Finding the “Good” in Good Friday
Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.
Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.
When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.”
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that God has given me?”
“Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kedron ravine. There was a garden there, and he and his disciples went into it …” And we know the garden’s name: Gethsemane. And we know what happens next – we know where this familiar Good Friday story leads – know where we will leave it when we conclude this three hour service of prayer and reflection, story and song. We know that Jesus dies: that the life -- the promise -- the light that shone so brightly will be extinguished. All that will remain of the rabbi from Nazareth will be a broken body and the broken dreams of his scattered followers. The Kingdom he proclaimed has not come. The powerful remain powerful: the oppressed remain oppressed -- and where there had been hope there is only despair.
This is the stark truth of this day we call "Good Friday" -- a crucial point in the symphony that is Holy Week. Palm Sunday was our overture: touching on all the themes to be played throughout the week and leading us into the subsequent movements. And now we've arrived at Good Friday: in some ways the "adagio" of the piece. In the hours between now and the "allegro" of Easter, we sit in the silence and contemplate the power of this story that is ours.
When my children were little, I remember my younger son Brian asking me one year, “So what’s “good” about a Friday where the church service is long, the music is sad and Jesus ends up dead at the end?” This question from an 8 year old all those many years ago now may resonate with some of us today as we gather here … in numbers significantly less than will gather on Easter Sunday morning! … to walk with Jesus through this last, agonizing part of his journey on earth. Just what is “good” about Good Friday?
My search for an answer to that question turns me, once again to the words of Robert Shahan, a former Bishop of Arizona, who famously said, "Faith is what you are willing to die for. Dogma is what you are willing to kill for."
What’s good about Good Friday is that Jesus didn’t come to give us dogma to kill for -- he came with a willingness to die for the sake of the message that the Kingdom of God is at hand: the Reign of God is about to be realized. It is here. It is now. He came with a message of inclusiveness and compassion: compassion in the truest sense of the word. The Latin word for passion means "suffering": the combined form of "compassion" means "with suffering." It is an invitation to join, to be a part of something requiring sacrifice and often pain. For us, it is an invitation to join and be part of the crucifixion story not in a way that leaves us stuck in the agony of Good Friday but in a way that leads us to the Glory of Easter.
“This is the cup God has given me; shall I not drink it?” Jesus asked in the Garden. Was it a rhetorical question asked by the one who saw unfolding before him the events that would lead to the death he had been born to die -- the sacrifice of the sinless one for the sins of the world? Or was it said hoping-against-hope that there was still another way to make known to the people of God the love of a God who was willing to become one of them -- to show them how to walk in love with God and with each other?
I believe it was the latter. I believe that more important than the death Jesus died was the life Jesus lived – a life so in alignment with God’s will – God’s love – that he was “obedient even unto death.” Not obedient to a vengeful God who sent Jesus as a blood sacrifice – to a death that was the inevitable result of humanity’s abject sinfulness for which we should still wallow in guilt and shame.
Rather, what I believe is good about Good Friday is that Jesus was obedient to the love of a God so great that it enabled him to transcend the FEAR of death as he walked the way of the cross on – as he chose to drink the cup he had been given even as he questioned up until the very last moment whether there wasn’t another way to accomplish the work he had been given to do.
The “good” in Good Friday is that in spite of the worst the world could do, the love of God transcended even death. The “good” in Good Friday is that we who follow Jesus, we who have been called to BE the Body of Christ in the world, can likewise transcend the fear of death in order to live lives fully alive – in order to continue to walk in love with the God who loved us enough to become one of us in order to show us how to love one another.
Here’s how another bishop – Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire – names it:
I can "be not afraid," but instead be a bold and active witness to the love of God. As I strapped on my bulletproof vest just before [my consecration as Bishop of New Hampshire] I remember feeling blessedly calm about whatever might happen. Not because I am brave, but because God is good and because God has overcome death, so that I never have to be afraid again.
