Friday, April 03, 2015

Good Friday: How Can These Things Be...

Preached at the evening Good Friday liturgy, a combined service of St. Andrew's Cathedral and Galloway United Methodist Church.

John 19:35-41

How can these things be?  As the Sabbath descended with the setting sun, the body of Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the Pharisee.  The lengthening shadows made it all the harder to tell where the garden ended and the tomb began, dark as though the day had never dawned.  Even when the sun was at its height, at noon when Jesus was lifted up on the cross, it had illuminated only the world's fear, hardness of heart, and unbelief.  But now the light was lost, and with it...with him...the hope of all who had followed him this far.

How can these things be?  It is the last question Nicodemus asks Jesus in the gospel account of their first meeting, shrouded under cover of night when he knew no one would see them together, a member of the religious establishment and this man from Galilee who was presenting God in an entirely new light.  Nicodemus, accustomed to his own authority, had the first word, at worst a compliment for are a teacher who has come from best, a glimmer of recognition. But then Jesus spoke...No one can see God's reign without being born from above...and Nicodemus was left in the dark.  How, he asked.  Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?

The gospel does not tell us how they parted ways that night, only that Nicodemus never seemed to understand what Jesus went on to say about being newly born, about having new life.  We don't know when Nicodemus slipped back out beneath the stars, still wondering, how can these things be.  If he did linger just a verse or two longer in the gospel account, then he heard Jesus speak also of light and darkness and salvation, and how God so loved the world as to give God's Son, that all, that all, might live.

How can these things be?  Nicodemus would utter these words again, or words very much like them, some time later before members of the high council on which he served.  They had tried several times to arrest Jesus, but had failed for fear of the crowds of people drawn to his life-giving light.  They do not know the law, these leaders murmured to one another, how Jesus disregards it, and that is when Nicodemus spoke, fanning into a flame a spark perhaps even he did not know was there, hidden in his heart, in the dark.  Are we not also disregarding the law, he asked the council.  How can we judge him without giving him a proper hearing?

The council would go on to convict Jesus, before he even was arrested, and the trial before Pilate would condemn him to death.  Betrayed, denied, beaten, mocked, can these things be?  It was finished, they all thought, his followers, his friends, his foes, at the foot of the cross in the gathering gloom.

I wonder if Nicodemus was there.  He may very well have been, by virtue of his position, or perhaps because of that flame in him, because of the light that ever since that secret night had been changing how he saw everything.  You must be born from above... He had watched Jesus from then on, from the shadows of course, from the distance of his remaining doubt, from his fear of a world that was different than he had ever imagined...Nicodemus would have watched and listened as Jesus went about healing broken hearts and lives, restoring the lost and marginalized, and revealing God's living and loving presence in the midst of our hunger and thirst and vulnerability and darkness.  I AM, Nicodemus would have heard Jesus say, and he would have recognized the name.  I AM the true bread...I am living water...I am the Good Shepherd...I am the light oft he world.

So it was, perhaps, when the cross was raised with Jesus upon it that Nicodemus finally saw the light, which in the poetry and wisdom of the gospel of John is to say that Nicodemus finally believed, remembering how Jesus had told him once in the dark, So myst the Son be lifted up, that all who believe may live, which is to say, that all may abide, even now, in the presence of God who so loved.  In that moment, Nicodemus saw.  Nicodemus believed.  Nicodemus came alive.

How can these things be?  In the face of such abuse of power, such denial of justice let alone mercy, such blindness to truth; in the midst of such fear, such loss, such grief; in the horror of such a brutal death?  How could there be any light at all?  How could there be any life?  Nicodemus finally knew that it was because there, lifted up for all to see, was such Love, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.  If, as Jesus had said, it was the work of God's incarnate Son, with hands and heart and and bones and breath and blood, to bring light to dark places, love to despairing places, even life to dead places, then here in this darkness, on this day of despair, in this death, Christ performed the most light-giving, love-giving, life-giving act of all, for all.

Nicodemus was born anew.  And the first act of his new life was to use his own hands and heart and bones and breath and blood to take the human body of Christ and bear it, and wrap it tenderly in cloths and lay like what Mary did when Christ's body was newborn...and lay it now in a tomb, dark as night...which was where Nicodemus had first seen the light, where he had first heard new life and such love were possible.  What happens when we, too, bear Christ into dark and despairing places and wrap them tenderly in light, in life, in love?

Perhaps it was Nicodemus, our newly-born brother in Christ, who years later conferred with the gospel writer and offered an opening verse: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Artwork: The Fourteenth Station, by Simon Carr.

