These young people are amazing. This is my other favourite Good Friday song, and they do a wonderful job of it.
I think I post this every year on Good Friday. It’s one of my favourite versions of this old gospel hymn.
I recently read a wonderful book called ‘Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved’ by Kate Bowler. The book is about Kate’s experience, as a woman in her thirties, about being diagnosed with terminal cancer – of looking at her young husband and her four-year old boy and knowing the chances are very good they’re going to lose her. It was written during the first year of Kate’s diagnosis – she’s still alive, thanks to an experimental drug treatment, but her diagnosis is still terminal. It’s a wonderfully honest and refreshing book; you will not find clichés here! That’s what the title means, of course. So many of us have experienced this! We’re going through some time of deep suffering and some well-meaning soul says piously “Oh well – everything happens for a reason”, and somehow we just can’t find any comfort in that phrase; it just annoys us!
In one of the funniest chapters of the book, Kate talks about how she decided to take up swearing for Lent. Now, I’m a person who one year decided to stop swearing for Lent – I fined myself a dollar off my open stage beer money for every infraction – so I was intrigued by the idea that swearing could be a good Lent discipline! As I read the chapter I realized what she was doing: she was protesting against this need that Christians seem to have to dismiss death and suffering and give easy answers for everything. Her Lenten swearing discipline was aimed at those easy answers.
She talks about how she was out for coffee with friends one night and got so frustrated with this Christian desire to jollify everything. “This is Lent”, she said. “I’m dying of cancer – I’m staring into the face of death – and during Lent the church has asked all its members to join me there. We started out with an ash cross and the words ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return’. That sets the theme for Lent! But no one is willing to stay there with me!” And then she uses this wonderful phrase – probably my favourite phrase of the whole book: “Everyone is trying to Easter the crap out of my Lent!”
Well, we’re not going to ‘Easter the crap out of each other’s Lent’! Today is Good Friday, and although all around us people have started wishing each other Happy Easter, we’re going to stay with the cross today. And one of the best ways of doing that is staying with our psalm, Psalm 22. Here are the first two verses:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2).
And then in the next few verses the mood seems to change abruptly.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. (vv.3-5)
In other words, ‘There are all sorts of stories about how you worked mighty miracles to help our ancestors in the past; they trusted you and you saved them. So what’s the matter with me? Am I a worse sinner than them? Am I not really one of your people after all? Or are those stories just not true?’
‘And what have I done to deserve this?’ the psalmist asks. In verses 9-11 he talks about how he has been dedicated to God since he was born; ‘since my mother bore me you have been my God’ (v.10). He looks back on a life dedicated to the service of God, and asks himself if this is all the reward he gets. Why did he bother, if he was just going to be abandoned?
Which of us hasn’t felt like this from time to time? I think of people living with long-term, chronic pain who don’t seem to be able to get any relief. They pray over and over again; they lie awake at night, unable to sleep, doing their best to hold back the tears so as not to wake their spouse. They read stories about how God miraculously heals people, and they think, ‘Why doesn’t he heal me, then? Am I some particularly vile sort of sinner, that he refuses to help me? I always thought I was a Christian and a child of God, but perhaps I was wrong – perhaps I’m really nothing to God’. You see, the worst thing this sort of suffering does to some people is not to stop them believing in God, but to stop them believing in a loving God, and give them a monster instead.
Psalm 22 is a prayer for people who feel like that; it enables us to pray our experience, honestly and openly, before God. It’s the prayer of the person who suffers chronic pain day and night. It’s the prayer of the person who’s suffered some public disgrace and is afraid to show their face in public for fear of the ridicule they’ll encounter. It’s the prayer of the bereaved person who longs for some sort of sense of companionship from God in their loneliness, but finds only empty skies above.
And this is the prayer of Jesus on the Cross. ‘At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’ (Mark 15:34). Jesus was a Jewish boy who would have learned the psalms by heart at a very early age. Now, in his hour of greatest need, the psalms gave him the words he needed to pour out his heart to the Father he felt had abandoned him.
