Psalm 22: 1-8, 14-21, 27-31
A Good Friday Meditation at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
March 25, 2016
The story we have heard and seen tonight is a reversal of the parade of Palm Sunday, the continuation after the “key change” Andrew spoke of last night. The cheering crowds and palm branches are replaced with jeering mockery and a crown of thorns. The Romans didn’t use crucifixion for all criminals, although they used it for many people. They used it for political crimes, for people who were threats to order and stability.
And while they were wrong in their understanding of who Jesus was and what his kingship would be, they were completely correct that he was a threat to their order and stability. The public and brutal parade of a tortured man carrying a cross through the city streets was intended to be a deterrent to other would be political agitators.
Two thousand years later, Imperial Rome is in our history books and yet their parade continues. We re-enact and liturgize it, turning it into a counter-protest. We even wear their sign of torture as a piece of jewelry around our necks.
While Caesar and Imperial Rome may be in the pages of History, the same forces that conspired to kill Jesus are active in the world today, oppressing men, women, and children. We, as a society, participate in systems—systems of economy, and race, and politics—systems that limit the flourishing of God’s children and which subject people to violence and danger.
Good Friday is a remembrance and a subversion of the violence of humanity. It is also a time for us to pause and own our place in the story.
We might like to think that we can live our lives without contributing to violence and injustice. We pretend it is far away from our lives—while we hear sirens race through the streets of Belgium and Turkey, we ignore the cries of pain in our community. We pretend violence is not connected to our lives even as protestors weep over the bodies of slain black children.
Drinking fair trade coffee, buying local food, driving hybrid cars, and noticing the labels on our clothing so we know where it was made—those are all good things to do. But do we know if children made our phones in countries with unjust labor practices? How can we attend to all of those decisions in a global world? We are part of a big and complex system. We are a part. And so we bear witness to the cross of Jesus. And we own our place in the story.
I think of Simon of Cyrene. We’re told he was a passer-by, who was coming in from the country. We don’t know if he even knew he was on Rome’s parade route that day he came in from his farm to do business. With sons named Rufus and Alexander, he was likely not Jewish (those weren’t Jewish names). And he found himself carrying a cross, not as a volunteer, but as the person in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Like Simon of Cyrene, we are not immune to the forces that compel us to participate in a parade of violence.
What was on his mind as he bore the weight of someone else’s cross?
Was he glad he could take the burden of it from Jesus, who must have been too weak after his abuse to carry it himself? Or was he afraid he would be killed if he said ‘no’, denying the instruction to take up the cross?
He reminds us of another Simon, Simon Peter, who had been instructed by Jesus to take up his cross and follow. Peter, who at this point in the narrative has already denied Jesus 3 times—what is he thinking as he hides in the crowd while another Simon, a stranger, carries the cross of his rabbi, teacher, and friend?
Earlier in the gospel, Jesus tells the crowd, he tells us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”.
When I read those verses earlier in the gospel, it seemed a voluntary choice, a good and brave decision we could make for Jesus. In the midst of Good Friday, though, our choices seem to fall by the wayside, with our denials and betrayals. And the cross becomes something forced upon us by outside forces, a weight we carry at someone else’s insistence, by our participation in an unjust world.
At the end of the story, we’re told a Roman soldier was witness to Jesus’ last breath. What did he have eyes to see?
He “saw that in this way Jesus breathed his last.” He said, “Truly this man was God’s son.”
I don’t want to overly romanticize this Roman soldier’s profession of faith. He wasn’t there as a follower. We don’t know what he had thought of Jesus of Nazareth before this moment. He was there on the clock, working for Rome, perhaps compelled by his own political or economic realities to be there.
It is worth noting that in a gospel full of people who are told to be quiet when they proclaim who Jesus is, this is the first profession of faith that is not silenced.
Perhaps because the one who told people to keep quiet has now been silenced himself.
Or perhaps the soldier’s statement is left to ring out across history because it is in the crucifixion that we know “truly, this man was God’s son”.
As we heard the story tonight, we also heard the Psalm that Jesus quoted from the cross. Psalm 22 begins with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”.
It doesn’t end there, though. Verses of pain and loss are woven through with verses of hope and promise. Jesus, by quoting this Psalm intended for the people who heard it to remember the rest of the story. The forsaken-ness of the world does not have the final say.
“Posterity will serve God; future generations will be told about the Lord and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”
A little later in the service, we will go out into the darkness of Good Friday trusting that the spectacle and horror of the cross is not the final word God will speak. Let us listen in prayer and silence this holy weekend, that we may have ears to hear the Good News on Easter morning.