Good Friday: It Is Finished...

Preached at the noon Good Friday liturgy at St. Andrew's Cathedral.

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

Jesus said, “It is finished.”

On Good Friday, it is always John’s account we read of the passion and death of our Savior Jesus Christ.  On Good Friday, then, because John does not include them in his telling, there is no Passover meal, no agony in the garden, no prayer for the passing of this cup, no cry of forsakenness from the cross, no earthquake, no darkness, no curtain of the temple torn in two.

On Good Friday, it is finished.  It is no longer how we got here that matters.  If we must confess our complicity this day, it is with the help of the prophet Isaiah…All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and God has laid on one the iniquity of us all.  We know.  We’ve been trailing ashes and dust behind us all the long season of Lent, remembering and repenting the countless ways we deny and betray God’s will for us, God’s image in us.  Forgive us, we have prayed.

On Good Friday, it is finished.  It is not even exactly what happened there that matters, the heartbreaking, heartstopping details of sweat and anguish and pain and grief.   If we must this day recall the suffering of Christ himself, it is with the psalmist…I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart within my breast is melting wax; my mouth is dried out, my tongue sticks; I can count all my bones.     

What matters today, on Good Friday, the way John tells it…all that matters is knowing who this Jesus is, and who we are because we followed him here.  I am…Jesus has said throughout the fourth gospel.  I am…he has said, echoing the ancient and unspeakable name of God.  I am the bread of life.  I am the good shepherd.  I am the way.  I am resurrection, and I am life.  When they come to arrest him and ask for Jesus of Nazareth, he answers, I am he, and John tell us they fall to the ground.   Did they hear in his voice God from God, Light from Light?  For just a moment, did they know that they were laying hands on the maker of heaven and earth?

From the first words of John’s gospel to the very last verse, we know that Jesus, for all the blood in his veins and breath in his lungs and bones in his body, that Jesus is the living God, who knows all that will happen to him and still chooses to heal the sick and love the sinner and confront injustice and show mercy and go to Golgotha – having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.  The story of his passion – and if the word means suffering, it also means a fierce and active and intentional and abiding love – the story of all Jesus ever did and all he ever suffered and all he ever loved begins, in that gospel, long before our denials and betrayals, long before Bethlehem, long before, well…In the beginning, John writes, In the very beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and through him all things were made.  In him was light, and the light was the life of all people.  And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth.

“The first word,” another preacher has written of the passion of our Savior Jesus Christ, “The first word was Love.  Then the mistakes, the hurts done to us and to others, every good thing, every lost love, every good intention ended badly, every bad choice redeemed, every step in the dark toward an unknown destination: Love had already arrived.  And the last word is Love.  It’s all there is.”   It’s all that matters.

On Good Friday, it is God, the great I AM, the maker of heaven and earth, in whose image even we are made…it is God in Jesus Christ who has followed us here, through all the ashes and dust of our failure, through the pain that is sin’s consequence, to the cross, where love was meant to be defeated, but instead it is finished.  Not “it is ended,” not “it is over,” not “it is done.”  Love, the first and last word, has finished revealing its fullness and faithfulness and fearlessness.  It is fulfilled.  It is consummated.  It is known this day for all its breadth and depth and width.  Jesus Christ, we say in our morning prayers, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that the whole world might come within the reach of your saving embrace.  The work of the cross is finished.  But it is not, sisters and brothers, ended. 

For God so loved the world as to give God’s Son, that all who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life.  On Good Friday of all days, new life begins, a life of outstretched arms.  An empty tomb will be the sign soon enough, but our salvation begins right here.  Love as I have loved, Jesus asked of his friends, love, he asks of us, and if we thought washing feet would be hard…on Good Friday we know, deeply and painfully and powerfully, that love does not stop with a basin and towel but goes to where life and light and love and grace and truth seem for all the world to have come to an end.  On Good Friday, this is where God is, this is where love is, and that’s what matters.  It is how, trembling, we begin to pray for this ashes and dust and beloved world as Christ prayed for us in the hours before his death.  It is how on this day of all days our prayers end with this one…O God of unchangeable power and eternal light…carry out the plan of your salvation, let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.  It is finished.  But it is not ended.

Love as I have loved, Jesus has asked of us, his living body.  Love, fiercely and actively and intentionally, and just see what happens when love meets failure, meets sorrow, meets pain, meets even death.   Sisters and brothers, it is begun.  Amen.