesus!” If you can’t turn around and say the same thing to the innocent person wrongfully imprisoned and waiting on death row in our criminal justice system today, don’t say it to Jesus. Instead, think for a minute about just how absurd such a sentiment is.
We’ve written far too much bad theology about the Cross—that it was payment to a wrathful god, that Jesus took the beating we deserve. Dominic Crossan says that most of our so-called “atonement theology” amounts to little more than “cosmic child-abuse.” And so, perhaps it’s time for us to step back from the theologizing for a while, and just look at the naked thing itself. A beloved and innocent man beat down and killed by the power structures. Certainly today, let’s just be with him as he dies. We can turn it all into poetry later.
Living alongside Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, every day when I walk through the main door of the monastery, I pass under the words, Crux est Mundi Medicina—“The Cross is the World’s Medicine.” How is this possibly medicine? In this way: the Cross is the reproach we need, the shock we need, to wake us up—it’s the sign of our own violence, domination, and misuse of power. Of our scapegoating and our blaming and our othering.
If we can look at it and really see what it is, really see what we are, what we have been complicit in, it can be medicine. Bitter medicine. There’s a line from the Sufi poet Rumi that says, “The wound is where the light enters.” Can we see Jesus on the Cross as our collective wound through which the light can enter? Or will we instead turn it into an opiate, a sedative, to put us back to sleep, to say, “Oh Jesus has died for our sins, now everything is taken care of!”? What kind of medicine will the Cross be for us?
Yes, Jesus has died for our sins—but remember that one meaning of for, died for, is because of. It is because of our sins—our hate, our fear, our blindness—that Jesus died. Jesus died for, because of, our sins.
And yet, for can also mean in response to, in offering to. And so perhaps we can also say that in dying because of our sins, Jesus also died in loving response to our sins—revealing in his dying another way, a way that loves and forgives even in the face of betrayal and death. And that in that loving and forgiving, unmasks the powers and the structures of this world for what they are.
And it’s here, that maybe, we can begin to speak of Good Friday. Because here, Jesus’ death does become more than just another senseless death. Luke’s Gospel records him as saying, just before he dies, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He refuses, to his last breath, to hate or to blame. Instead, he sees and names our ignorance, and he loves us.
In that moment, this utterly banal, ordinary, senseless death becomes the source of our salvation. Jesus, from the Cross, shows us a possibility that exists in all of us. We can refuse, even in the most extreme circumstances and conditions, to play the game—to plug into hate and blame. When Jesus refuses, in those final moments, to do anything other than love, yes, he becomes the salvation of the world.
And today, on this Good Friday, we gaze, straight-on, unflinchingly, at that medicine. Without theologizing, without romanticizing the horror of it. Today, we gaze at the Cross and we let it unmask the powers of this world. And today we gaze upon the love that alone can save us.