Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: Cross, crucifixion, fear, glory of cross, Good Friday, gospel of john, Jesus
“That’s a church thing?”
One of my confirmation students looked up at me with confused eyes.
I had just been talking over the announcements for my confirmands, emphasizing that there would be many worship services this week, silently thinking they are an unwelcome blessing for those students needing to complete more sermon notes. I had just mentioned Good Friday worship when one of them remarked, “That’s a church thing?”
“Yes,” I explained, responding to the assumption, “It’s more than a celebratory way to name a day off from school. People have historically received time off from their daily work to gather together for worship.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Good Friday’s association with faith had been trumped by its association with a holiday from work and school. As I’ve walked the aisles of Easter goodies, wondering how to celebrate Laila’s first Easter, I haven’t seen anything that would remind me that this celebration is about Jesus. I haven’t even seen a chocolate cross, although I’m not quite sure how useful that sugar sweetened symbol is for sharing the faith.
There is a vacuum of connection between these highest holy days and their meaning. Maundy Thursday confuses us with archaic Latin derivatives. Good Friday seems to celebrate the weekend off. Holy Saturday with its vigil is altogether unknown. Easter Sunday conjures up visions of eggs hunts, bunnies, and jelly beans. Holy Week, which once was a time of deep faith engagement with church pews full of worshippers seeking meaning in the story of Jesus’ last days, has become eclipsed by secularism and one time commitment too many for the faithful.
These days present the central story of our faith, and yet we can be hard pressed to name their impact on our lives in such a way as to make them a compelling option for busy people. We figure that everyone basically knows the stories. So, in the midst of daily work and family visiting, why should anyone bother with four days of church?
Tonight can be a difficult worship service to wrap our minds around. We hear the story of Jesus’ death and wonder how we can call this day “Good.” Tonight’s celebration rejoices in the glory of the cross. But how can this instrument of humiliating death be a place of glory? Certainly the apostle Paul was right in writing to the Corinthians, “The message of the cross is foolishness…” A celebration tonight doesn’t make sense. On a such a day as this, when we acknowledge that the central symbol of our faith is an instrument of torture, it becomes more understandable that many have lost connection with these central days of our faith. Why would anyone come to worship on such a morbid night?
We gather tonight, focused on the cross, because Jesus has transformed it from an instrument of death into a life-giving event. God has taken what is most horrifying about ourselves: our desire to inflict pain on another, and transformed it into a symbol of what is most awesome about God: God’s unconditional love for us.
This is a solemn night, but also a night of great joy, as we acknowledge our sin and rejoice in Jesus’ exchange of our sin for his righteousness.
God’s voice to us worshipping tonight speaks to us of the ways humanity is steeped in sin. The long reading from John’s gospel speaks of the way in which many people: Judas, priests, Pilate, soldiers, and the crowd sought to prove their power over Jesus. Their evil intentions sought to do one thing to Jesus, but God transformed the situation to accomplish another.
Especially in the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as knowing his identity as the Son of God. He knows that he has come from God to earth to accomplish God’s mission. Jesus has come to bring God’s kingdom to earth and to restore all creation to right relationship with God. Jesus is confident in his path, even knowing that it will take him to suffering and death. Interspersed throughout this account of Jesus’ passion are reminders from the Gospel writer that Jesus is fulfilling scripture and fulfilling his own words in all that he does. Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death are all part of God’s work to fulfill God’s promises. Jesus is fully aware of and willing to follow through with all his mission entails.
We need this reminder as we hear again this story of Jesus’ suffering. John wants us to know that Jesus’ death was not a mistake that God somehow had to fix. Jesus chooses suffering with a purpose. Jesus isn’t killed by a vicious father God, but by the world. Jesus goes towards his death because he intends to accomplish his mission by seeing it through to the end.
That someone would choose to suffer goes against all human comprehension. Why does Jesus do this? Jesus’ passion exposes the sin of the world, the sin that still holds us captive. Its root is in the oldest sin, the most central evil of our hearts: the desire to be god.
This sin is manifested in actions that seek power. Groups and individuals want power and control over others. This power is maintained by violence, social pressure, and the withholding of goods. Even as we long to be in control, we long to be in community and find safety in groups. That creates a desire that others can exploit by threatening to push us out. We control others and are controlled ourselves by fear. We fear what others might do to us, we fear losing what we have, and we fear being alone.
Consider the people who played a part in Jesus’ passion. Their desire for power and their fear to lose it lead them to abandon, reject, and crucify Jesus.
