Sermon for Good Friday, April 19, 2019
In his gospel completed some 70 years after the death of Jesus, John narrates a passion, a suffering, much different than those composed by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. While the dying Jesus in Mark cries out in anguish, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” the crucified Jesus in John expresses no such agony. Rather he states, “It is finished,” that is, my work on earth is finished and now I return to the One who first sent me into the world. In Mark, we see the death of a martyr who makes no resurrection appearance. In John, we encounter a heroic figure, steadfast in his mission, who decides when to die and then appears to his incredulous followers on the first day of the week.
John presents us with a story of which we already now the ending – at least as it pertains to Jesus: He is put to death and, in the middle of the night, long before dawn, he is raised by the power of God into an almost indescribable form of new life. But if you and I know how the story turns out, why, then, do we gather here? Why spend a few precious hours on a Friday evening in church if the story of Jesus is plainly known to us? I wonder: Is it because the story of Jesus is not yet finished in your life and in mine and there is still more of him to come for you and me? “God does not need our worship,” writes one theologian, “but we need to know how God is with us and where God is leading us in the here and now.”
What invitations, then, do you and I receive in the Passion according to John? Where might God be leading you and me in the here and now?
It is common among mainline Christians to claim the importance of welcoming the great diversity of people who could potentially enter a Christian community. And perhaps there is a necessary truth in such a claim. But at the same time, we might ask: being welcomed into what and to whom? For it is clear from John’s passion that Jesus was arrested because he was committed to something greater than himself, because he led a movement inspired by the deep meaning of Passover: of freedom from a culture of domination and suffering the likes of which are still with us; for do we not recognize that racism, misogyny, social isolation, mean-spiritedness, and poverty diminish if not degrade the God-given dignity of every human being? Do we not know that to be baptized into Christ and his Body, the church, is to be initiated into a movement, a movement of people drawn in to Christ’s liberating and life-giving mission, drawn into a people willing to accept the suffering and sacrifice that come with any commitment worthy of one’s life?
While Mark portrays Jesus as silent before Pilate during his trial, the Jesus we see in John knows who he is and what his purpose is and speaks it clearly. Indeed, he has criticized religious leaders who divide people into “holy” and “less-than-holy” categories. And now he confesses before the political authorities the truth of their complicity with a violent and unjust regime. Do we not recognize here the voice of Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Black Elk, Dorothy Day, Desmond Tutu, Raymond Hunthausen, and many others – all Christians – who invite you and me to speak the truth that inspires our commitment to serve our neighbors in need: the immigrant, the homeless, the abandoned child, the impoverished worker, the lonely?
From his trial before the cowardly Pilate who washes away any responsibility for the public execution of Jesus, John leads us to the Place of the Skull. And it is here, alone among the gospels, that the inscription in the three languages is placed over the head of Jesus proclaiming him a king. Of course, such an inscription participated in the deathly propaganda of Rome: if you call into question our authority over your life, your convictions, and your practices, we will crush you. For the inscription was clearly intended as a horrific joke: this Jewish peasant is no king, no person of power or influence. Thus in the eyes of the world, Jesus is mocked as a failure, a loser. But, of course, that ancient power failed to grasp the irony of the inscription and the mission of Jesus: his alliance with and astounding love for all those who suffer in this world. In contrast to many contemporary and supposedly “powerful” leaders who threaten with recrimination and punishment, the mystery of the Christian faith is clearly presented here: the great Creator of the heavens and the earth and all that dwells therein is not aloof from suffering, anxiety, and doubt, but rather embraces it in order to dispel its cold, fragmenting, and deathly power in human life. I wonder: have you and I allowed this mystery to fully embrace our lives: that power and influence, whatever measure you and I might possess, is rightly used in the mission of Jesus to serve the neighbor in need, to seek out the least in the world, to continue the liberating and life-giving work sealed in the Body and Blood of our king who is no king, our monarch who, as John points out, reigns from the wood of the cross?
Only a few weeks before he was martyred by the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and critic of Christian complacency, wrote these words while imprisoned: “We have learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. We have learned to see the world in which we live with new eyes so that – so that our perception of generosity, humanity, justice and mercy might become clear and free.”
Why do we gather in solemn assembly this evening? Is it not to pray for new eyes, for renewed vision to see the world in which we live from the perspective of the outcast, the maltreated, the powerless, and the reviled, that is, from the perspective of Christ the servant who invites you and me – as we receive his Body and Blood, as we venerate his holy cross – to renew our commitment to his liberating and life-giving mission in the here and now?