Good Friday: Let us embrace the Cross

A sermon preached on Good Friday 2014 at Church of the Ascension, Chicago.


From the Passion according to St. John, “And again another scripture says, ‘They shall look on him whom they have pierced.’”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This day provokes in us a wide range of deeply felt responses. I once knew a woman who had nightmares for several weeks before Holy Week, as she dreaded hearing and recalling the Passion. Some of us may have experienced violence in our own lives, violence that is echoed in what we have just heard. Or perhaps we are moved to tears by the depths of God’s love for us, that God would suffer agony and death.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Christians have, for centuries, looked for ways to comprehend what is incomprehensible. As we gaze on the Cross, if we are not overcome by horror and sorrow and gratitude, we simply aren’t paying attention. It’s difficult — impossible even — to fit this day into our human experience.

Many Christians have looked for someone else to blame for what happened on Golgotha. We have desired a way to shift responsibility away from ourselves and onto others. Too often, we have put all the guilt on our Jewish brothers and sisters, deliberately forgetting that Jesus himself and all his disciples were, of course, Jews. And I don’t need to remind you, just a few days after violence perpetrated against Jewish organizations in Kansas City, that this is not an ancient problem, something that we have solved.

We are desperate to put distance between ourselves and the Cross. In American public Christianity, it is common to rattle off the bumper-sticker saying, “Jesus died for my sins.” Of course, that’s true, but this short sentence is also a caricature of our salvation history. The Cross is not something that is done, merely a past event that we can look back on with the easy distance of twenty centuries.

The fact is, as uncomfortable as foot-washing might have been last night, Good Friday eludes our embrace precisely because the intimacy that the Cross demands is greater than our ability to comprehend.

In the Cross, whatever separation we might have imagined exists between divinity and humanity is erased. God could not be closer to humanity than the moment Jesus says, “It is finished,” and then dies.

No wonder we have tried to look away, tried to find someone else to blame, tried to treat this cosmic event as a theological one-liner.

Let us do what Zechariah says, as St. John reminds us. “They shall look on him whom they have pierced.”

The reality is that Jesus was killed not by any group, but by sin itself — by sin lived out through self-obsessed humans not different in any significant way from us. Our world was not ready twenty centuries ago for perfect love, and our world is not very tolerant of perfect love in our time.

Just today, if I may be personal here, I was walking down the street and a man said to me, “Please help me eat. I am hungry, and I have not eaten since yesterday.” I something kind but kept walking. As much as I’d like to pretend that my action this morning has nothing to do with what we are doing tonight, I am caught short by St. Matthew’s Gospel in the 25th chapter. When we feed the hungry, we are ministering to Christ himself. And when we ignore the needs of the world — the needs of a man like the one I passed by — we are failing to serve Jesus Christ himself. If I can be honest before God and my sisters and brothers, I know that I have failed to honor and to serve Christ himself. I suspect each of us has done the same.

So what does the Cross have to do with all this? Why is it so very important for us to fight our desire to look away and instead to gaze upon the Cross and our Savior hanging there?

Because, my friends, the Cross offers life. Present tense, not past tense. The Cross offers life.

The Epistle to the Hebrews puts meaning on the offering of Jesus Christ on the Cross in edifying, and radical, language. Because of the Cross, “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is through his flesh.”

It’s easy to miss the splendor of that poetic language. In the Temple, only the high priest could enter the Sanctuary of God’s Presence, through a veil. To get to God, you had pass through the veil. But Hebrews says that Christ’s offering of himself has opened to us — to all of us — the way to God’s presence. The Cross is the way to life.

And that should give us hope, hope that we can know something of God’s eternal and life-giving presence in our lives and in our world. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” But it is not enough for us to hope. We Christians have a duty, a duty that we are presently undertaking. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”

St. John Chrysostom eloquently tells us why we Christians must gather in hope.

For if a stone rubbed against a stone sends forth fire, how much more soul mingled with soul! But not unto emulation (he says) but unto the sharpening of love. What is unto the sharpening of love? Unto the loving and being loved more. And of good works; that so they might acquire zeal. For if doing has greater force for instruction than speaking, you also have in your number many teachers, who effect this by their deeds.

I love that line, “…if a stone rubbed against a stone sends forth fire, how much more soul mingled with soul.”

Dear friends in Christ, let us not turn away from the Cross. Let us not turn away from our own failures to serve Christ in our time. But rather, let us embrace the Cross, let us cling fast to the promise of life it offers, and let us, in confidence, proclaim the boundless love of Jesus Christ for the world.

Soon we will venerate the Cross. Do so with tenderness, and love, and sorrow, and above all, with hope.

“We venerate your Cross, O Lord: and praise and glorify your holy Resurrection: for by virtue of the Cross joy has come to the whole world.”


Image: “Study for Crucifixion” (1947) by Graham Sutherland. Vatican Museums. Photo by yours truly; check out my photoset on flickr for more photos from the Vatican City and Italy.