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.

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