On Good Friday 2018, I conducted worship in the Wembley Downs Uniting Church and preached my last sermon. In my eighty ninth year, I had become conscious that failing eyesight, hearing and memory was calling to an end a practice in which I had been engaged for over seventy years. What follows is the basis of my last sermon. Other parts of the Service of Worship are included as they are an integral part of that which I was trying to say.
It is no secret that for me Good Friday is the most sacred and important day of the Christian year. How then to symbolise and highlight its importance? How about this? For fifty one weeks of the year we take a candle and light it to represent Jesus of Nazareth as the “Light of the World”. Today we reverse the process. (The burning candle is extinguished)
Herein is the meaning of this day. “The Light was in the world and men and women preferred the darkness to the light” – and we still do!
The words I just quoted come from John 3:19, which is usually translated as “This is the judgment, that the light was in the world and men and women preferred the darkness to the light.” “Judgment”, however, is a bad translation. The Greek word is “krisis” and there is no prize for guessing what it means. Yes, it means “Crisis”. “This is the crisis”, with the word crisis being dictionary defined as “A decisive or vitally important stage in the course of anything; a turning point; a critical time or occasion; the point in a disease leading to recovery or death”. And that is precisely what this day is!
How much clearer can you put it? This was, and is, the crisis: the light was in the world and the people of his day, and the people of our day, prefer the darkness to the light. This is the day when it all comes to the surface, when the crowd shouts “Crucify” and Jesus says “Forgive them for they know not what they do”. How gracious can you get? As the hymn writer puts it “Love so amazing, so divine” that it demands a response.
And the tragedy of this day is that it is still being prostituted into self centredness. Today millions of people will be singing of a green hill far away and the locked gates of heaven being opened for them by the sacrifice of Jesus. “Substitutionary atonement” is what it is called and it is a parody of this day, something dreamed up by an Archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century. Today has nothing to do with “going to heaven saved by his precious blood!” That is selfishness taken to its ultimate degree. And if there is one thing that the Christian faith abhors it is selfishness. Yes, this day is about salvation – but it is about the salvation of the world, not ourselves!
And the world certainly needs saving! The mushroom cloud, the epitome of violence, is once again rising. Vladimir Putin has warned the UK of meddling with a nuclear State. Donald Trump and Kim Yong Un are going to work out a solution to nuclear warfare (it would be a joke if it wasn’t so serious) and the Chinese Dictator Xi Jin Ping is talking of a fighting a bloody battle to protect every inch of territory. And on the local scene we have the cage fighting crowd at our so called Entertainment Centre cheering as one woman astride another punches her into insensibility. The mind boggles at the amount of violence and potential violence in the world today. And, in the midst of it all, is the crucified non violent Christ.
How gross can one get? Today is the answer to that question! The reason why Jesus was crucified is that he was a threat to his society. He was counter cultural. Caiaphas, the head of the Sanhedrin, put it very clearly. “It is expedient that one man, rather than the whole nation, should perish”. Such a statement raises the question of who was ultimately responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus? It wasn’t Pilate. He washed his hands of the matter. And it wasn’t Judas. He was a Zealot, a “dagger-man” (sicarii) who lost the plot and thought he could “force” Jesus hand. No, it wasn’t Pilate or Judas who were responsible for Jesus death. It was the crowd shouting “crucify ” that was ultimately responsible. And so it is today – because Jesus presents and represents a way of life very different to that which we see in the world today. It was this that resulted in him being crucified – crucified, not executed. In those days criminals were executed and political insurgents were crucified. Any wonder then, that I see this day as the most important day of the year, As I have said ad nauseum over the years I do not use the word God in terms of a guy in the sky manipulating the levers of life but as the ground of our being, the essence, the energy and spirit of life. Today is the day when Jesus, embodying the essence and spirit of life, was hoisted on a cross and crucified as a threat to the Roman Empire. “We have no King but Caesar” shouted the crowd, and the military platted a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and crucified him.
Any wonder that I see this day as the most important day, not only in the Church calendar but the calendar of the world.
On this aweful day
when love was crucified
when darkness descended
and all we believe in and hope for was shaken to its roots,
when the cry of man’s inhumanity to man
reverberated around the world,
we come to recognize that crucifixion requires:
Pilates who turn away and wash their hands
in the face of injustice,
Judas’s who try to force your hand,
Peters who deny you,
disciples who run away,
soldiers who carry out their orders,
and mindless crowds shouting for violent action.
And, through it all, we hear the voice:
“Father forgive them for they know not what they do”.
That may have been true 2000 years ago
but we know today what we do.
We crucify you.
We engage in violence, again and again and again.
