Sometimes the truth of the Gospel hits home at unexpected times and from unexpected persons.
Take what happened a few years back at an Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta [source]. It was Holy Week, and the congregation was staging a dramatic enactment of the Passion Gospel. After the reading was announced, the lights dimmed and red-robed participants moved into their places around the church. A ten-foot-tall wooden cross, draped with a blood-red stole, towered at the top of the chancel steps. Even the children fell silent.
The drama was coming to its dreadful conclusion. Jesus stood at the front of the cross, his head bowed, as players leapt to their feet from the pews, screaming out, “Crucify him!” It’s all part of the story we know so well.
But then something unexpected happened. After the brutal cries of “Crucify him!” had echoed throughout the church, a strange, new, and unscripted voice cried out: “Oh my Lord, no! Don’t kill my sweet Jesus! You’ve got to stop! You can’t kill my sweet Jesus! O Lord, make them stop!”
A homeless woman had wandered into the service with no clue about what was going on.
A parishioner later told the rector: “I tried to tell her that it wasn’t real. But I realized that, for her, it was.”
There’s an important sense in which that homeless woman is our best guide for grasping the meaning of Good Friday. Because it’s true: this story is, indeed, all too real. And it’s not something we can safely relegate to the past. We can’t take comfort in the knowledge that these gruesome events happened almost 2,000 years ago. We can’t pass the buck off to Pilate or to the Jewish religious leaders or to the Roman soldiers. For the truth is that all of us are responsible for Jesus’ passion and death. No one is innocent.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes, you were there. And so was I. The whole world was there at that moment, at the focal point of history, the intersection of time and eternity, when the nails were hammered into hands and feet and the broken body of Jesus was lifted high up on the cross, and he died, forsaken.
What happened that day to Jesus is the direct consequence of human sinfulness. We all share in that sinfulness. It cannot be blamed on any one person or group. Sinful humanity crucified Jesus.
St. Francis of Assisi speaks to each of us when he says: "It is you who have crucified him and crucify him still when you delight in your vices and sins" [source]. In countless ways, we continue to sacrifice God’s love on the altar of our selfishness.
One author puts it well:
“When we ignore the homeless on our doorsteps, we fail to care for Jesus Christ himself. When we eat our fill while others starve, we steal nourishment from Jesus Christ himself. When we stir up hatred against the vulnerable or fear of those who differ from us, we alienate ourselves from Jesus Christ himself. In other words, Good Friday is the chief exemplar of a pattern of sinful behavior that we continue to this very day.”
Good Friday bursts the bubble that protects us from seeing what the consequences of our sin really look like. It looks like the Incarnation of God’s love nailed to a cross. And when we see Jesus nailed to a cross it’s like looking into a mirror. We see our own reflections staring back at us, rightly accusing us of crucifying the only Son of God, abandoning him to a painful death, doing away with him so our self-indulgent appetites and exploitation of other people go unchallenged. If we really look into that mirror, we see the depths of our need for healing and redemption.
But just as important as facing the truth of how much damage sin does to our world is Good Friday’s call to embrace an even greater truth. And that is the truth of God’s extravagant love and mercy.
Jesus gave himself over to death on the cross, not out of anger, and not because he was coerced to do so, but because of his great love and compassion for a sin-sick humanity. God loved the world so much that He sent His only Son, that through His Son’s suffering and death our sufferings and deaths might be redeemed for eternal life.
Many years ago, a therapist told me: “If you can’t feel it, you can’t heal it.” Something like that is happening on Good Friday. To heal our sins, God in Christ had to feel our sins. In order to heal us, in order to atone for our sins, God had to fully experience the consequences of our sins through the suffering and death of Jesus.
On the cross, Jesus experienced the full weight of suffering caused by the sins of the world. All of the misery, heartbreak, and infidelity; the poverty and starvation; the treachery and lies; the violence and bloodshed; the bone-crushing pain of sickness and disease; the greed, exploitation, and injustice; the loneliness; the feelings of abandonment; the fear of death - all of the suffering of every single person who has ever or will ever live in this broken world came crashing down upon the crucified Jesus like one great tidal wave, crushing him, and leaving his dead body hanging on the cross.
Stretching out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, Jesus took the full brunt of the world’s darkness, death, and violence upon himself and, by the power of love, transformed them into light, life, and peace.
By the cross of Christ, God has abolished our sins, acquitting us and declaring us righteous. By the cross of Christ, God has made peace where once there was strife. By the cross of Christ, God has bridged the canyon that separated us from knowing the joys of his love. By the cross of Christ, God has embraced the totality of our humanity - including suffering and death - in order to guarantee our passage from death to life. By the cross of Christ, God has redeemed the world.
This same Jesus who was nailed to the cross continues to reach out with arms of love to you and to me - inviting, welcoming, forgiving, healing, and commissioning us to go and embrace a broken and hurting world.
For by the power of the cross we are saved. By the power of the cross, we are changed. And by the power of the cross, we are sent forth to share God’s love and mercy with a world starving for forgiveness, hope, healing, and salvation.
“And so we glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection;
for by virtue of your cross
joy has come to the whole world” (BCP, p. 281).