Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday 2007

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
St. George’s Episcopal Church, Maplewood NJ
Good Friday
April 6, 2007

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 18:1-19:42
Psalm 22

Over the past week a few people from our diocese have been exchanging emails on the topic of salvation. It’s been a very interesting conversation. The discussion really boils down to the question, how exactly are we saved? How does Jesus save us? A very appropriate topic for Holy Week! I’ve been following the emails back and forth and thinking about the question.

In the discussion, some people have supported the traditional understanding that God requires Jesus to pay for our sins on the Cross. Since we could never redeem ourselves, God sent his only Son to substitute for us, to take on our sin. In other words, Jesus was a blood sacrifice – the Lamb of God - that sets things right between God and us. Jesus pays our debt to God and we are saved.

Others reject that explanation, saying it turns God into a bloodthirsty monster, willing to brutally sacrifice his own innocent Son. Instead, they suggest that we are saved by the example of Jesus’ life. They argue that in Jesus we see who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to live. Jesus lived his life in loving self-giving and so we are made, we are called, to be like Jesus.

As I’ve thought and prayed about this I’ve decided that neither description of our salvation is satisfactory. It is wrong to select one moment or one element of Jesus’ life as the cause of our salvation. We are saved by Jesus – we are saved by God becoming fully present in Jesus – we are saved by the entire sweep of Jesus’ life – from the manger in Bethlehem to the Cross on Calvary to the empty tomb on Easter morning. We are saved by this life of perfect love, this life of perfect self-giving, this perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

And in our church we are blessed indeed to have liturgies that reflect the indivisible mystery that is Jesus Christ. Over these three holy days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter we live into the truth that there is no separation between death and resurrection. There is no separation between suffering and salvation. From the washing of the apostles’ feet on Maundy Thursday to the empty tomb on Easter morning we celebrate the one great act of love that is Jesus Christ. The love of God poured out for the world in Jesus Christ. We are saved.

The earliest church understood this indivisible mystery so they celebrated Christ’s life, death and resurrection all at once. Although a nightmare for the Altar Guild, there’s something to be said for that, because the danger for us is that we skip over the suffering. The danger is that we skip over the suffering and move right on to salvation. And that’s why we have Good Friday. That’s why we’re here today.

We gather not to get ourselves worked up over the suffering of one man who lived two-thousand years ago, especially if we’re not worked up by the many thousands of people suffering in even worse ways right now. No, we gather today and remember the death of Jesus on the Cross because the Cross is the end result of loving service to the world. The Cross is part of the great sweep of Christ’s life. The Cross is part of the great act of love that is Jesus Christ. Jesus – and we – can’t separate suffering from salvation. And so even though we know how the story ends, we must not skip over the suffering.

I have to admit that in the past I have been impatient with Good Friday. I remember my first Good Friday at the seminary when it came time for the veneration of the cross. I hadn’t seen that done before, and I thought it was a little… excessive. The service was long already and one by one seminarians and faculty knelt before the cross, heads bowed in prayer. I remember thinking this is a bit much – can’t we move it along a little? I have to get back to Jersey City! And, let’s stop pretending. After all, we know that this story has a happy ending!

Last year, though, I had no choice but to stop and venerate the cross. I had no choice but to reflect in a tangible way on Christ’s suffering. Some of you know that each year the churches along Broad Street in downtown Newark participate in a Good Friday walk. The crowd stops in each church where a member of the clergy gives a homily on one of the seven last words. The walk begins at my former field placement parish, House of Prayer.

Anyway, last year I just barely got from the seminary to House of Prayer on time. I was wet from the rain. I had had enough of Good Friday and was ready to move on to Easter. After all, we know how the story ends. Just as the service was beginning someone leaned over and told me that I was going to carry the cross from House of Prayer to the next church a few blocks away. No one had warned me. I hadn’t had a chance to lift the cross. How heavy was it anyway? Was there a certain way I was supposed to carry it? I looked at the Stations of the Cross on the wall of the church and saw how the artist depicted Jesus carrying the cross over his shoulder and I thought, well, that’s what I’ll do too.

The time came and I led the congregation out of House of Prayer and onto Broad Street. The cross was heavy enough that I could feel its weight on my shoulder. I could feel its rough texture on my hands. As I made my way through the drizzle and down Broad Street people stopped in their tracks and looked at the cross on my shoulder. Cars slowed and drivers and passengers stared. Their expressions were a strange mix of curiosity, sadness, and understanding.

Finally we arrived at the next church and I handed off the cross. I can’t say that I remember much of the homilies I heard that day but I vividly recall the feel of the cross on my shoulder and in my hands. It was the most powerful Good Friday of my life. In some small way I understood the real, physical suffering of Christ – suffering that was the end result of loving service to the world. Suffering that was the end result of healing the sick, forgiving sinners and challenging hypocrites. We cannot separate suffering and salvation. We cannot separate death and resurrection.

So, what about us here today? What does Good Friday mean for us? We are called to take up the work of Jesus Christ. In a real sense the Church is born at the foot of the Cross. We are called to live our lives in loving service. We are called – in our own way – to be like Jesus – to be broken and poured out for the world. Listen to the prayers that are next in the service. You’ll hear that we are now taking up the work of Jesus Christ. In his life, death and resurrection Jesus has shown us the way. We are called to love and called to serve. We know that a life of love and service means that, like Jesus, we too will experience suffering. But we need not be afraid. After all, we know what happens next. Thanks to the one great act of love that is Jesus Christ - we are saved.