Sprit of Life, in this violent and cruel world
in which men and women inflict such agony on each other
and deprive each other of hope and life,
where the little people are trodden on
and their cries not heard,
where injustice is rampant,
where we “fall short of the mark”,
love is crucified,
and the cross becomes a present reality.
Breathe your spirit into the darkness of this day, we pray.
Come to us in the hopelessness that engulfs much of our living.
Come to our confusing and cruel world
and show us the significance of the Cross.
May we see the goodness in this day
and the new possibilities of life and love
that are revealed, and crucified, in Jesus Christ our Lord
The Lectionary reading set for today consists of two chapters from John’s gospel, 82 verses in all. We are not going to read them all because we know well the story of the crucifixion.
We read only two short verses
John 19: 25: Jesus came out and Pilate said “Behold, the man .”
John 19:28 Jesus said ‘It is finished’. And bowing his head he gave up the spirit.
In these verses I believe lies the significance of Jesus of Nazareth for the world in which he lived, and the world in which we live.
(a) Firstly Pilate’s statement “Behold the Man”, the unconscious assertion of the nature and significance of Jesus of Nazareth, the epitome of humanity. I have always had a soft spot for Pilate. He is the one with whom I identify in the story of this day. Well educated, legally trained, and probably coming from a family of some standing in the community, he was smart, not a twit like Judas who thought he could force Jesus into doing something spectacular like leading a violent revolution against Rome. Pilate was no fool, and give him his due, he tried his best to stop Jesus being crucified, but in the end he dropped the ball. He squibbed it in the face of public opinion, people crying out “crucify him”. Pilate was fearful of losing his place in society. “If you release him you are no friend of Caesar” the crowd shouted; a deliberate threat to his place in society. And this, after all, is what determines so much of our action. Peer pressure is what we call it today. And herein lies a feature of Good Friday for so many of us: the significance of peer pressure. We need to recognize that the Easter story is fundamentally countercultural. The starting point of any consideration of the crucifixion must be its countercultural nature. Jesus was charged with subverting the existing order – and it was a charge that he did not dispute.
The cross has in the past been theologised to death, or, to be more accurate, theologized to life after death in some kind of heaven. “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin. He only could unlock the doors of heaven and let us in.” Not for me! As I have said, such an approach necessitates a cruel, punishing, murderous, vindictive God and I do not see that kind of God revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus. The sacrificial, substitutionary and ransom theories of the atonement do not do justice to the cross and lose the significance of the event.
The point I seek to make is that any consideration of the cross must begin with its plainest meaning as the death penalty for subversion. Crucifixion was the ultimate sanction of the powers that be, and Jesus was crucified because he was a threat to the status quo.
The death penalty in those days was of two kinds. The way criminals were executed was that the person knelt and the head was struck off with a sword. It was quick and efficient. The other way was that of crucifixion – a slow and excruciatingly painful way reserved for enemies of the State. It is highly significant that Jesus was crucified. The crowd made the reason for his death quite clear “We have no king but Caesar”. Pilate even more so “You brought this man before me on a charge of subversion”.
Jesus was, and is, a threat to our present way of life. He was counter culturaland that was the reason why he was crucified. He was, and is still, a threat to our existing way of life.
It is important, moreover, to also note that Jesus was not a passive victim of circumstances. After Caesarea Phillipi, when his disciples recognized him as the long awaited Messiah, we are told that “he set his face towards Jerusalem” He knew precisely what he was walking into. “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord.” Jesus deliberately confronted the powers that be in the name of God, in the name of humanity’s fulfillment. They did their worst. They crucified the embodiment of humanity’s future and it wasn’t enough. Today he roams the world where the powers that be cannot touch him. He is out of control.
But lets not pre-empt Easter Sunday. Let’s stay with the aptly named God’s Friday and recognize the physical and social significance of the crucifixion. It was the death penalty for those who confronted the existing state of affairs.
(b) The second part of our reading consists of the last word from the cross. Today there will be thousands of sermons on the words from the cross – and rightly so for they constitute a very important aspect of this day. And, for me, the essence of the God’s Friday are the last words that Jesus uttered before he died. In the Greek New Testament it is just one word “Tetelestai”. In the English bible it is translated “It is finished”.
But how was it spoken? That is the question! Was it spoken as a cry of thankfulness that the suffering was over “It is finished” with the voice trailing off. Or was it spoken as a cry of triumph. “It-is-finished! “ His life’s work was finished.
I have no doubt as to how the words would have been spoken. The new reality, the new way of being had been established. “It is finished!” And, bowing his head, he gave up the Spirit. He died, knowing that a new state of being had been established. To be or not to be really is the question, and Jesus’ life and death was about a new way of being. Some editions of the bible translate the final word as “It is accomplished”. What was accomplished? A new way of being.
