Friday, April 14, 2006

Sermon: Good Friday

14 April 2006 at Salem L.C., Gretna, LA
Text: John 18:1-19:42

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

John’s account of the passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus reads like a Greek tragedy. It has all the elements of a classical tale of betrayal, injustice, heroes and villains, drama, tension, a final conflict, and a tragic ending.

We, like the disciples of Jesus, perhaps feel a sense of loss and mourning – with the black paraments and drapery in our chancel, with the ending of our Gospel reading on a note of death and burial, of seeming defeat, of the hopes and dreams of an entire world shattered, with our battered and bloody Lord once and for all entombed and assigned to history as yet another dead hero.

Of course, we have historical hindsight to lead us out of our sadness. Unlike the disciples, we know how the story ends. We endure Good Friday knowing full well what is to be the day after tomorrow. For us, this recounting of the Gospel of Jesus is a rerun. And so we know our sadness is temporary. The pain we feel upon looking at the black drape over the statue of our blessed Lord on this altar is only a hint, just a taste, of the devastation the first followers of Jesus had on that original Black Friday, as the real Jesus lay in death’s strong bands.

But even knowing how the story ends, we linger here at the cross and tomb for a while. We meditate on our Lord’s five holy wounds, we ponder this sacred head now wounded, we sing of him who was stricken, smitten, and afflicted. We venerate the suffering servant Isaiah saw 700 years before Good Friday actually happened. We worship the one King David witnessed in his messianic vision a thousand years before the events happened as David relates them in the 22nd Psalm.

For we know Easter is meaningless without Good Friday. The Sunday lilies are not fragrant without the Friday stench of death. The joy of the first day of the week would be diminished without the most devastating of all Sabbaths – that Friday and Saturday in which the impossible happened – the day that God died.

For the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is held like a diamond by the setting of our Gospel reading. In fact, all of Scripture is like a beautiful case in which the diamond of Christ Crucified is mounted and displayed. This moment is where all of human history has led to, and it is the very event in history that leads to where we are now. The entire history of man is compressed into this the longest and darkest day in history.

Our Lord was betrayed by one of his best friends, denied by the leader of his students, abandoned by nearly every friend he had. Our Lord was illegally arrested by the phony religious authorities and sham priests – the very same people whom Jesus exposed for the liars and hypocrites they were. Jesus is bounced back and forth in kangaroo trials between Jewish and Roman authorities and convicted on testimony everyone knew was bogus. The conspiracy was universal. The same adoring crowds who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday have become a bloodthirsty mob, screaming like rabid dogs for the release of a terrorist. Pilate is in way over his head, trying to keep the emperor’s peace, even if it means a miscarriage of justice.

Pilate asks “What is Truth?” – a strange question indeed for a judge. If a person doesn’t know the difference between truth and falsehood, what right does such a person have to judicial robes? Pilate knows the truth about Jesus’ truthful claim to kingship, as he confesses it on the sign above Jesus’ head: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Pilate knows the truth of Jesus’ innocence – for he seeks to release him. Pilate knows full well what the truth is, as well as what the right thing to do is – and yet he doesn’t have the guts to do it.

The soldiers have a part to play. They may claim they are “just following orders” – but the testimony of Scripture is that at least some of them know the evil that they are carrying out in this execution.

Among all the cowardice and lying and ruthless politicking that leads to Jesus’ death, there are few heroes: Jesus’ faithful mother who stays with her gory and dying Son, John the Apostle who remains loyal at the foot of the cross and who takes in Jesus’ mother, Nicodemus, who provides spices for our Lord’s embalming, and Joseph of Arimathea, a Council member who courageously asks Pilate for the body of Jesus and donates his own tomb to the fallen Lord.

And this is where our narrative ends – at least for today. The ultimate act of cosmic injustice, a seeming rift in the Holy Trinity that seems to pit divine Father against divine Son. Religious and secular authorities with blood on their hands. A mob whose sympathies lie with a terrorist rather than a miracle worker, prophet, and messiah. Scattered and frightened disciples with no master.

It looks rather grim.

And yet it is all within the divine plan. What seems to be chaos is clearly orchestrated by God. What looks for all the world like an act of unspeakable hatred is in fact the greatest display of love in the history of the universe. What seems to be defeat for the Man of Sorrows, is in fact vindication of mankind, as one of our own human race has redeemed mankind and defeated the oldest enemy of God: Satan. What appears to be hopeless is in fact the greatest time of hope since the fall of Adam! The death of Jesus is not the end of the story, but only the beginning of the victory of Jesus, a victory won for all mankind.

For as the prophet has proclaimed anew to us tonight: “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed.”

The cosmic debt of all of us, payable only by our death and descent into hell – has been paid in full by the one whose “visage was marred more than any man.”

And what has the apostle yet again testified in our presence? “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, old things have passed away, behold all things have become new.” God has “reconciled himself us to himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” There was a method to the madness. There was a strategy in this greatest of all battles between good and evil. St. Paul sums it up: “For he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

In other words, even as the innocent Lord absorbs our sins – as well as the consequences for them, he transmits a newness, a cleanness, a righteousness to all of us. He swaps his obedience for our disobedience, his holiness for our corruption, his eternal life for our miserable mortality.

For only an act of injustice could save us. Justice would only see us condemned. What led to this injustice is our own sin – which should drive us to sorrow and repentance. Ultimately, the mobs and the authorities are not the only ones responsible for this greatest of all injustices – we are.

And so when we ponder the passion account of Jesus, any anger and outrage should be directed at ourselves. For we are the ones Jesus redeems by his cruel death. It’s only in this context that such a horrific day could be called “good.”

Dear Christians, never forget what your messiah has done for you. He not only died to pay for your sins, but has given you his righteousness through baptism, the preaching of the Gospel, the absolution of your sins, and the partaking of his stricken, smitten, and afflicted body and the blood that flowed in streamlets of love and gathered in pools of mercy at the base of the hill known as the Skull.

The price the Father was willing to pay for your redemption from slavery and salvation from death is impossible to express. It cost the very life of his incarnate Son. It took the worst miscarriage of justice in history to miscarry the justice that should have been visited upon you and me.

It is indeed a great mystery, how it is an act of sacrifice of the innocent Son of God can justify the guilty ungodly. It is a great mystery how death defeats death, and in weakness is the greatest of strength.

My dear brothers and sisters, ponder this mystery. Treasure it in your heart like the Lord’s Blessed Mother. Every time you look upon the crucifix, look at the injustice that saves you, the act of love that redeems you, the blood that pays your debt.

And when you return here triumphantly on the third day hence, the victory of the cross will be even sweeter, as it will give way to our Lord’s victory of life over death – a victory he gives to us at baptism. The Lord’s triumph over death will open the vault of heaven yet again as we join anew with the saints and angels and the Holy Triune God himself in proclaiming with joy and singing not only the paschal mystery, but the paschal victory.

Let us ponder this great mystery in the words of the ancient prayer: “By his death, he has destroyed death.” Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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