Weekly Preaching: Good Friday, 2018

March 28th, 2018

I love Good Friday, from the paradox hidden in the word “good” to the shadows and somber solemnity of our service. I preach on Good Friday, but “preach” is too strong a word. “Homily” is even too grandiose. I meditate, and briefly — or 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.” As I ponder and prepare, I’ll listen to that moving crucifixion moment in Jesus Christ Superstar. I'm going to ask my musicians to play, just after I speak or maybe later on where it fits, "John 19:41," that elegiac, emotionally powerful piece from the end of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical.

At our church, we do the Gospel reading in stages, gradually extinguishing lights and then candles until we are immersed in total darkness. 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 two thousand years. 


The brilliant theologian Robert W. Jenson (who just died in September), after assessing the historic doctrines of the atonement, quite shrewdly concluded:

"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.”

I just finished reading Fleming Rutledge's amazing The Crucifixion (which I read through day by day as part of my Lenten discipline). A highlight of this read was her citation of 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."

Her 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.
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N.T. Wright’s fresh look at things, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion, is hugely important. But for my tastes, Good Friday isn’t the day to reiterate his theologically correct understanding that Good Friday was the blastoff, the marching orders for God’s and the Church’s transformative work in the world. We’ll get back to that soon, of course; but on Good Friday, we let the sorrow linger.

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 The 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 newest book, 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:
"So when Pilate and the High Priest — acting on behalf of all of us, it seems — push God in Jesus to the edge, God in Jesus gently but firmly pushes back, doing exactly 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."
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Whether the following things “make it into the sermon” or not, I think it’s important for me to “survey the wondrous cross,” simply to ponder images of Jesus’ suffering — especially in contexts different from my own. Here are just four examples.
  1. The crucifixion I count as my favorite (partly because Karl Barth kept a print of it above his desk) is by Matthias Grünewald for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, whose ministry was to sufferers of the plague; I try to imagine medieval women and men suffering horrific skin diseases looking upon Jesus’ lacerated body, pitted with pricks and sores.

  2. The recently opened (and wonderful) National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington features a Pieta — Mary holding her crucified son — by David Driskell. After 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered by two white men (who were acquitted) in Mississippi, Driskell was so disturbed by the killing, and Till's mother’s very public grief, that he created “Behold Thy Son.” 

  3. I continue to be struck by the first artistic depiction of the crucifixion we have, which is the mockery in the Alexamenos graffito, an image of a Roman convert saluting the crucified Christ pictured as a donkey/ass. The self-evident ridicule is pitch-perfect — back then, but certainly today as well as the crucified Lord is stranger than ever in our culture.

  4. Finally, there is the harrowing scene in Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence (and as of last year, in Martin Scorsese’s film) about missionaries to Japan under persecution. Fr. Rodrigues is told by the magistrate he must trample upon an icon of Christ to save his flock:

    “The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world.’ The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
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