Friday, April 10, 2009

Faithful Witnesses

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
April 10, 2009

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 69:1-23
John 18:1-19:37

Faithful Witnesses

In church on each Good Friday we hear the Passion According to St. John. I think it’s obvious that John’s gospel is chosen for this solemn day because of its power and its vividness and its beauty.

Most scholars believe that the Gospel of John was written near the end of the First Century – decades after the earthly lifetime of Jesus - and after decades of reflection on Jesus - reflection on his life, death and resurrection.

And near the end of the First Century the author of John’s Gospel was writing for a community that was now faced with an excruciating choice. For the first few decades after Jesus’ earthly lifetime it had been possible for Jewish believers in Jesus to continue to worship in the synagogue. For those first few decades it was possible to both Jewish and Christian.

But by the end of the First Century both Judaism and Christianity were changing. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans, believers in Jesus were increasingly claiming that he was divine, and meanwhile more and more non-Jews were discovering Jesus and seeing him not only as the Jewish messiah but the messiah for the whole world.

And so near the end of the First Century the Jewish followers of Jesus faced a choice. Continue to follow Jesus and cut themselves off from Jewish life or reject Jesus and remain in the faith tradition of their ancestors.

You can imagine just how difficult that choice must have been.

I mention this not because you and I are faced with difficult choices in our own lives – although that’s certainly true. I mention this little history lesson because for most of Christian history parts of the Gospel of John – and most especially the Passion – have been used to justify Christian anti-Semitism.

And so each time we read these scriptures it is necessary to remind ourselves of the context in which they were written. The Jesus movement began as a Jewish movement and the Gospel of John was written by Jews, primarily to Jews and for Jews.

And so the later “Christian” idea that the Jewish people bear responsibility for the death of Jesus would have been incomprehensible to the author of the gospel and its first readers.

What they would have understood, though, was that, in Jesus, God had entered the world in a personal and physical way and nearly everyone – despite hearing the teachings, despite seeing the miracles – nearly everyone rejected Jesus and nearly everyone went along with putting Jesus to death.

And that’s the horrifying truth we recall on Good Friday – the horrifying truth that God entered the world in Jesus and human beings rejected him, abandoned him, and killed him.

Although written decades later, the description of the Passion of our Lord in the Gospel of John is so powerful, so gripping, and so vivid that it’s the version of the Passion that we turn to each Good Friday.

This powerful, gripping and vivid gospel captures our imaginations, doesn’t it? How many of us as we heard the familiar story being told once again were able to imagine it in our mind’s eye?

Can you imagine Peter, the man of action, impulsively grabbing a sword and cutting off the slave’s ear?

Could you see the shrewd yet puzzled face of Pilate questioning this so-called king of the Jews? Pilate asks, “What is truth?”

Could you see the beaten and bloodied Jesus mockingly dressed in a purple robe and wearing a crown of thorns? Could you see God having entered the world in Jesus and now turned into a figure of ridicule?

As I’ve reflected on the Passion this year the image that I keep on returning to is the vision of Mary and the Beloved Disciple standing there at the foot of the Cross.

And from the cross Jesus looks down and says, “Woman, here is your son.” “Here is your mother.”

Now, most of us have seen all of this in art, or in passion plays or in movies. And even if we haven’t, John’s gospel is so vivid that we can imagine the scene very easily. Yet, I find it difficult to imagine the expression on Mary’s face and what she might say confronted by the horror of watching her son die in agony before her.

When I do try to imagine it, I keep thinking back to a couple of weeks ago – March 25, to be exact – when we celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation.

Luke tells us that the Angel Gabriel appeared to the young Mary with the words, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

And then the angel goes on to tell the startled Mary, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And, Mary, of course, takes that great leap of faith and says yes and brings Jesus – brings God - into the world.

Little did Mary know what that yes was going to mean for her, for Jesus and for the whole world. Oh, she would have known how hard it would be for her and for Joseph to bring this child of dubious paternity into her society. And she would have been well aware that in her time and place at least half of the children died in infancy or early childhood. And she would have known that even if everything went right, her child would be fortunate to live 40 years.

But I doubt that Mary could have anticipated the horrible scene she faced on that first Good Friday – watching her son, abandoned by his friends and followers, take agonizing breath after agonizing breath, hanging, dying on the cross.

Mary and the Beloved Disciple and the handful of other women who remained were powerless. All they could do for Jesus was stand as faithful witnesses.

As I thought about this I was reminded of a story about my grandmother. Before I was born, one of her sons died of leukemia. And each year after that on his birthday, my grandmother would have mass on that day offered in his memory. Anyway, this one year not long before she died, my grandmother as usual went to church on his birthday and was shocked and devastated when it was announced that the mass was being offered in memory of someone else.

I could hear the deep hurt and even anger when she told me the story later. After mass she went to the church office and asked the secretary what had happened. Apparently the secretary was apologetic but kind of nonchalant about it. She said something like, “Oh sorry – you know these things happen.”

I’ll never forget what my grandmother said next. With tears in her voice she said, “This is all I can do for my son.”

“This is all I can do for my son.”

At the foot of the cross, all Mary and the others could do was pray and be faithful witnesses.

And that’s why so many of our young people were here last night, keeping the vigil before the Altar of Repose. And that’s why we are here today.

We are not here to do anything. There is nothing really to be done except to pray and to serve as faithful witnesses to the horrifying truth that God entered the world in Jesus and human beings rejected him, abandoned him, and killed him.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like much. But, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of being faithful witnesses just because it seems we aren’t “doing” anything.

John’s version of the Passion doesn’t include this, but Matthew and Mark tell us that from the cross Jesus cried out a verse from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

Since we know what comes next, we know, of course, that God hadn’t abandoned Jesus and the faithful witnesses huddled at the foot of the cross, seemingly doing nothing, would have served as a reminder of God’s presence and God’s love and God’s power to turn death into life. The faithful witnesses would have served as a reminder that with God hope is never lost.

When Jesus looks down at Mary and the Beloved Disciple and says “Woman, here is your son” and “Here is your mother” he announces the birth of the Christian community of faithful witnesses.

And just as Mary and the Beloved Disciple stood as faithful witnesses, you and I today are called to be faithful witnesses. We are called to stand with those who are suffering in mind, body or spirit.

We are not called to give easy answers like, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” We are not called to try to “fix” people – because in truth we can’t.

We are called to be faithful witnesses – to stand with those who suffer. We are called to be signs, to be reminders of God’s presence and God’s love and God’s power to turn death into life.

On Good Friday, and every day, we are called to be faithful witnesses, to serve as a reminder that with God hope is never lost.