The early Christians developed a new way of reading the Hebrew scriptures. They came to believe that Jesus was the climax of the Old Testament story; he was the one the whole story had been leading up to. And because they believed that, they loved to look for hints of Jesus in the Old Testament passages. Some of the hints they point to seem fanciful to us, but it was all part of their belief that Jesus was the true Word of God, the highest revelation of God to us, and that the whole story up until then had been pointing to him.
So they took their cue from Jesus praying the first verse of this psalm on the cross, and they looked for other hints of his story in there. When they read the psalmist saying, ‘O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest’ (v.2), they thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying that God would take this cup of suffering away from him – and not getting what he prayed for. When they read, ‘All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads”’ (v.7), they thought of the soldiers mocking Jesus, putting the crown of thorns on his head and dressing him in a purple robe to taunt him. They thought of the chief priests saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him’”’ (Matthew 27:42). When they read ‘They pierce my hands and my feet’ (v.16 BAS), they thought of Jesus on the cross with the nails through his hands and feet. And they remembered how the soldiers divided his clothes between them and threw dice for his seamless outer robe, and they read, ‘they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots’ (v.18).
Old Testament scholar John Goldingay explains that this psalm isn’t a prophecy in the sense that someone wrote it thinking “One day there will be a Messiah and all these things will happen to him”. This is a prayer for Israelites to pray when they need to – it gives them permission to acknowledge their sense that God has abandoned them. But it’s also one of the most horrifying prayers in the Book of Psalms, so it’s not surprising that when the Messiah comes – and goes through excruciating suffering and a sense that God has abandoned him – this is the prayer that comes to his lips.
Goldingay goes on to point out a really important truth. Of course, Jesus wasn’t abandoned by God in the sense that God wasn’t present at the Cross. God was there all right; that’s why Jesus prayed to him! You can’t address someone who has wandered off out of earshot! God is watching as Jesus is executed; God is suffering as deeply in his spirit as Jesus is suffering. And maybe more. It’s hard to imagine the depth of agony involved in watching your son be executed when you could stop it. But God doesn’t stop it. God listens to Jesus asking, “Why have you forsaken me?” and does nothing. God’s forsaking Jesus doesn’t lie in going away, but in being present and seeming to do nothing.
So many people feel they’ve experienced that! They’ve gone through awful suffering, and all the while God was sitting in heaven, knowing what was going on, and doing nothing to stop it. How could he do that?
We can attempt to give a rational answer to this question, which is good as far as it goes. We can say, “God has set up the world in such a way that people’s decisions are really free. He doesn’t make wood hard when we build houses with it, but soft when people want to use it to hit other people. He wants to teach us to truly love him, and so he can’t compel us to obey him”.
All of which is true, but it tends not to help people who are hanging on the Cross, or being unjustly persecuted, or dying of terminal illnesses. They want a sense that God is with them in their suffering. Why does he seem so far away?
And that’s the difference the Incarnation makes. Of course, we’re limited by human language; we’ve been talking about Jesus hanging on the Cross and the Father as a separate entity altogether, watching on the sidelines. But St. Paul changes the language a bit: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three in one and one in three. God was not separate from Jesus on the Cross. Jesus is God, and in Jesus God was suffering too.
And this was not something that just started on Good Friday. Throughout the whole of Jesus’ life, he had been identifying with us in our sufferings. Think for a moment of the many and varied sufferings he experienced. As an infant he was the target of Herod’s death squads and had to run to Egypt as a refugee with his family. He grew up in a working-class family and experienced the same economic pressures we all go through. He seems to have lost his earthly father at a very young age, so he was no stranger to the pain of bereavement. He was misunderstood by his family – they even accused him of being out of his mind. He went through hunger, thirst, tiredness, and homelessness. He was betrayed by a friend, subjected to a mock trial, stripped, flogged and nailed to a cross where he died one of the cruelest deaths human beings have ever devised.