That is the power of the resurrection. NOT in what happens AFTER death, but what the knowledge of our resurrection does for our lives and ministries BEFORE death.
I am not worried nearly as much about life after death as about whether or not there is life before death! We are no longer prisoners to the power of the fear of death. We don't have to be worried about how all of this is going to turn out. We know the end of the story. God reigns. Death is vanquished. We are given life eternal in the company of a merciful and loving God and all the saints. Believing that, knowing that, can and does empower us for ministry in God's name.”
What we have to proclaim is a Gospel that can truly enter into those places of darkness and suffering where compassion is the only gift we have to give. It is ours to give, as the Body of Christ, because our Lord went there first. It is ours to give when we reach out to the oppressed and the persecuted. It is ours to give whether we proclaim the Gospel to those who have never heard it before: or to those who have never before heard that the Good News of God in Christ includes them.
Twenty years ago I got questions from a child wanting to know what’s good about Good Friday.
Today I get emails from children of God wanting to know what’s good about a church that chooses bigotry over the baptized; a communion that places its institutional preservation ahead God’s inclusive love; that seems to fall so short of being Body of Christ it was intended to be. It seems to many that we stand at a Good Friday moment in the church, as we watch those with dogmas they’re willing to kill for focus their resources on schism and division.
My answer is God is not finished with the church yet … or with ANY of us. But just as the dream of God could not be killed on Good Friday, the dream of a church where ALL are fully included in the Body of Christ is still alive and well in the hearts, minds and ministries of countless faithful witnesses throughout the Anglican Communion and beyond.
At our Easter Vigils tomorrow, when we baptize 20 new members into the Body of Christ and receive as new members of All Saints Church 30 more, we will celebrate the outward and visible sign of that dream of God being claimed by a new generation of witnesses. And those of us who head for Canterbury this summer to take that witness to God’s inclusive love to the bishops gathered for Lambeth Conference will go empowered by all that is good about Good Friday.
Twenty years ago I got questions from a child wanting to know what’s good about Good Friday.
Today I get phone calls from reporters wanting to know what’s good about America -- and how do I, as a preacher, plan to deal with the issues of racism & sexism, of power and polarization and politics in the pulpit.
My first answer is “carefully.”
But the more important answer is “directly.” For the truth is, we are a nation that has been led into the temptation to place its national security ahead of its dedication to the proposition that all are created equal. Waging pre-emptive war, exploiting the environment, failing to address the crisis of poverty and jettisoning historic constitutional protections, it seems to many that we stand at a Good Friday moment in this country as we watch our political process become driven by the media and our hopes of new vision and leadership derailed by polarizing rhetoric fueled by sexism and racism.
My answer is God is not finished with America, either … and just as the dream of God could not be killed on Good Friday, the dream of a nation where “liberty and justice for all” really means ALL is still alive in the hearts and minds and imaginations of Americans everywhere.
Yesterday, we saw an outward and visible sign of that dream being claimed at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where over 6000 new American citizens were naturalized. As we watched the procession of newly minted Americans stream past us in all their wonderful diversity it seemed to me a sign of great hope for this nation that – in spite of the challenges we face – there are still those flocking to the dream of an America that is good, that is free, that IS about liberty and justice for all. And when we finally spotted our OWN new Americano in the crowd – Abel Lopez – I had one of those “glory attacks” you may have heard about as I thought about the work and witness he will continue to offer as one empowered by all that is good about Good Friday.
So let us stand with those who claim all that is good in a church still becoming all it is meant to be. Let us stand with those who embrace all that is good about in a nation still “under construction.”
And now, let us stand in this moment at the foot of the Good Friday cross – a cross which Jeffrey John describes in this way: On the cross God absorbs into himself our falleness and its consequences and offers us a new relationship. … From Good Friday on, God is no longer "God up there," inscrutably allotting rewards and retributions. On the Cross, even more than in the crib, he is Immanuel, God down here, God with us.
God is with us – and that is good news: on this Good Friday and always. Amen.