St. John's Episcopal Church, Asheville, NC , 04/02/10
I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I have hiked to some beautiful, remote waterfall where the last part of the hike turned out to be the most difficult ground to cover. I could hear the waterfall, but I could not yet see it. The roar indicated that I was almost there. However,it seems like there’s always just one last ridge to climb and it’s a doozy. Why are they always at the end of the journey instead of the beginning?
We are almost at the end our Lenten journey together. Easter and the alleluias are just around the bend, but first we have to climb Golgotha with Jesus. As it turns out with so many of my hikes, Good Friday is the steepest, hardest part of the journey. It is difficult terrain.
What could possibly be “good” about Good Friday? What could possibly be good, godly or holy about a day on which some of the Gospel writers record the crucified Jesus using those words from the Psalm that we just read, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
One of my favorite children’s books is titled, “Alexander and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” I have often thought that by itself, Good Friday should really be called “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Friday.”
Of course, we are Easter people. We are about Eternal Life and Resurrection so we can look back on this day with the hindsight of Easter and call it Good Friday or God’s Friday. Easter transforms the hopelessness and despair of Good Friday into hope and joy…but not yet.
Before the victory trumpets of Easter, the Gospel is a funeral dirge and we are left to sit, just like his disciples, in the darkness, confusion and sadness of the reality of a brutal death. Justice, compassion and hope are shredded and left hanging on a tree like the lifeless body of Jesus. Good Friday means that we do not rush to Easter to get the answers that come with the Resurrection. Good Friday is the day where we pause to wrestle with the questions.
With all of the vast theological significance that the rest of the New Testament unpacks about the death of Jesus, it is easy to forget that Good Friday was a day when a good human who taught love and non-violence was betrayed, tortured. An innocent person was arrested and executed by a government official named Pontius Pilate who favored political expediency over justice. A violent revolutionary named Barabbas who taught and practiced hate and murder was set free so that Jesus could be killed. Everything is upside down. It would seem to be the epitome of the old cliché that “nice guys finish last.”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That ancient line was in the hymnbook of the Hebrew ancestors of Jesus long before he quoted it on Good Friday. Psalm 22 shows us that Jesus stood in succession to a long line of his people who looked around at seeming triumphs of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous and had to ask, “God where are you? How could this happen in your world?” That long line did not end with Jesus.
No doubt, it is the question on the minds of his followers as they scatter in fear and go into hiding on Good Friday. It is a question that has haunted many good people over the centuries when those people suffered for doing the right thing.
The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann once said, “Good Friday is the center of the world.” If you watch the news or go online then you already know that Good Friday is the messy territory where we spend a great deal of our human lives.
According to Amnesty International, in places all over the world today, there are political prisoners of conscience who will wake up in awful conditions of abuse and torture simply because they spoke the truth or chose to do the right thing. Like Jesus, close friends betrayed some of them. Like Pilate, spineless people in power did nothing and chose to save their own careers at the price of another innocent life. Like Barabbas, people who commit unspeakable acts of violence go free while the innocent are punished because they ended up not on the wrong side of justice, but on the wrong side of power. “My God, how could such a thing happen? Where are you? How could you forsake us?”
I know a man who is dying of cancer. He’s good man who has given money to many good causes. He returned from spending time at a cancer treatment center where he encountered terminally ill children and their families and he was devastated by the absurdity of it all. His question to me was, “Where is God? How could God allow such things to happen?” That is an honest Good Friday question.
If we are honest, we have all probably wrestled with such Good Friday questions at one time or another. The world we live in lends itself to such questions.
It does not mean we are evil or unfaithful to wrestle with such questions. It means that we are honest and that we are human and that’s precisely the point. It means we are like Jesus or rather Jesus was like us. We are in good company with such questions. We are in company with Jesus and the author of the 22nd Psalm and virtually everyone who has ever struggled with what seemed like the abandonment of God.
Good Friday means that Jesus is not simply a beautiful icon locked away in the pristine pages of Sacred Scripture. Good Friday places him in our zip code. Good Friday means that Jesus enters into the raw, unfair, difficult places that perplex us and strain our faith. On Good Friday Jesus stands shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with every person who has suffered tragic loss, unfair treatment, betrayal, sorrow and pain.
Jurgen Moltmann, the German theologian I mentioned earlier said, “My God, where are you?” was the first prayer that he ever uttered. As a 17-year-old soldier in Nazi Germany on July 1943 he barely survived the Allied bombing raid on the city of Hamburg called “Operation Gomorrah.” 40, 000 people, including the person standing next to him, were killed. He cried out in the firestorm, “My God, where are you?”
A couple of years later he found himself in a POW camp in Scotland at the end of WWII. The Allies showed the POWS video footage of the liberated concentration camps and holocaust that Nazis had perpetrated. His fellow prisoners were perplexed to discover the depravity hidden behind the idealism of the “great cause” they had been fighting for. Many of the POWs became bitter and disillusioned. The carnage that Moltmann had witnessed and endured as a teenager all seemed to have been in vain. Some of his fellow POWs committed suicide. His world fell apart.
One day a Scottish minister gave him a Bible. His upbringing had been so secular that he had never read the Bible before. In it he discovered the words of Psalm 22 and found them again on the lips of Jesus on the cross. This was the beginning of his journey of faith. He discovered in the Jesus of Good Friday someone who understood the pain and disillusionment that he felt. He would later about write about Good Friday:
"I knew with certainty: this is someone who understands you, the Divine brother in distress, who takes the prisoners with him on the way to resurrection. I began to summon up the courage to live again, seized by a great hope…This early fellowship with Jesus, the brother in suffering and the redeemer from guilt, has never left me since."
Easter is about victory. However, the only people who seem to win on Good Friday are the ones who should NOT win. Good Friday sounds like defeat. Good Friday resembles us in our weakest moments of loss.
On Good Friday, we are not given answers. Instead we are given a very real, human, suffering Jesus who stands in company with the very real human suffering that afflicts this world and touches all of us. Today we venerate the cross and keep vigil with Jesus. Because of this day, we know that he can keep vigil with us. Today we behold his cross and in doing so we can be sure that he knows ours.