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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=82

 

Good Friday, April 3, 2015                                               St James', Peace River

 

By my count, this is at least the 15th Good Friday where I've stood in the pulpit and tried to say something. I may well have at least another 15 more. This year, I realized how much I really don't want to do that. Not because I'm getting bored – far from it. And not because there's nothing left to say – the things worth saying are worth repeating. But when you come to church on this day, whether as a preacher or a listener, it's not because you want to. The death of Jesus, his crucifixion, isn't something anyone would want to spend a day out of every year remembering.


And the thing is, it never goes away. What people did to Jesus – what the soldiers and the bystanders and Judas and the chief priests and all the people who should have known better did to Jesus – and what we keep doing to him – it never goes away. It's like a beautiful historic tapestry, full of colour and art and meaning and loveliness, with a disgusting stain in the middle of it that will never come out. Or maybe not a stain – maybe a hole. You can't look at the wonder and awesomeness of it, without seeing that thing that should never have happened. And that's what we keep coming back to, year after year, on this one day when we can't not think about it – we either have to confront it or run away.

 

So here we are, not because we want to be but because we are forcing ourselves to look – to be honest, to not pretend that this thing never happened. To recognize that it is a reality about what has happened and what happens all the time in our world; to recognize that it is a truth about us. Innocence doesn't mean you don't get killed. Love doesn't mean you don't get betrayed. Compassion doesn't mean anyone is going to care about you. That's what it's like to live in a world that's full of – not very bad people, but just very ordinary people, the kind of people we recognize from looking in the mirror.

 

That's what it's like even when you're God. I guess that's the really jaw-droppingly awful thing about Good Friday. It's one thing to say that life is not fair, and people get treated badly, sometimes really badly. But surely when you bring God into the picture, that should change? Surely if we met someone who was “true God from true God”, revealing the nature of God as all love, all compassion, all justice, some of that would be bound to rub off? But every time that hope rises that human beings would get it right if only we knew God better – Good Friday comes around again, to tell us that it didn't happen that way. Not at all. This is the day when justice, love and compassion itself was put to death.

 

There was only one aspect of God's nature, revealed in Jesus, that was not killed on the cross, because it could not be. Forgiveness. The dead body of Christ, taken down from the cross, could no longer look at people with compassion, touch them with healing love, speak to them in a way that would set things right. But it could forgive. Because forgiveness was the meaning of his life, it was also the meaning of his death. The gospel of Luke recalls that Jesus said as much from the cross, said it about the people who were killing him even as he was dying: “Father, forgive them.”

 

Isaiah's vision of the suffering servant opens up that picture even wider: “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” All of the hate and wrong and mean-spiritedness and vengeance that Jesus attracted to himself at the end of his life and ministry – that was all for a reason. It was to take it all away; to forgive it all. And Christians have come to see that it was not for that moment alone, that one event in history; but for all people and for all time. It is as though Jesus opened up his arms on the cross to say, “All the sin, all the wrong that anyone has ever done to anyone, give it to me. I can take it. I can take it away. And when I am gone, it will be gone too. Because I am God's forgiveness to you, to all of you for all time, offered before you even asked for it, ready for you to receive when you are ready to receive it.”

 

That doesn't make it any easier for me to talk about; in some ways it makes it worse. Because that God-sized capacity for forgiveness was revealed in a human-sized body; and see what happened. Perhaps it had to be that way in order for us to realize the cost of what we do; in order for us to see that God does not simply absorb our sins like drops into the ocean, but rather permits himself to be really hurt, in the ways we choose to hurt him – and then forgives us. And maybe it has to be that way in order for forgiveness to become real. Forgiveness is not just saying “I forgive you”, any more than repentance is just saying “I'm sorry”. Both involve holding on, staying with the other person while you work it out, changing something fundamental. The forgiveness we receive from the cross transforms us because we see how much it hurts, and how much it costs. At least, it does that, if we are willing to look.

 

I'm glad you're here with me, on this day when none of us wants to be. That's another thing that Jesus did and said as he was dying, which lasted beyond his death. He gave his friends each other, in the way that he told Mary and John to be family to each other once he was gone. To stay at the cross at all, they needed one another, and so do we, now. You and I need each other to lean on, if we are going to stay here long enough to realize how deeply God loves us, deep enough to forgive us even for this, and for everything else. If I was here by myself, I fear I would run away before I got that deeply enough. I'm glad you're here to help me stick with it.

 

Perhaps by leaning on each other we can discover that it goes even deeper than that. I think one of those fundamental changes we need to make as we are forgiven, is the way we look at others around us. They are forgiven, too. Not just the people here in this space today, but every other person you will meet today and a whole seven billion or so whom you won't. Christ died for their sake, too, for each and every one of them. That's what God-sized forgiveness means, and yet it still exists on a very human scale, not washing over us en masse, but working in each person to transform this life, and then this one, and then this one.

 

And part of how Christ on the cross is trying to change your life and mine, is to make us part of that. Jesus taught that explicitly in a parable, about a servant who is forgiven a huge debt and then turns around and holds  his fellow servant to ransom over something relatively tiny. But he also taught us to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. Somehow the two are related. It's not simply that we need to forgive in order to really experience forgiveness ourselves, true as that is. It's that when our life is changed profoundly by Jesus' death, we will come to see our neighbours in a new way. There is enough love and enough forgiveness for them too. Enough for everyone.

 

Because Jesus' death, if nothing else, takes away the human-sized limitations on forgiveness – shows us that it is not something to be hoarded, not a scarce resource to be doled out only when absolutely necessary. Instead, it is the very meaning of life, and of death, both his and ours: that it is possible to live and die in a way which sets people free, and in so doing to be free yourself. That it is possible to re-weave the tapestry around the ugliest stain, the raggedest hole, not making the marks disappear, but making them part of a picture that is even more gut-wrenchingly beautiful for being so stark, so harsh, so honest, and so real.