Thursday, April 13, 2006

Good Friday: The seven last words

One of the points of detail that sets St John’s gospel apart from Matthew, Mark and Luke, is the question of the timing of Jesus’ death.  The other gospels record Jesus as dying on the Day of the Passover, the day that Jews remember how God miraculously delivered them from slavery in Egypt.  In St John’s gospel the timing is a bit different, Jesus is crucified the day before, still on Friday but it’s the Day of Preparation – at about the same time as the priests in the temple would have been slaughtering the lambs in preparation for the Passover meal, and the Passover itself would have begun at the time when Jesus’ body is laid in the garden tomb.  That most pregnant pause of all, as Jesus’ lifeless body lies in the tomb, his shocked disciples in hiding, appalled at the enormity of their own betrayal – the night they thought they’d never see, then the longest day, and another night, turning over in their minds the hard questions – what did it all mean?

Good Friday is a day for reflection, the day in the Christian calendar when, more than any other day, we find ourselves speechless, sitting in front of the cross.  What does it mean for us, what does it have to do with how we have lived our lives, how does it challenge us?  In a short while, we are going to spend a few minutes just in silent reflection, and many of you might want to come up to the front of the church and touch or just kneel in front of the cross. 

 One of the most hideous methods of execution ever invented, crucifixion was designed to prolong its victim’s death while inflicting the greatest possible amount of pain.  The Roman philosopher, Seneca, wrote that without exception, criminals being nailed to the cross would writhe in agony and curse the day they were born. And yet, St Luke records Jesus praying even as his executioners nail his hands and feet to the cross.  The first word that Jesus speaks on the cross is a prayer, an echo of the prayer he taught his disciples to pray – that most intimate word – Father.  Forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.  In the whole of the Bible, I don’t think there is another example of such forgiving love.  I wonder who Jesus is including in his prayer?  Those crucifying him, those whose humanity was so degraded and diminished by their brutalising acts, certainly.  And his disciples who fled in terror, who would right now be levelling at themselves such loathing and self-recrimination?  Perhaps them, too.  And those standing at the foot of the cross, those numb with helpless grief?  Maybe them, as well.  What ancient memory of turning aside from human suffering or need do you find in yourself, what submerged shame within you echoes at these words of Jesus: Forgive them Father, they don’t know what they are doing?

Jesus is crucified between two brigands, the Greek word suggests they might be resistance fighters or terrorists, men who have lived violently and who expected to die violently.  Like gang members everywhere they are ambivalent in the face of Jesus’ totally impractical refusal to hate.  Today, you will be with me in paradise.  You, with all your burden of compromise, the ideals sold out, the hard realities you have lived and the questionable acts you have committed, the self-serving deals you have made, your hard-bitten refusal to believe in fairytale promises of God’s kingdom.  You will be with me in paradise, today.

Jesus dies as he has lived, in context, in a tangle of relationships like ours, the ones that define us as sons and daughters, friends, neighbours, competitors, customers, employees, employers.  Theologians call it the scandal of particularity, the obstinate fact of Jesus’ physical existence at a particular time and a particular place, maybe with red hair and cracked heels, maybe loving Mary Magdalene, maybe with an infectious laugh and just a bit too fond of red wine.  Or, maybe not.  But, certainly, with a mother, with brothers, with friends.  Mother, look – your son.  Look, man – your mother.  Jesus comes to us in the context of who we are, right in the heart of our own community, and gives us the gift of one another.  Who is it for you?  Who is it that you will look at today, and see Jesus?

From the first, Jesus has understood that who he is, comes out of his relationship with the one he calls his Father.  From the very first, Jesus has known his Father’s love as a constant fact of life, surrounding him like the air that he breathes.  He has lived his whole life in obedience to the call of this love, and it has led him from the obscurity of a Galilean village through times of popularity, excitement and the unreal expectations of others, into the dangerous waters of intrigue, the political and religious factionalism of Jerusalem, to midnight arrest and torture and agonising death.  How do you keep trusting God when everything that was fresh and green and full of life turns into dust?  When the promises evaporate and God himself is absent?  Jesus cries out to the God who isn’t there, the God who has always been faithful not only in his own life but in the history of God’s people, in the words of the psalm, My God – why have you abandoned me?  A cry of dereliction to the God in whom Jesus still trusts, still hopes.  When has your need for God been so extreme that you can only rage at the God who isn’t there?  And how has God answered you?

Jesus is human.  We forget that, sometimes, when we emphasise so much Jesus’ oneness with God.  What you go through, Jesus also goes through.  The suffering of men and women and children in the AIDS holocaust of Africa, the fearful shelling of Gaza, the shock of car bomb victims in Baghdad, this suffering is God’s suffering.  I thirst.  Human beings who lose a lot of blood can go mad with thirst.  What human suffering do you hold up to God today, what human suffering do you name today as the suffering of our Lord?

The Passover victim has been sacrificed, the impossible conjunction of love and suffering, of divine goodness and human darkness has been accomplished.  It is finished.  We presume too much if we attempt an explanation of how Jesus’ death reconciles us to one another and to God.  Today is not a good day for explanations, today is a day for hearing the echoes of this last word of Jesus in our own lives.  The Day of Preparation has been completed and the Passover of our Lord has begun.  What has been accomplished in you?