Sermon preached April 10, 2009 Good Friday
Texts: The Passion Story, with candles being extinguished along the way
This is a difficult day and a puzzling day. We will hear the story of betrayal, of justice perverted, of a conspiracy, of an execution. The story is bloody and ugly. Yet the Christian faith tells us that there is something meaningful, saving, transforming in this story.
Jesus death was horrific and painful. That the death sentence he received was also a mockery of justice makes the pain of his death more intense. It did not need to be intensified. The Romans did not invent crucifixion as a method of capital punishment, but they used it with measured brutality. It was a form of execution reserved for slaves who kept running away, or for people fomenting insurgency against Rome. It was carried out in public so that it might be a deterrent to others who might disturb the peace of Rome. The vertical beams were usually permanently in place just outside a city gate on a high, prominent place. The person sentenced to crucifixion was often made to carry the horizontal cross beam to the site of the execution. It was also often the case that persons crucified were crucified so low to the ground that not only carrion birds but also scavenging dogs could reach their dead bodies. Often there was little left to bury, another indignity of crucifixion. This is a brutal and ugly story we tell today. (Borg and Crossan, The Last Week, 146 for information on crucifixion).
Jesus death was horrific and painful, and some focus on that as a key to the story. I remember sitting in a movie theater watching the Mel Gibson directed movie The Passion of the Christ which went to great lengths to portray brutality and blood in its depiction of the death of Jesus, and there was a woman sitting a couple of seats away from me weeping and crying in a muffled prayer “thank you, Jesus,” and I got the sense that it was the suffering itself which moved her. Some speak of the suffering of Jesus as if no one ever suffered such pain in the history of human kind, but that doesn’t ring true to me. Human history is too brutal and blood-soaked to make any single death the most painful death ever suffered. Think Columbine or Binghamton, where people completely innocent in relationship to killers were gunned down in cold blood. Their deaths were quick, I guess, but imagine the depth of fear they experienced even if for a moment. But if lingering torture makes death worse, there are stories from the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, the Cultural Revolution in China, death squad in Central America that provide plenty of pain.
Some Christians focus on the bloodiness of the event, arguing that the blood of Jesus itself is what is most significant in the story, what makes it meaningful, transforming, saving. This focus has a long history within Christianity. In a recent issue of The Christian Century the cover story was entitled “God Does Not Require Blood” (February 10, 2009). The author of the article, Daniel Bell, argues that “God does not demand or require blood to redeem us.” He argued that much of the focus on blood sacrifice in Christian theology has had detrimental consequences, sometimes providing justification for war, for the poor simply enduring their suffering, for spousal abuse. Shortly thereafter I received by way of e-mail a response to this article written by a self-described evangelical United Methodist, Riley Case. The response was entitled “There is Power in the Blood” and in it Dr. Case sites many hymn texts that refer to the blood of Jesus while arguing for “a theology of salvation, which has as a main focus the cross, and in the cross sacrifice, and in the sacrifice, the blood.”
Many Christians struggle with that understanding of the significance of today’s story, though many are afraid to articulate their questions. That blood is somehow necessary for forgiveness is difficult for many. Without getting into the minutia of theological debate, what if Dr. Bell makes a strong point in saying that “Christ’s work on the cross is not about satisfying a divine demand for blood,” but rather “the love of God expressed in Jesus saves us”? If we take our focus off the suffering, without denying that there was excruciating suffering, and off the blood, without dismissing those who think the focus needs to stay there, what might this story mean for us? How might it be meaningful and transforming?
“The love of God expressed in Jesus saves us.” Love may be the key to this story, to how this story saves and transforms, to what gives this story its most important meaning. Maybe today when we hear the story again, we not only stand at the foot of the cross, but at the crossroads of love. Jesus walked the way of love and would not turn away even in the face of violent rejection of that way – a rejection by the established authorities religious and political. This is a story about a tough and tenacious love.
While it is Good Friday today, and our focus is on today’s story, we cannot, as Christian fail to read this story knowing Easter is coming – the horizon of the resurrection is always present and in light of that this is a story about love, about God’s love which is tough and tenacious and finally triumphant.
We have Jesus who walked the way of love, walked it so beautifully that in his life we see the very love of God expressed – a tough and tenacious love, a love that never gives up and never gives in. And then there is our love. The story is about failure and invitation – the failure of humans to love, the ability of humans to be destructive of creative love. The story glaringly reveals human proclivities to act out of fear when creative love threatens a status quo with which we are comfortable. It glaringly reveals the human ability to misuse power. Yet God’s love triumphs, and in that there is the invitation to live differently. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has written that in the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus “we are assured that our destructiveness is not the last word” (Resurrection, 26). Our destructiveness is not the last word, and we are invited to leave it behind and to live more lovingly. That is meaningful, transforming, saving.
When we hear this story, we recognize that we stand at the crossroads of love, and we have choices to make. And this story makes our choices even more poignant as it reminds us that there is one thing we cannot choose, we cannot choose not to die. Hearing this story I am reminded that I cannot choose whether or not to die, I will. What I can choose is how to live my life with whatever time limits it will have. I can live knowing God’s love for me and knowing God wants to love the world through me, I can live with integrity and compassion, or I can live fearfully, closed off from life, a me-only existence.
Standing at the crossroads of love, I am free to choose, and God has set me free, for this story tells me that the tough and tenacious love of God is strong enough to forgive where I have been unloving and fierce enough to set me free for the future.
There is a Hebrew word, timsh’l, which is found in a very different place in the Bible, Genesis 4:7 in the story of Cain and Abel. It has found its way into American literature in the novel East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952). In the novel, a Chinese domestic servant named Lee offers Biblical interpretation of the story of Cain and Abel. At one point in the story, God addresses an angry Cain telling him that sin is lurking at the door for him – then the word timsh’l gets used. Some translate it to say that Cain will master sin, and some translate it so that Cain is commanded to master sin. The character Lee offers a different perspective, believing the word timsh’l is best rendered “you may” master sin. Here is a passage from Steinbeck’s novel with Lee speaking. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel – “Thou mayest” – that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open…. That makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. (349 – part III, chapter 24)
Standing at the crossroads of love, we have the choice to live more lovingly or live more fearfully, to live more open to the world or more closed from life, the make the world different or to be indifferent. Timsh’l we choose, and the God of Jesus Christ whose story we will hear continues to call us to choose life – and in that invitation given in love there is the possibility for transformation. Timshel. Amen.