Peter is disciple who receives the most focus. Although he follows Jesus from table to garden to trial, when asked by other bystanders about his relationship to Jesus, he denies knowing him. Peter finds himself under the control of his fear. He wants to be safe, and doesn’t want to find himself under the power of those who are questioning and will kill Jesus. Fear leads Peter to abandon Jesus.
The crowd is the community who maintains power and safety by controlling the gates that define who is acceptable and who is not. In our day to day lives, we might often find ourselves among their ranks. They need a class of people to exist as those defined as outsiders to strengthen the cohesion of the in-group. Jesus has threatened them by welcoming those who don’t belong.
The Jewish leaders’ authority and power is threatened by Jesus, who declares himself to be the Son of God and questions traditional teaching and practice. Jesus prophesies the destruction of the temple, where their leadership is necessary. Jesus has performed miracles no one before has accomplished, in restoring life to the dead. The religious leaders use Judas to lead them to Jesus, and they use their power to arrest and prosecute Jesus, calling for his death.
The Roman empire has control over the Jews, among many other peoples and lands. Pilate is the local representative of this power, along with the soldiers under his command. Every year he makes a special show of his power by releasing a prisoner of the state. This year, he proves the power of the state as crowd calls for Jesus’ death and the release of Barrabas, the bandit.
Pilate has a sign fashioned to hang over Jesus at his crucifixion. It reads, “The king of the Jews.” The chief priests object to this sign, wanting it to read instead, “This man said, ‘I am the king of the Jews.’” But Pilate will not change the sign, and so the Jewish authorities have to bear the humiliation of the state’s public destruction of a figure named to be their leader.
Everyone has conspired to rid themselves of Jesus and the threat he poses. The crowd and the Jewish authorities have heard enough of his teachings to know that he calls into question the assumptions that drive their lives. Pilate uses Jesus as he would have used any other, to declare the power of the empire. That Jesus has been called a king makes him all the more useful. Everyone is seeking to use Jesus for their own gain.
Jesus transforms the search for power. He is God. Yet he chooses to give up power. He chooses to be humbled. Jesus chooses to have his life snuffed out in order to proclaim a new way of life.
The cross changes our world. Jesus’ death calls into question all our assumptions about the goals of life. In his willingness to experience rejection, betrayal, humiliation, and death, Jesus exposes our life struggle to do everything necessary to avoid experiencing these things ourselves. Jesus exposes our assumption that the only way to live is to gain as much power over ourselves, our circumstances, our communities as we can, as we seek to protect ourselves and our interests.
Jesus declares that there is an alternative. We can give up the struggle for power. We can give up the illusion that we can have the ultimate control that belongs only to God. Then we no longer need to push others down so that we can rise above them. We can join Jesus in the life of trust that relies on God’s love to bring us through our experiences of suffering.
In his path to the cross, on the cross, Jesus chooses to be the focus of the worst hatred and violence present in the human experience. Because Jesus chose to be found in this suffering, we need not be ruthless to others in our attempts to avoid personal suffering.
We are freed from the fear of being alone in suffering. We live in a world in which violence, suffering, and death occur. Jesus has gone ahead of us into these dangers, so that if we ever enter them, we would find that Jesus is with us through them. Jesus has transformed the emptiness of pain and suffering through the presence of his love. When you find yourself in the midst of illness, rejection, grief, and pain, Jesus is with you. Even in these experiences, the life-giving God holds on to you and is at work to restore you to wholeness.
At the cross, Jesus stands alongside those who have been cast out of communities. Jesus breaks the power of society to hold individuals in bondage and to declare some unwelcome. The rejected find themselves in Jesus’ company. Jesus frees you from the power of those who would seek to control you with threats of rejection.
Jesus’ faithfulness, Jesus’ willingness to enter into his passion, his path to and death on the cross, transforms the power of the cross. The intention of the cross was to destroy and humiliate Jesus, to show the world’s power over him. In choosing to hang there, its power is broken. The power of fear has no hold on Jesus, who freely and willingly enters into this experience of death.
Jesus enters this experience confidently because he knows that it will validate his ministry and declare God’s love for the world. Jesus decided that the physical and emotional pain is worth the possibility that it will convince you that you are loved. Jesus enters death to give you life. Jesus’ captivity to the powers of the world, the powers of evil, the powers of death, releases you from your captivity. Jesus has freed you from any need to fear.
These holiest of days, with their many opportunities to worship, confront us with truth about our lives. God shows us that we live under the power of sin, so that our motivations are based on fear and the thirst for power. These days speak most powerfully and clearly God’s work to do something about our situation. Jesus has come to you to change your life. Jesus died on the cross, captive to the powers of sin and death, to free you for a life of wholeness and love.
Jesus transforms the cross into a place where God’s glory is revealed.
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