When did the process start? Some say it was at his birth. Some say it was when he argued with the Priests in the Temple, I think it was when he was baptised in the Jordan by John – a guy for which I have great admiration. He identified Jesus as the one who would bring in a new approach to life, a new way of being. Jesus’ approach, however, was so radical that when John was in prison he sent messengers to ask Jesus whether he was in fact the one to come or should they look for another. Jesus answer to the messengers was both enigmatic and instructive: “The blind see, the lame walk and good news is preached to the poor.” John was executed before it was finished but the new way of being was well under way when he died. When Jesus died it was finished. A new way of being had been revealed to the human race. And this is what we remember and celebrate today, just as Paul did when writing his letter to the Ephesians. “God has allowed us to know the secret of his plan. He purposes that all human history shall be consummated in Christ, that everything that exists shall find its perfection and fulfillment in him. And here is the staggering thing, that we, who are the first to put our trust in him, we have a part to play in the working out of his purpose.” Well said Paul! It is what God’s Friday is all about.
To be or not to be really is the question. It is the question Jesus posed two thousand years ago when he shook the foundations of our being. From the time he first trod the hills of Galilee it was what he was on about. It wasn’t for him a matter of ethics. It was about the Spirit of Life, the energy of life, manifesting itself in homo sapiens. From the time he committed himself on the shore of the Jordan River to the moment of his death, he trod the boundaries of a way of life that transcended that which was accepted by the political and religious authorities. He was about fullness of life and this brought him into conflict with the accepted social understanding so much so that Caiaphas, a member of the Sanhedrin, maintained that “it is expedient that one man should die rather than the whole nation perish.” And so they killed him – but they were too late, and today he roams the highways and byways of the world.
I have always loved the rough poems of Studdert Kennedy and none more than the one entitled “He was a gambler too”.
“And sitting down, they watched him there,
The soldiers did:
There, while they played dice
He made his sacrifice.
He was a gambler too, my Christ.
He took his life and threw
It for a world redeemed.
And ere his agony was done
Before the westering sun went down,
Crowning that day with its crimson crown,
He knew that he had won.
“It is finished!” was his cry, and thank God for that! I for one would be without hope, and, dare I say it, the world would be without hope. Bill Loader finished his Lenten lectures a few years ago with a sentence I will never forget. “The story of Jesus is about change and hope.” How true that is!
The last words from the cross were about the end of the beginning. Whether the world hears the cry from the cross is of course a different matter. It certainly didn’t then and I often wonder where I would have stood, and what I would have said, and what I would have done if I had been there. Many others have considered this question and it is appropriate that we should think about it on this day and to do it in the context of an old negro spiritual. Where do we stand with respect to this day? Were we there when they crucified Jesus? You might say “Of course we weren’t! It happened two thousand years ago. No! It happens every day.
Let us then stand and acknowledge that we were there that day, and that the crucifixion drama continues to be enacted in every generation.
Cantor: Were we there when they crucified our Lord?
Congregation: We were there when they crucified our Lord!
Oooooh! It causes us to tremble, tremble, tremble,
We were there when they crucified our Lord
I was there as the lawful cit-izen.
I was there as the lawful citi-zen.
Oooooh! It causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble,
I was there when they crucified my Lord!
I was there as a member of the crowd
I was there as a member of the crowd
Oooooh! It causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble,
I was there when they crucified my Lord!
I was there when he said his final word.
I was there when he said his final word
Oooooh! It causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble,
I was there when they crucified my Lord!
We now engage in a time of prayer, a practice that Simone Weil defines as “Attention taken to its highest degree.” It is not enough to remember the historical crucifixion. It is an on going reality and we need to broaden our vision and remember the words of Jesus to the weeping women as he commenced the journey to the cross, “Weep not for me. Weep for yourselves and your children”. Jesus is being crucified today again and again. For just as surely as Christ died upon the cross, those who follow the ways of Christ, the way of grace, of justice and peace, and love, will continue to be tortured, battered, abused and hauled up upon crosses and executed by the forces of darkness, violence and death. The crucifixion didn’t happen once and for all, way back then. Jesus is being crucified today as the ways of greed, violence, war and death exact their dreadful effect on the innocent victims of the world.
A few weeks ago I caught up with a friend whom I knew as a teenager. He is one of the brightest and astute people I know, as evidenced by the fact that for years he was on the Productivity Commission, the think tank of the nation. Our conversation ranged far and wide. It started with me commenting that I find our faith in Democratic Liberalism quite incredible and how our politicians seemed to have lost the plot. My friend spoke of it in terms of a race to the bottom. And I agreed. I have been linked to politics from the day I was born. Indeed on the day I was born my father was addressing the electors for the seat of Fremantle. I have been linked to politics for eighty eight years and I have never seen it worse. The only word I can find to describe it is “childish”.
