Friday, April 14, 2017

Intersections: A Good Friday Sermon

We are at a crossroads. Today we commemorate Jesus’ execution at Calvary. Fortunately, for those of us who are believers in Jesus as the Son of God, we know that this is not the summation of the events of this week. If our story ended with the crucifixion, I’m not sure that we’d still be here some two thousand plus years later remembering this man’s sacrifice for humanity.  I have yet to run across Christians who gather in a building called “The Church of the Crucifixion” because the saving power of God doesn’t remain nailed to a cross but comes through the rising and resurrection and the victory of love and life over sin and death.
But we aren’t there yet…and I don’t want to skip passed this chapter in the story to get to the triumphant conclusion too soon. And there’s a lot we can unpack out of this moment.

I mentioned crossroads but perhaps a better term is “intersection.” We have several players here: the Roman authority with Pilate and the guards. The “Jews”…which in this case were really the subset of the power elite in the Jewish community…Jesus’ mother Mary, and the beloved disciple… John…along with Mary Magdalene and another Mary…two criminals, who we assume are in fact criminals, being executed with Jesus on either side, Joseph of Arimathea….and Nicodemus…who we remember from early on in John’s Gospel as the man who visited Jesus at night to have an intellectual conversation…only to find his mind blown up by this new rabbi on the block.
For the Romans and the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus represents a threat. This Jesus challenges their earthly authority. The Romans barely tolerated having Jews in the empire to begin with and the Jewish leaders had worked out a tenuous balance that kept them in power amongst their followers and kept things comfortably safe. Jesus disrupts that…constantly challenging people to look beyond the letter of the law to see what is the spirit behind it: that they are to release the captives, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and above all, that they are to love God and one another as he has loved them. Jesus challenges the status quo and the two groups most invested in keeping their power structure in place intersect to bring him down.

At the foot of the cross we have some of those who were among Jesus’ closest friends. Jesus, while hanging there dying a slow and painful death, looks down to see his mother and his beloved disciple.  To her he says, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple he said, “Here is your mother.” Through him…these two lives have intersected and now must cleave to one another in love as they prepare to grieve this loss.
While it’s not in this account, we know from Luke’s telling of the crucifixion that the two criminals on either side of Jesus were having their own moment with the Messiah. One is jeering him and taunting him, but the other scolds his fellow inmate and pleads with Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. And the dying Jesus promises that this man will be remembered in paradise. Another intersection…here it’s a man who, in his darkest hour, recognizes and expresses a belief in Christ and the one who goes to his death mocking Jesus in his unbelief.

Jesus dies and from the shadows we have the emergence of Joseph of Arimathea to ask that he be allowed to take possession of Jesus’ body so that he might give him a proper burial. And then Nicodemus also overcomes his fear to assist Joseph and prepare Jesus’ body for the grave. Two men…who had previously been lingering in the distance…draw near…intersect and do this honor for a respected teacher.

Jesus is at the center of all these intersections: enemies, friends, believers and non-believers, the curious, the ones who are afraid. In his death…as he did with his life and ministry…he is leading them through a life-altering transformation that becomes complete with his resurrection.  Even some of the ones who are actively participating in putting him to death will not escape being changed.  The temple curtain in the holy of holies will tear in two…bringing heaven and earth in closer contact…the ground will shake. And some who had been content to mock Christ in his life will be left to wonder if they hadn’t just made a terrible mistake.

Probably the biggest intersection in this story comes not so much from the Gospel directly, but the interpretation of the story throughout the millennia. (You’ll be happy to know that the Education for Ministry group over at St. Thomas has been reading a book examining atonement theories, so the timing of our study couldn’t be better with this being Holy Week!) I’ve often heard it said that we killed Christ. We are the ones who gave him up and allowed our fear of change to put him on the cross. I’m not saying that’s not a valid interpretation of us and our role here, but I think if we separate ourselves from Christ in this intersectional moment we’re missing out on the “good” of this Good Friday.

I believe that St. Paul was on to something in his letter to the Romans: if we profess a faith in Jesus’ life and love, and have been striving to do his will, then we are becoming ‘at one’ with Jesus because we are in relationship with him. And if we are one with Jesus through our baptism then we are also one with him in his death and resurrection. We are in that relationship constantly…it’s not just a one-off and we’re done.  Jesus takes us with him through his own bondage of sin and death so that we, too, may rise with him from the grave…and live into the liberating love of God. And once we’ve experienced that sense of freedom we are prepared to carry it forward to everyone we encounter. That is Good News!

This intersection, the one where Jesus is meeting us in our present lives and working through us…crucified/resurrected…crucified/resurrected…crucified/resurrected…is often the one where we stall.  We sit at the traffic light too long wondering if that green light means it’s safe to go. Or maybe we’re not paying attention and we’ll just look at the phone in our laps and ignore the light altogether. Because to step on the gas means we have to leave the spot we’re in and travel in a different direction than what we’re used to. We may encounter something or someone new. We will be changed.

If we are deeply committed to being Christian, and remaining in relationship with Christ, then we will, by necessity, undergo this transformation that comes from dying to our old selves and habits and fears and prejudices and resurrecting to a new way of living, and of seeing ourselves and other people, not as strangers, but as fellow travelers loved unconditionally by God. The more we are willing to let Christ carry us through our various types of crucifixion to resurrection, the more we become refined and primed to offer back to our world, our friends and neighbors, the same love that was in Christ. This is what empowers us to speak up at times of injustice, reach out to the people in need and on the margins, meet and embrace the person who we think of as “the other”: politically, racially, ethnically, sexually, mentally…you name it.

We need what our Presiding Bishop calls “The Jesus Movement” where we meet our neighbors wherever they are on their spiritual journey…from those who share our belief in Christ, or worship God by another name, and even those of no-faith at all…and build relationships with them deeply rooted and grounded in the love and grace we have been shown through Christ. This is how we continue that good work of God to change our world for the better. If we can die to fear and resurrect in faith, we will be doing our part to make earth as it is in heaven. So let us pray for our human family:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.