What a strange thing we are doing here for these three hours. If people needed any proof of how peculiar Christians are, this would be a good place to begin. We might have thought that Christian faith was a good way to live happier, more productive, more positive lives. But then comes Good Friday, when our only job is to stare at the twisted figure of a dying man on a cross.
Surely if we were interested in doing something “spiritual” there are more pleasant ways to do it. Go for a walk in Dumbarton Oaks or Rock Creek Park. Look at the glories of spring blossoms and flowers, listen to the birds that are back and singing in fine form. Contemplate the beauty of the planet. But no, the church compels us to sit here for a long time, with a lot of silence, contemplating a terrible story and forcing us to talk about matters we would rather not discuss. “It is finished,” we just heard that man say, and now he bows his head, gives up his spirit, and dies. What are we to make of this?
And strangest of all, we Christians believe that when we look at this man on a cross we are seeing far more than one agonizing death. We are seeing as much of God as we ever hope to see. It’s all there, in front of us, now—all of our human lostness, and everything God is doing to heal us and bring us home. This is not just the tragedy of a death, but the great unveiling of how God is saving our world.
And in case you haven’t noticed this world needs saving—saving from tragedy and suffering, and from the sin and evil that so damage our lives.
I would bet that everyone here could make a list of the wounds and tragedies that make us wonder about this loving God. You can start with cancer cells and terrorist bombs, with a tsunami in Japan and a vicious dictator killing his people in Libya, with a child struggling with autism and a family where parents are losing their jobs and their home.
I once heard Michael Mayne, who was dean of Westminster Abbey, tell of a letter he had received from a devastated father after his 11-year-old son had died in the night of an asthma attack. For weeks his parents endured numbness, disbelief, and aching loss, and weeks of seeing other bright young boys playing in the town and experiencing again the stab of their loss. “I have sat in many churches and felt the quiet enter me,” the father wrote. “The colored glass, the candles, and the man hanging on a cross. Yet I ask: Does my Creator weep?”
What else could parents in Darfur and Sierra Leone, in Afghanistan and Mosambique ask? And maybe we need to say that it is a natural and deeply human impulse to hold God responsible for the terrible things that happen. The Quaker hymn writer Sydney Carter captured that powerful sentiment in a hymn about the crucifixion sung from the perspective of one of the two thieves who are dying beside Jesus:
It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me,
I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree.
Many of our prayers in church speak of an “Almighty God”—God the omnipotent, who rules and reigns over heaven and earth. We like to associate God with grandeur—in cathedrals such as this, in vast evangelical mega-churches, in seeing God as being on the side of our success and wealth for ourselves, our business, our churches, our country. If we Christians believe we meet God in a man on a cross this must be a strange god.
Just after the Second World War a German Lutheran pastor named Gunther Ruttenborn wrote a play called The Sign of Jonas in which he tried to come to terms with the horrors his nation had been through. The setting was a trial to find out who was to blame for the terrible Nazi years.
Some charged that it was the Jews’ fault. They should have resisted and defended themselves better. Others said it was the arms manufacturers. Others said it was Hitler. And some blamed the average German citizens who stood by and did nothing. But none of that seemed quite satisfactory, and finally one man stood and said, “Do you know who’s to blame? God is. Isn’t he the one who created this awful world? Didn’t he have the power to stop all this? Let’s lay the blame where it belongs.” And so they decided to put God on trial for the crime of creation, they laid out the full case, and found God guilty.
The judge then said that because of the enormity of the crime God had committed, the punishment would have to be the worst conceivable. “I hereby sentence the Creator God to have to come and live in this world under the same anguish as everyone else.” And three archangels were charged to carry out the sentence.
The Archangel Gabriel declared: When God has to serve, I want him to see what it’s like to be an obscure, insignificant human being, born in a cave in the middle of nowhere, and to grow up in a country occupied by foreign forces. He will be a Jew in a Jew-hating world and will never know peace or prominence.
Then the Archangel Raphael said, “I’m going to see to it that God knows what’s like to be frustrated and insecure, to be a refugee with no place to lay his head. His plans won’t be fulfilled, no one will understand him, he will go to his grave a failure.”
And finally the Archangel Michael declared, “I’m going to see that this God suffers in every conceivable way. He will be rejected, he will suffer the worst pain imaginable, he will be spat on and tortured and ridiculed, and die the slow torture of a hated criminal.”
And as Michael finishes, the lights go out, and the stage is utterly dark and quiet. And slowly the realization dawns. God has served the sentence.
Staring at the cross today we begin to see that God is not an emperor controlling the world but instead has called into being a cosmos of chance and accident, of black holes and exploding galaxies, of dazzling sunsets and deadly viruses, of the beauty of human love and the ugliness of human hatred. But that is the only kind of world in which freedom, responsibility, and love could emerge. Parents know that children can only grow if we give them space and ultimately set them free.
Yes, God is all-powerful, we Christians believe, but this power is the power of love. It’s the power of vulnerable love to nurture and to sustain, to confront and to challenge, to heal and forgive, and to begin again. Staring into the dark we see this God of suffering and love.
But there’s more that we see sitting and staring at the cross. And that more is the evil and sin that so wound our world. When we look at Christ’s endless love, we have to face all our selfishness, all our self-absorbed ways of worrying about our little happiness. We have to face the wounds we have inflicted on others, the ways we have hurt and used others, the ways we have chased only after our own concerns. We have to face that we are part of a human race that is destroying our planet and part of a world of far too much violence and poverty, and part of a nation with far too many left out of a decent life.
Today we watch Jesus on the cross absorbing the evil being so brutally done to him. And as we hear him say, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” we are gazing directly into the heart of God. For all time and everywhere that is what God is doing—absorbing the evil we do, taking it into the depths of God’s life, smothering it with love, and releasing new life to begin again.
“It is finished.” “It is accomplished.” In those words there is a sense of victory, even in this dark hour. Jesus, the victim of the world’s evil, has remained steadfast to the end, loving God, loving us, all the way into death. In the end, his life wasn’t taken from him. He gave it away, laying it down for his friends and for the whole world.
Our staring is nearly over now. Now we will sing of this victor hanging from a cross, and we will come to be fed by the bread and wine of his love. Christ on the cross has revealed God’s love that will not stop. God has no strategy but the cross of Christ to win us and convince us—the power of the cross to move you and me to live Christ’s love in the struggle of hope and healing here and now.
Today we see it all: all the darkness of our world and all that God has done to turn our hearts and heal our world. It is finished. It is accomplished. Thanks be to God.