Crucifixion was a terrible form of death. The fact that the sufferer was suspended by the arms would force the rib cage open and make it very difficult to breathe; in fact, the only way to do so would be to push oneself up on the nail through one’s feet, and it is easy to imagine the unspeakable agony this would cause. Eventually the sufferer would be too weak to do this, and then death would come, not so much from loss of blood as from asphyxiation.
Jesus has gone through all of this, and God has gone through it in him. As the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are…’ (Hebrews 4:15). In Jesus, God has allowed himself to be subjected to all the pain and suffering that his creation experiences. And this knowledge that God has firsthand experience of human suffering can be an incredible comfort to us.
In 1967, at the age of seventeen, Joni Eareckson broke her neck in a diving accident, and she has been a quadriplegic ever since. For the first few months she was in the depths of despair; she was often tempted to abandon her Christian faith or even to attempt suicide. But she was not even able to kill herself, because she was immobilized in a Stryker frame with absolutely no control over any of her bodily functions.
But then one day it occurred to her that Jesus knew exactly how she felt. After all, when he was nailed to the Cross he also lived in constant pain and lost the ability to move. This realization was a turning point in her attitude toward what had happened to her. It was still a long struggle, but she no longer felt alone. She felt that Jesus is ‘Emmanuel’ – ‘God with us’.
So we don’t have a God who is far removed from our sufferings. We have a God who has chosen to make himself vulnerable and suffer with us. We could even go so far as to say, we have a God who has chosen to make himself vulnerable and suffer at our hands. Humanity’s anger and hatred and rejection was poured out on God on the Cross. God knows what it’s like to be rejected, brutalized, tortured, and unjustly murdered. He’s experienced it from humans just like us.
Edward Shillito was a pastor in England during the First World War, and he was haunted by the sufferings of the hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers returning to England with shattered bodies and traumatized minds. But he found comfort in the thought that the risen Jesus was still able to show his disciples the scars of his crucifixion. It inspired him to write his poem ‘Jesus of the Scars’. In it he talks about how a pain-free God is no comfort to those who are suffering. To humans who are scarred by the physical and emotional scars of trench warfare, only a God with scars of his own can comfort them. The last verse goes like this:
The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.
Am I a stone and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop
Thy blood’s slow loss And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in the starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon —
I, only I.
Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more,
And smite a rock.
This week at St. Margaret’s (as in many other churches) is an invitation to participate, via our communal imagination, in the events of Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem, his death and resurrection.
There is preaching, but there is also a lot of participating.
Today (Palm Sunday) at our 10.30 service we have a procession carrying Palm Crosses, as we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, on the back of a donkey’s colt, while the crowds call out ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. Later in the service we have a communal reading of the story of the Cross from Mark’s Gospel, with members of the congregation reading the different parts.
On Maundy Thursday at 7.30 p.m. we gather with his disciples in the upper room as Jesus commands them to remember him in a meal of bread and wine. We also wash each others’ feet as he washed their feet.
On Good Friday at 10.30 we will have a communal reading of the story of the Cross from John’s Gospel. Later in the service we gather around the foot of the Cross as a needy people, bringing our prayers to our Saviour who died for us.
On Easter Sunday at 9.00 and 10.30 we gather in joy to worship the Risen Jesus, who we believe is alive and has promised to be with us until the end of the age. This is why we are a people of joy!
Many Anglican churches have additional services too – perhaps every day of Holy Week, and the Great Vigil of Easter on Saturday too. However, at St. Margaret’s we’ve discovered over the years that things go better if we do less and do it well. By having fewer services, we make it possible for more people to come together for the main events of the week.
Long experience would indicate that the more you participate in this week, the more you will get out of it. The more you will find yourself transported in your imagination to that week two millennia ago, which we Christians believe transformed the world’s relationship with God. I would strongly encourage you to make this your priority this week. Come today to the Palm Sunday services. Join us during the week ahead for all the services – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. You’ll be glad you did.
Have a blessed Holy Week.
