A sermon preached on Good Friday at Southminster Presbyterian in Boise, Idaho.
Good Friday has not always been my favorite day in the church calendar. I love Ash Wednesday, with the sacred act of marking the cross in ash on the foreheads of the people I love, reminding them and reminding me, of the fragile nature of the gift of life. I love Maundy Thursday, that takes the mundane act of foot washing and turns hospitality into a sacramental action for us to emulate.
But Good Friday is only good when viewed in the light of Easter morning.
Spoiler alert. We know how the story will end. But Good Friday intentionally leaves us in the middle.
I haven’t always connected to this day because it feels so much bigger than me. I can imagine washing the feet of my friends because I’ve done it. But I can’t imagine dying on a cross as Jesus does. Nor do I want to. In normal times, I think of Good Friday as BIG Friday, when the hugest act of violence against Jesus by the government of Rome becomes the most humongous and gigantic act of love by God.
Today, though, Good Friday feels closer to me than usual. As a nation, I think we are just now starting to come to terms with the possible costs of this Covid-19 virus. Listen to this commentary:
“For Americans, wars and massive human tragedies are events that occur “over there, in faraway lands.” For centuries, America prided itself on having not been attacked by a foreign enemy on its mainland territory—Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are dismissed as cheap shots. For the most part, the United States has imagined the Atlantic and Pacific as buffers insulating it from a conflicted world. As a result, Americans have never seen anything like this in the US mainland. The United States has not experienced famine or war in the last century. We are not accustomed to seeing a field hospital set up in New York City’s Central Park.”
Even if the projected death tolls from this virus are as low as we pray they might be, our nation will be facing huge losses of people.
Big Friday feels closer to me this year.
This week, as I was cooped up in the house, I was thinking 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, maybe we feel like we’re stuck in the wrong place, or maybe the right place but in the wrong time. I want to be in the time before, when I could touch my face and go visit my loved ones. Like Simon of Cyrene, I don’t want to be carrying the burdens we’re having to carry.
But also like Simon, maybe if I pause, I can realize that shouldering a part of the weight of Jesus’s cross is not the same as being crucified.
The weight we are all bearing right now is real. We can’t dismiss the heaviness of our particular burdens because we see someone else’s is so much heavier. We also can’t correctly judge the burdens someone else is carrying from our vantage point. It isn’t a competition.
We are shouldering burdens we hadn’t planned on bearing.
What was on Simon of Cyrene’s 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.
Hear these verses from the end of this chapter:
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”
Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
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 let us ponder the burdens we are all bearing in these days, giving ourselves permission to be exhausted by the weight of them, and giving compassion to others as we realize we don’t know how heavy the weight is on their shoulders.
Let us listen in prayer and silence this holy weekend, that we may have ears to hear the Good News on Easter morning.