Sermon for Good Friday (The Solemn Liturgy of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ) April 14, 2006, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
Hope in the Cross
"Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for [God] who has promised is faithful."
Not too long ago, at the end of a meeting in the Parker Room, a parishioner and I got to talking about the suffering and anxieties that beset the world.
"There's so much to worry about!" she said, shaking her head. "Suicide bombers. Terrorism. Global poverty. The carnage in Darfur. The war in Iraq. The possibility that Iran will get nuclear weapons or that our government will nuke Iran. And then," she added, as if all this weren't enough, "there is global warming. Peak oil. And avian flu! I mean," she said - and here she turned and looked at me directly, searching my face - "where do you find hope?"
I looked at her in silence for a moment, considering.
"Well," I told her, testing every word as I said it, to see if it were true, "in the end I've found only one place to put my hope: in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ."
You and I are here tonight because this is where we place our hope. We are here tonight with all our sorrows and fears, all our guilt and anxiety, everything that torments us, everything that wakes us up worrying in the middle of the night. Tonight we bring everything that is in us, everything that is around us, and here at the cross we put it all down, trusting that Jesus can hold it, Jesus can bear it with us and for us, and that in him and through him we and all Creation will be drawn to new life. We place our hope in the cross of Christ because something momentous happened long ago on that hillside in Golgotha.
It's a bold claim that we Christians make. Scientists measure the age of the cosmos in billions of years. If I have the figures right - and scientists seem to be making new discoveries about our evolutionary history almost every day - the universe came into existence something like 15 billion years ago. Primitive life forms emerged on this planet maybe 4 billion years ago, the earliest members of the pre-human family showed up around 7 million years ago, and somewhere around 300,000 or 400,000 years ago the first members of our own species, Homo sapiens, began to walk the earth.
Against the backdrop of this enormous expanse of human and cosmic history, Christians dare to say that something pivotal happened over the course of three days early in the first century, something that affected not only human beings but the whole Creation. In a far-off, forgotten province in a dusty corner of the Roman Empire, a man was unjustly condemned, executed, and ignominiously buried - and everything changed. Christ's life, death, and resurrection exploded into history. (1)
Jesus spent only one week in Jerusalem, his last week, but the story of that week takes up a large portion of the Gospels - a quarter of Luke, a third of Matthew and Mark, and fully half of the Gospel of John. The apostle Paul, who wrote most of the Letters in the New Testament, devotes more space to exploring the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection than he does to examining Jesus' life and what Jesus taught. For Christians, the cross and resurrection of Christ - what theologians have come to call "the Paschal mystery" - is like the hinge of history, the turning point, the doorway through which we pass to enter new and everlasting life.
We've only had about 2,000 years to experience the reverberations of these events, and for all I know, human beings are just beginning to understand and articulate the power of the cross of Christ. So far, all kinds of images have been brought into play. Sometimes, as in tonight's reading from Isaiah, we speak of the cross in terms of healing, or sometimes, as we heard in the Letter to the Hebrews, the cross is described in terms of sacrifice. Sometimes we speak of the cross as reconciliation, bringing peace to all who are alienated from God, from each other, and from God's Creation. Sometimes we speak of the cross as ransom, suggesting that it is the payment that sets us free from being kidnapped by the power of evil. Or we use the image of redemption, to say that the cross purchased freedom for a humanity enslaved by sin. Sometimes we describe the cross and resurrection in terms of a decisive victory in the cosmic conflict between good and evil, life and death. (2) "Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle; of the mighty conflict sing" we will proclaim in the ancient words of our closing hymn [#166, Hymnal 1982], and the victory that takes place on the cross affects not only human beings, but the whole Creation: "From that holy body broken, blood and water forth proceed: earth, and stars, and sky, and ocean, by that flood from stain are freed" (3).
Whatever metaphors we use to interpret the cross, it is here at the cross that we find our hope.
It is here at the cross that all our malice and forgetfulness, all our pigheadedness and small-mindedness and hard-heartedness are continually met by the love of God.
It is here at the cross that we receive forgiveness for what may have seemed unforgivable.
It is here at the cross that we see God's willingness to be vulnerable, God's willingness to enter into and to share every pain and loss that we suffer, so that there is nothing we can experience that God in Christ does not experience with us.
It is here at the cross that we share our vulnerability with God's vulnerability, here that we open ourselves to be found by the One who loves us, and suffers with us, and seeks us in and through all things.
It is here at the cross that we are set free from the power of death, and set free as well from the endless, futile attempt to save ourselves and to earn our own salvation.
It is here that we can throw ourselves into the arms of Christ and receive the inspiration and courage to go forward, for it is here that a dying man shows us the undying love of God.
The love that was let loose on the cross has no limits. When we stand at the cross and watch Jesus suffering and dying for us, we are looking into the heart of God. Christ's suffering love embraces the lost and the forsaken, the embittered and angry -- even someone like you, even someone like me, even someone like Zacarias Moussaoui, who told the courtroom this week that he takes delight in the pain of those who lost their loved ones on September 11.
Christ's suffering love embraces even the darkest and most tormented places of the human spirit, and Christ's suffering love can inspire acts of forgiveness that startle us with their power. I do not know whether the Harriott family in Dorchester is Christian, but it is Christ's suffering and forgiving love that I see in five-year-old Kai Leigh Harriott, the little girl in Boston who wept yesterday on the witness stand as she faced the man who shot and paralyzed her two years ago, when she was 3. In a story reported this morning in the lead article of The Boston Globe and picked up this afternoon on the Internet, the little girl looked at the man who fired the bullet that severed her spine and said through her tears, "What you done to me was wrong. But I still forgive him."
"We're not victims here," said the child's mother. "We're victors." (3)
That is what was released on the cross of Christ: a love without bounds, a love without limit.
Tonight we venerate the cross, and we weep, and we marvel.
(1) Grateful acknowledgement is offered to the author - whose identity I do not recall - who used this phrase years ago in an issue of Weavings.
(2) These images are laid out by Rev. Michael L. Lindvall, Senior Pastor of The Brick Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, in an unpublished manuscript, cited with permission.
(3) Quoted by Jonathan Saltzman, "I still forgive him," The Boston Globe, Friday, April 14, 2006, p. 1.
Copyright ©2006 Margaret Bullitt-Jonas