Good Friday 2018
Mary Lee Wile
“This is love.” This day. This death. “This is love laying down its life.”
That’s what John’s gospel – the one we heard just now — makes manifestly clear: Jesus chose this death; it was not forced on him. The cross in John’s gospel is not an instrument of torture but a symbol of God’s astonishing love for us. In this telling, the tragedy of Good Friday isn’t the crucifixion, but the lying and manipulations of Pilate, the religious authorities, even Peter – all those who denied and lied about Jesus for their own political power or personal safety.
When Jesus stands before the religious authorities and Pilate asks them, “Shall I crucify your king?”, some find their answer — “We have no king but Caesar” – one of the most painful moments in the gospel, for in their frantic rush to destroy Jesus, they deny the very God they profess to serve. This, remember, is taking place just before Passover, when the liturgy will say, “From everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God. Beside thee we have no king… We have no king but Thee.” At the heart of the Jewish tradition is this claim that God is their only king, but in a moment of political fervor and fear, these religious “authorities” deny their God in favor of Caesar and security.
Sound familiar? This kind of self-serving lying and manipulation didn’t end 2000 years ago. Caught up in political frenzy, there many today who call themselves Christian yet deny every compassionate word that Jesus spoke. Like the religious authorities of Jesus’ time, they renounce the very actions that would identify them as God’s people. To quote one of the signs from March for Our Lives: “I was hungry, and you cut my food stamps. I was a stranger, and you deported me. I was sick, and you denied me healthcare. I was a child afraid to go to school, and you voted with the NRA.”
In response to the current corruption of the gospel message by political and religious forces, a group of wise elders from across the country and across denominations, including our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, met on Ash Wednesday to begin drafting what they ultimately called “Reclaiming Jesus.” It begins: “We experience a deep sense of lament for the political and moral crisis we are in…We believe that the future of the nation’s soul and the integrity of faith are both at stake.” It specifically rejects white nationalism, assaults on women’s rights, the denigration and abandonment of the most vulnerable, the practice and pattern of lying, authoritarian rule, xenophobic nationalism and environmental devastation. Each rejection is backed up by passages from Scripture.In the same way that Palm Sunday takes the celebration of Jesus as our Lord and Savior into the public square through the streets of Jerusalem, and Good Friday takes the conviction and crucifixion of Jesus into the public square of Golgotha, so “Reclaiming Jesus” has taken to the public square of our own time: social media. It is a contemporary example of love laying down its life, because the writers of this document continue to receive vile and violently negative comments in reaction to their public statement of faith, yet they remain steadfast in their willingness to accept emotional exposure and vulnerability.
We can also see “love laying down its life” in the student-led protests against gun violence. These children have made themselves utterly vulnerable, and they, too, receive violent and hateful responses, even death threats. But unlike Peter, they persist in the face of personal danger. (I’ve thinking a lot recently of Jesus’ invitation: “Let the children come to me, for of such is the kingdom of God.” And Isaiah’s recognition, “And a little child shall lead them.” May it be so.)
Most of us here probably won’t ever find ourselves on the receiving end of death threats, or exposed to lies and ridicule and hatred in the public square as Jesus was, as the writers of “Reclaiming Jesus” are, as these brave children continue to be.
But we are offered, says Br. Keith of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, we are offered other ways of laying down our lives in loving and life-giving ways. “So love lays down life,” Br. Keith says, whenever we apologize for a wrong we don’t even want to admit, when we volunteer, even at things we’re no good at, whenever we tend the earth or each other, when we do things that witness to God’s love.
I began this homily with Br. Keith’s words: “This is love. This is love laying down its life.” I used his words then to point to the cross, but Br. Keith also suggests that we say them to ourselves as a reminder whenever we set out on one of our own risky adventures: “This is love. This is love laying down its life.” Whether we face the shame of admitting a wrong, the exhaustion of ongoing caretaking, the discomfort of doing work we’re no good at but that needs doing, the weariness of daily activism and its accompanying threat of burn-out — whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Jesus. We witness to his love, and to our own. Consider how many times in the past week – how many times today – you might look back and say, “That was love. That was love laying down its life.”
In John’s gospel account of the Passion, we are invited to witness not so much Jesus’ suffering, but Jesus’ extraordinary love: for his friends and followers, for his mother and the beloved disciple, for the world he has loved and lived in, and for us. And we who profess to being followers of Jesus, who are here today to venerate the cross on which he died for love of us, are meant to do likewise in the ordinary reality of our daily lives.
And having said that, I find myself compelled to ask: Where now, where next, am I called to love, and there lay down my life?
Lord Jesus, help us discern the voice of your calling, even from the cross, and give us the strength and courage to say yes.