A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Good Friday: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42; Psalm 22
The Reverend Canon Tyler B. Doherty
I’ve always thought that if ever there were a day when words seem appallingly inadequate, it’s Good Friday. If I had my druthers, I’d let the liturgy preach itself. From the reading of the Passion Gospel, to the Solemn Collects and the singing of the Reproaches, to the Veneration of Cross—we learn everything we need to know from how the liturgy unfolds in its spare, stripped, stinging silence. Especially on a day when most of the words that come out of peoples’ mouths in the Passion Gospel witness to being enslaved to self-deception, scapegoating rage, and murderous violence—“Crucify him!”—one more human voice hardly seems likely to make a difference. In fact, maybe feeling the compulsive need to speak, to justify oneself, is precisely what this day calls into question. Perhaps it is a day when the silence of the death of God at the hands of the religious and political powers of the day is the only thing we need to hear, if we have the courage to listen to it and the supple fortitude to bear what it reveals to us about ourselves.
I’ve been thinking this week about the character of Simon in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. You might remember that he is the “bright eyed” and physically frail character who always shows so much concern for the most vulnerable, the “littluns.” At the climax of the novel, Simon discovers that the “beastie” that has tormented the boys is really nothing but the corpse of a parachutist animated by the boys’ own projected fears. “What I mean is… it’s only us,” Simon says. Bursting into the dancing circle of boys around the fire, Simon pronounces freedom, and declares that there is nothing to be afraid of, no one to fear. How do the other boys respond? By killing him. Tossing him off a cliff. But Simon’s revelation—“It’s only us…” has important resonances with the Passion Narrative. If we think this is a story about the “Jews killing Jesus,” we are deeply deceiving ourselves. As in the Golding’s novel, the “beastie” is not “out there” but in our very hearts.
The Passion Gospel asks a very simple question, “What happens when love comes into the world?” And the answer is equally simple, if almost unthinkable in its difficulty to absorb: we kill it. Good Friday shows us this painful truth about ourselves, but only if we are willing look deeply at the cross and let its silence scour the layers of self-deception from our eyes. Rowan Williams writes,
Faced with real goodness, our instinct is often to run for cover. And this becomes even more marked when we look at patterns of ‘scapegoating’ in our social life: we reinforce our sense of belonging together by the arbitrary identifying of someone as an enemy or threat. And when someone tries to bridge the gaps thus set up and make peace, we see deeper violence drawn out…. If we speak of Jesus as a human being offering a divine gift, offering unrestricted love to the Father and to the world, we are speaking necessarily, of someone who is going to be intensely and terribly unsafe in the world” (84-86).
This same sentiment—of repaying unconditional love with violence and fear—is echoed in the singing of the Reproaches as we venerate the cross. “Oh my people, O my Church/What have I done to you,/or in what have I offended you?...I led you forth from the land of Egypt/and delivered you by the waters of baptism,/but you have prepared a cross for your Saviour.” Again and again, the Reproaches remind us, God stretches out God’s arm to bring us to life and abundance, to free us from death and sin, and to participate in God’s very life as creatures created in God’s image and likeness. God leads with a pillar of cloud, but we lead God to judgment in front of Pilate. God feeds the people of Israel in the wildness with manna and water from the rock, but we give Jesus gall to drink. The Reproaches come to a scathing climax with these lines—
I came to you as the least of your brothers and sisters;
I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,
naked and you did not clothe me,
sick and in prison and you did not visit me.
And that’s why when we gaze upon our crucified Lord and let its silence reveal ourselves to ourselves, we see that the crucifixion enacts before our eyes our stubborn, stiff-necked, unwillingness to be loved into loving. Rowan Williams imagines Jesus hanging on the cross saying to each of us,
‘This is what your untruth means—you have been offered unconditional mercy and you turn from it in loathing. You have come to a place where you cannot recognize life itself for what it is. You don’t know the difference between life and death. The reality in you is dead.’ What is happening to Jesus—his dreadful physical suffering, his mental and spiritual torment as he cries to God asking why he has been forsaken—is a sort of picture of our ultimate fate, the death that is unreality, being cut off from what is true (86).
Gazing upon our crucified Lord in all his mental, physical, and spiritual anguish, we get a picture of who we are when we refuse God’s outstretched hand, when we fail to heed the call of the one who stands at the door of our heart and knocks. Gazing upon our crucified Lord, we see the cruelly mechanical outcome of a life turned in upon itself, a life with only itself at the center, a life for whom rivalry, competition, and acquisition is ultimate concern. In the clear-eyed, unflinching seeing of this picture, however, is the beginning of freedom, healing, and salvation. Even knowing—however grudgingly, however impartially—that we that we are prisoners of unreality, and captives of untruth, opens up the possibility for being unbound. We can’t be set free if we don’t know we are imprisoned in the first place.
Good Friday is a practice of acknowledging all the subtle ways we have made God in our own image. The way we’ve turned God into a candy-dispenser for our pet projects, a big bully who’s on our side against those dirty “others,” a ticket to privileged insider status that will help us win friends and influence people, an express elevator to wealth and riches, a Teflon coating that will inure us against the ups and down of being human in a risky, contingent world. Good Friday is the death of all our projections of who we think God should be. Good Friday is the humble recognition that our ideas of who God should be blind to the reality of God really is, and separate us from life.
The Cross of Jesus shows us that God is not a projection or a possession for our own manipulation and control. The Cross of Jesus scours us clean of all the ways we use God to prop ourselves up, often over-against some supposedly “godless” other upon whom we heap scorn, vitriol and violence. The Cross of Jesus, in all its agony and abandonment, in its callous, demented, cruelty shows us the dead end of all our idolatries, how we’ve boxed ourselves into a deadly trap. In the stunned, numb silence of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus anointing Jesus in oil, wrapping him in funeral cloth, and laying him in the tomb we hear the barely perceptible, plaintive call to let God be God. Just once. Not as we want God to be. Not as we think God should be, but God as God is in Godself.
It is no wonder that when Peter is asked—huddled around the charcoal fire in the courtyard with the soldiers and the slaves warming himself against the cold—whether he is a disciple of Jesus, he replies—“I am not.” Peter’s dream of who God should be collapses. Jesus on the Cross is not a guarantor of status, safety, security, or political victory. Jesus on the Cross explodes all notions of a magical God who will play the Romantic hero and sweep in to make things all better. Jesus on the Cross shows the hellish failure of all attempts to justify ourselves and rely only on ourselves. All of that goes up in smoke and Peter is left in darkness watching the dance of the flickering flames. Peter doesn’t want to see the self that Jesus has revealed to him—its addiction to comfort, security, success, it’s addiction to living in the thrall of unreality, fear, and untruthfulness.
Gazing on the Cross we let our fantasies, our projections, our illusions, and self-deceits come to naught. They, like the Jesus whom we crucified, are dead. Let them be silenced, and laid in the tomb. We don’t need to know more about Jesus. We don’t need to theologize more about Jesus. We don’t need to manage, or control Jesus. All those frantic efforts are revealed as hideously bankrupt on this day—“It is finished.” Let that impulse die so that the reality of who the living God actually is might reveal Godself in, with, and under your very life.