We then moved on to Steven Pinker and his assertion that warfare is becoming obsolete, completely disregarding the fact that it is only the nature of warfare that is changing with such things as Cyber attacks on infrastructure, artificial Intelligence Killers and, of course, in the background a mushroom cloud. I shared with my friend my dream of some bright young scientist who might be able to change the co-ordinates of a launched nuclear missile and make it “return to sender.” The idea of Kim Yung Un and Donald trump being able to sort out the world’s nuclear confrontation is literally laughable. And in the background Russia and China update their nuclear weaponry and express their contempt for any kind of International Law. A recent issue of Time was entitled “Making America nuclear again”. The most recent issue of The Monthly has an article entitled “Gambling with Nuclear Arms”. The writing is not on the wall but it certainly is in the affairs of our time.
And then finally we looked at, and disagreed with, John Gray and his ilk who maintain that because human beings are embodied algorithms programmed by natural selection to produce copies of themselves, life really is a matter of “Que sera, sera”, “whatever will be, will be ”, and the future will be just as purposeless as the past.
Our conversation finished with a statement from my friend that he still goes to Church but is unsure of where he stands with respect to it all. I know what he means and I wonder what he will make of the service he attends today.
Let us then give our attention to those who are victims of violence today.
We remember today the horrendous number of aboriginal children subject to abuse in their own community, a community that all too often lives in the past and blames others.
We remember the children of Syria, where the violence of war kills tens of thousands, with much of it being religiously based.
We remember those who experience violence in the home. The figures are now one in six.
We remember the shame of child abuse within the church and its structures, and the wider community.
We remember those who die in American schools.
We remember those who die on the battlefields of war. We remember the absolute stupidity of Gallipoli and weep for those who gave their life for nothing, absolutely bloody nothing!
We remember we live today in a violent society, where love is confused with sexual activity and pleasure with drugs.
We remember we live in a society that is like a ship without a rudder, and which must eventually end up on the rocks.
“Weep not for me” said Jesus to the women as he began his journey to the cross. “Weep for yourselves and your children.” The world today is dominated by violence instead of peace, and hatred instead of love – and no one can say we were not warned. We were warned by the “human one”, who, as he approached the cross, said “Weep not for me, weep for yourselves and your children”.
And so we pray
Lord of Life, We remember this day all those who are victims of our way of life. Enable us to communicate your presence in it all so that there may be a rebirth of hope and faith and love, in the name of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth in whose name we gather and disperse this day. Amen
The biggest mistake we can make today is to see the crucifixion as something that happened two thousand years ago. As our friend Albert Einstein pointed out, past, present and future are part of the one reality. Crucifixion is a past, present and future reality. It is a reality that brings in God’s future. “If anyone would be my disciple, let them take up their cross and follow me.”
And so today, as we come to the end of our service of worship we sing together our final hymn, one that comes to us not from the hymn book but from the twenty first century of stage and screen.
I use it without equivocation as I remember the words of Jesus to the women by the roadside as he carried his cross “Weep not for me. Weep for yourselves and your children.” The crucifixion is not only a past reality. It is a present and future reality – and God help us if we ever forget it!
And so we sing along with a host of voices, and slightly amended words.
Do you hear the people weep
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are entitled to the light.
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the Son will rise .
They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the ploughshare.
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their award!
Will you join in the Parade?
Who will be stand and strong with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
There is a world we long to see!
Do you hear the people weep?
Say, do you hear the distant drums,
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!
How then to sum up everything I have been trying to say today and indeed the past seventy three years of sermonising.
The drama that was enacted on that first Good Friday is still being played out today. The Christian faith is not about Jesus opening the gates of heaven for the faithful. It is about the future of the human race and our role in the process. The day that we celebrate today is not the end of the Christian faith. It is the end of the beginning. It is the assertion that violence is dysfunctional as an instrument and, if we place our faith in political systems and power and violence, we are of all people most to be pitied. The non violence of Jesus, the hands stretched out on a cross, is the anatomy and the catalyst of change. And we better believe it, for it is the future of homo sapiens that is involved.
Go forth then into the world and carry your cross.
Hold fast to that which is right,
render to no one evil for evil,
confront the violence of our culture,
and affirm that in Jesus of Nazareth
there is a new way of being.
So be it!
And if it be so, then to Jesus of Nazareth, and him crucified, be the praise and the glory.