We come together today to remember how our Lord Jesus Christ was arrested, flogged, tortured and brutally executed in one of the most painful ways imaginable. And surely, as we think about the Good Friday story, we can have a real sense that on that day, God was truly one of us. God came among us and shared the experience that so many people go through in our world today – the experience of being a victim of oppression, violence and unjust death.
I prepared this sermon at the end of last week, a week in which we saw the gas attacks on Syrian civilians – including children – followed by the so-called U.S. ‘retaliation’, in which fifty-nine cruise missiles were used to destroy the Syrian airfield from which the attacks were launched. This is of course just the latest round in the long tale of violence and brutality in the story of Syria. Government and various rebel factions have been at odds for years, and the process of strike and counterstrike has been going on day by day, causing hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. And it’s set in the midst of a bigger picture: the tensions between Russia and the West, and the long history of western interventions in the Middle East, which don’t exactly have a good track record of achieving long term peace and stability.
It’s not my intention this morning to preach a political sermon. I simply want to point out that this is the world we live in, and it was the world Jesus lived in too. In our world (to use a slightly older example), Israeli gunships destroy a Hamas hideout and kill twelve people; the response is a suicide bombing in which fifty people are killed. You wipe out my village; I’ll respond by wiping out your city. In the world of international realpolitik, this is assumed to be the only safe and wise thing to do. People need to know that if they hit us, we’re going to hit them back, only harder. They kill our innocent people, we’re going to respond by killing innocent people on their side – except, we’ll kill twice as many. The response is more suicide bombings, more innocent people being killed, and so the cycle of violence goes on. Killing leads to more killing; retaliation leads to more retaliation.
Just occasionally, though, we get a glimpse of a different way.
In November 2005 a twelve-year old Palestinian boy, Ahmad Al Khatib, was mistakenly shot in the head by Israeli forces at a distance of 130 metres; it was later shown that he was carrying a toy gun that looked very realistic. His family, rather than crying for revenge, donated his organs to three Israeli children who were waiting for transplants. His father said that their decision was rooted in memories of Ahmad’s uncle, who had died at the age of 24 while waiting for a liver transplant, and that they hoped the donation would send a message of peace to both Israelis and Palestinians.
And so the unbelievable happened. Ahmad died of his wounds on Saturday November 5th 2005. On Sunday November 6th, three children underwent surgery to receive his lungs, heart, and liver. The father of 12-year-old Samah Gadban, who had been waiting five years for a heart, called the donation a “gesture of love.”
Ahmad’s father said he hoped to meet the recipients of his son’s organs. “The most important thing is that I see the person who received the organs, to see him alive”, he said. And so Samah Gadban’s father invited Khatib and his family to a party for Samah when she left the hospital. “I wanted to thank him and his family”, he said. “With their gift, I would like for them to think that my daughter is their daughter”.
My friend Rob Heath wrote a song about this incident; it includes these words:
His Dad said ‘If you want peace, somewhere it has to start.
With this my son has entered every Israeli heart’.
The army said they’re sorry, then braced for violence;
This time, unlike the others, there would be no revenge.
And the chorus goes,
Some people say with just one life
you can change the world.
What if they’re right?
What Ahmad al Khatib’s father was saying was “Somewhere the violence has to stop. If we want peace, someone at some point has to make the decision not to retaliate. I’m going to make that decision. The violence stops here”.
I believe that this is a central part of the meaning of the Good Friday story. Listen to these words of Paul from 2 Corinthians (I’m reading from the Common English Bible).
‘All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
Notice that little phrase, ‘not counting people’s sins against them’. In the conflicts going on around the world today, people are constantly counting one another’s sins against them, meeting violence with further violence again and again. Many of them believe that this is what God wants them to do. But it’s going on in families too. Someone does something despicable that hurts another member of the family; that person retaliates in word or deed, and so the conflict escalates. “Forgive? I can’t possibly forgive him! You just don’t understand how much he hurt me!” And so each party continues to hold the other party’s sins against them, and families are ripped apart, in some cases for generations.
