We gather this afternoon at the cross—the symbol we approach to offer up and contemplate the meaning of our suffering. Human life is characterized by goodness, community, and love. It is also marked by aggression, loneliness, and loss. The story of the Garden of Eden is as much an expression of our wish as of our memory. We long for an existence without the presence of sin, death, loss, and pain. But our experience of the world tells us otherwise. Human beings bring Jesus—God incarnate, exemplary human being—to the cross. And here we witness the worst kinds of suffering that human beings can inflict on each other.
In a BBC Radio interview, the writer Amy Bloom talked about growing up the granddaughter of Eastern European Jews who had fled the pogroms in Lithuania for the U.S. early in the twentieth century. To the surprise of the host, Bloom explained that her grandparents never talked about their lives in Eastern Europe before coming to America. “How do you explain their reticence?” he asked. She responded,
“They were not part of the Oprah generation. They didn’t feel that if you told everybody how terrible your life had been, somebody would give you a car. They thought that if you told everybody how terrible your life was, they would probably ask you to go back.” [BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves 3/8/10]
You and I inhabit a culture where so many people complain so vocally about their problems. But on Good Friday, it is not wrong for us to consider our own suffering. Because we have imaginations, we can construct a possible life without struggles or trials, persecutions or pains. And because we are limited and finite, our experience of life will usually fall short of achieving those dreams. If the cross means anything, it means that God has taken on and experienced our sufferings and our losses. So if God has experienced human suffering, that suffering must now count for something. God knows what it is like to be you and me. It is OK to acknowledge that life doesn’t always give us what we want from it.
Today is the day in the church year when we walk with Jesus from arrest and trial to his death on the cross. Like Amy Bloom’s Eastern European Jewish grandparents, Jesus as we meet him in John’s Gospel does not say much about how terrible his life has been. But even seeing it from the outside, as we do, we know that this is not the ending to his story that Jesus had asked for or imagined. But it is one he could have predicted. The choice, for Jesus, was always about keeping faith with who he was, doing what God had appointed him to do. As one who loved and healed and taught and gathered people to his open table, Jesus risked offending the systems that would keep people subjugated, alienated, and alone. As one who loved life and lived it abundantly, his very exuberance proved a dangerous way to live in an oppressive and fearful climate. But even a cursory reading of the Gospels will convince you that Jesus loved the life that Good Friday demanded he lose.
As you and I take our places at the cross today, let us remember that we are engaged in a drama where the ones with power seek to deploy it while the one with real authority refuses to use it. Jesus is given over into the hands of wicked people not because God is cruel but because God stands with those who get run over by life. God refuses to wield weapons against us. And God reaches out to us to lead us into a new way of being with each other. A way, in the words of Northrop Frye, “based on trust instead of threats.”
In the crucifixion of Jesus, God has experienced human suffering at its most painful and profound. God has stood with us in the worst kind of human experience. This act of solidarity means two things for us. First, it means that the one we pray to is not some distant powerful cosmic king. The one we pray to is a lonely, dying man of sorrows and griefs. That one hears us in the way a cosmic king couldn’t but a fellow sufferer would. Second, it means that God calls us to stand together with Jesus and with all those who suffer. So, because of the cross, these two things are now true for us. The God we pray to is one who knows what it is to be us, to be weak and fragile and lonely and lost. And that one goes with us as we walk with Jesus to his death and then on to new and risen life.
Here is how Paul puts it in a reading from his letter to the Philippians that we read earlier this week:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Jesus went to the cross because he knew that it was more important to take the form of one with no power and no status than it was to insist on his own dignity. It was more important to Jesus to stand against the forces that destroy life and belittle human beings than it was to have the titles and symbols of power which Caesar and Pilate and Herod so desperately claimed. Jesus did not want to die. But the freedom and compassion with which he lived gave him no other choice. And it is because he emptied himself to death on a cross that you and I can choose today to live as he did—a life based on trust instead of threats—too.
It is toward freedom and compassion, toward trust and hope, that God beckons you and me this Good Friday. We can live as free and compassionate people because Good Friday is not finally tragic. We can live as trusting and hopeful people because love is more powerful than death. The story does not end today. What comes next is Easter. Here is Paul again:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:5-11]