Weekly Preaching: Good Friday 2020

April 6th, 2020

I love Good Friday, from the paradox hidden in the word “good” to the shadows and somber solemnity of our service. N.T. Wright has written brilliantly about the crucifixion, calling it The Day the Revolution Began (a must read for clergy). I buy into that (although I wonder if the revolution really began at Christmas, or even at conception in Mary's womb!), but the whole program feels too active, too much like a campaign for the quiet calm, the dark sorrow of the service. Maybe a mention, and follow up next month?

The loneliness Jesus surely felt all day but certainly in the hour of death is mirrored by us clergy trying to pull off Good Friday without people. We have arranged via Zoom recording to have various folks read the passion narrative from Matthew, and then extinguish lights in the sanctuary with 2 or 3 of us present. Agonizing... but fitting somehow. I wonder how to name to lonely reality of Good Friday during Covid-19 as a window into what it was for Jesus.

I preach on Good Friday, but “preach” is too strong a word. “Homily” is even too grandiose. I meditate, and briefly ( like a docent in a museum, with just a few words) I point to the wonder, the horror, the beauty and majesty. May I just sigh, or shudder. That would be a good enough sermon. Maybe the choir will bail me out with Gilbert Martin’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or one of the others listed at the end of this blog. As I ponder and prepare, I’ll listen to that moving crucifixion moment in Jesus Christ Superstar.

With Covid-19, it's likely to be exceedingly quiet and a little lonely  which is what Good Friday certainly was for Jesus himself. Lots of grief and loss: of jobs, routines, activities, dreams, you name it. Jesus' solidarity with us in our losses, deaths, griefs is obviously on point during this season. I'm unsure how we'll maneuver the service; gradually turning down lights? We'll read the Passion narrative and try to preserve the basic elements of the service, even if it's small and on a screen.

I'll preach. Briefly though. Preparation for Good Friday involves the preacher sitting, being very still, and weighing deeply an image, or images of the crucifixion. Grünewald? Rouault? Some other choral pieces that are lovely and moving for Good Friday: “Drop, Drop, Slow Tears” by Kenneth Leighton; Dan Forrest’s “Forsaken”; “Thy Will Be Done,” by Craig Courtney; or Al Travis’s “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.”

* * *

At our church, we always read the Isaiah 52:13-53:12 early, and will online this year. Such haunting words, evidently the bleak testimony of the prophet, abused for bringing God's Word to hopeless people, bearing their sins somehow redemptively on himself. Good Friday isn't the time to explicate this complex text and its background. We trust the words to do their thing. And Psalm 22: Jesus' heart-wrenching cry, himself forsaken, and joining his God-forsakenness forever to ours. I try to ponder the horror, the sorrow Mary felt as she watched her son cry out these words she had taught him as a little boy.

"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead

Then we do the Matthew Gospel reading in stages, gradually extinguishing lights and then candles until we are immersed in total darkness. This year, "we" might be me and my wife or a couple of us in our sanctuary. A childhood friend of mine, who lives in another city, called the church last year at the end of the service he was livestreaming, saying "I can't see anything!" Indeed. We can't see. We can hardly speak. On Good Friday, more than any other day, we are humbled by our inability to say anything, just as Jesus was all but silent as he hung for hours. On this day, more than any other, we realize we do not need to make the Bible relevant, or to illustrate it. We can and must simply trust the reading to do the work it has done for 2000 years.  

I love this: Robert W. Jenson, after assessing the historic doctrines of the atonement, quite shrewdly concluded, “The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back... The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling actions and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours. Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.”

Fleming Rutledge's amazing (and long!) Crucifixion book is striking in so many ways; I'm glad I read it in preparation for this Good Friday, and for the rest of my life as a follower of the crucified Jesus. It highlights an astonishing sermon by Melito of Sardis, maybe around the year 190, which includes this:

"The Lord suffered for the sake of those who suffered, was bound for the sake of those imprisoned, was judged for the sake of the condemned, and buried for the sake of the buried. So come, all families of people defiled by sin, and receive remission. For I am your remission, I am the Passover of salvation, I am the Lamb sacrifice for you, I am your ransom, I am your life, I am your Resurrection, I am your light. I am your salvation. I am your king. I lead you toward the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up with my right hand."

And so, in awe, we pray, perhaps with St. Francis:
My Lord Jesus Christ, 
     two graces I ask of you before I die:
   the first is that in my life I may feel,
     in my soul and body, as far as possible,
     that sorrow which you, tender Jesus,
       underwent in the hour
       of your most bitter passion;
     the second is that I may feel in my heart,
       as far as possible,
   the abundance of love with which you,
       son of God, were inflamed,
     so as willingly to undergo
     such a great passion
       for us sinners.
After this, Francis bore, in his body, the actual wounds (the stigmata) of Jesus, which he hid for the rest of his life out of humility.
* * *
Wise, deeply spiritual writers help me weigh what happened at Calvary. One of Henri Nouwen’s more obscure books, Heart Speaks to Heart, will place you in conversation with the crucified Jesus. I love the idea of speaking with the suffering Christ on the cross and saying, "O Lord, why is it that I am so eager to receive human praise even when experience tells me how limited and conditional is the love that comes from the human heart? So many people have shown me their love... but no one could touch that deep, hidden place where my fear and my loneliness dwell. Only you know that place, Lord..."
Jürgen Moltmann’s Crucified God has hot when I was in seminary; it still speaks to me, and should be required reading for younger generations. He wonderfully explains how an omnipotent God is inferior to the suffering God, as only the vulnerable one can love and be loved. My copy of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale is chock full of underlinings and exclamation points, and I return to it often. 
Rowan Williams’s The Sign and the Sacrifice is predictably and wonderfully thoughtful and eloquent (and brief). For him, the Bible parses the cross as proof of God's love for us, and a demonstration of the kind of God we're dealing with:
"When Pilate, on behalf of all of us, pushes Jesus to the edge, God in Jesus gently but firmly pushes back, doing what he always did: loving, forgiving, healing. This is a God whose actions, and whose reactions to us, cannot be dictated by what we do. That's the good news: our powerlessness to change God's mind. God's love is both all-powerful and completely vulnerable."

What can we say come Good Friday? originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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