Paul is telling us that this is not the way of the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel tells us that God longs for reconciliation with us, but God knows that there is only one way for that reconciliation to happen: at some point, someone has to choose not to retaliate. And so, in Christ, God chose not to retaliate; he didn’t count our sins against us, but chose to forgive instead.
We see this in Luke’s story of the crucifixion of Jesus. Luke wants to teach us that the cross of Jesus is the means by which we receive forgiveness of our sins, and so Luke tells the story in this way:
‘When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”’.
A few verses later we read these words:
‘One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong”. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”’ (Luke 23:32-33, 39-43).
Earlier in his life, Jesus had said these words to his disciples:
“But I say to you that listen: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them… But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-28, 32, 35-36).
Now Jesus had an opportunity to put his own teaching into practice. In the garden of Gethsemane, when he was arrested, Peter took out a sword and used it to defend Jesus, cutting off the ear of a servant of the high priest, but Jesus rebuked him and said, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). He then allowed himself to be arrested and taken to the house of the high priest, where he was condemned to die. When the Roman soldiers drove the spikes through his wrists and hauled him up, nailed to the crossbar of the cross, he didn’t respond with curses and abuse, but prayed that they would be forgiven. And when one of the insurrectionists who were crucified with him turned to him in faith, Jesus assured him of eternal life as they hung on their crosses together.
Like the father of young Ahmad al Khatib, Jesus was saying, “No more! The hatred stops here!” And so he loved his enemies, did good to those who hated him, and blessed those who cursed him. He imitated his heavenly Father, who pours out his sun and rain on the good and bad alike; Jesus was merciful, just as his Father in heaven is merciful.
But there’s more to it than that. Paul tells us that ‘God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them’ (2 Corinthians 5:19). Christians believe that Jesus is not just a good man or a great religious teacher; we believe he is the Son of God, and so God has come to live among us in him. What is the nature of this God? Surely the cross tells us he is a God who loves his enemies. The Jewish people who handed him over to death – Pontius Pilate who allowed an injustice to be done to him rather than standing up for what was right – the Roman soldiers who crucified him – they stand for all of us. God himself came to live among us, full of love and truth, but we found his love to be too much of a nuisance and a challenge, and so we rejected him and nailed him to a cross. But the Good News is that God rejected our rejection. God didn’t respond to our outrageous murder of his Son by blasting us all to hell with thunderbolts, or by sending twelve legions of angels to rescue Jesus and kill his murderers. What God said to us, in effect, was “You can kill me, but the one thing you can never kill is my love for you”.
What is our response to this amazing gift of love and forgiveness?
Some people, like the first man who died with Jesus, continue to reject him. They can’t accept that this man is anything more than a failed prophet. They can’t believe that this way of accepting death on a cross is a victory over evil; it looks far more like a defeat to them. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, ‘The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’, and ‘we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). But he goes on to say, ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (25); ‘to us who are being saved’, he says, ‘(the cross) is the power of God’ (18b).
And so, like the second man who died with Jesus, we turn to him in faith, we admit that we have sinned, and we ask for forgiveness and assurance of eternal life. Luke tells us that if we do this, Jesus will gladly give us what we ask for; “Today, you will be with me in paradise”. God offers forgiveness freely to everyone; however, we have to accept that forgiveness – we have to personally appropriate it – because God will not force himself on anyone.
And one more thing: we also are called to walk in the way of the Cross, loving those who hate us, doing good to those who persecute us. As has been done for us, so we must do for others. Towards the end of his life, Peter wrote these words:
‘For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth”. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (1 Peter 2:21-25).
In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us. The Cross of Jesus is like a great cosmic black hole, sucking up all the anger and rage and rejection and violence that we have ever hurled at God, and letting nothing return – nothing but love. So let’s thank God for the gift Jesus has given us on that Cross. And let’s also pray for the strength to follow the way of the Cross ourselves, which is the path he has set before us.
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.
Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.