Sermon for Good Friday, Friday, March 30 2018, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 52:13-53:12; Ps 22; Heb 10:16-25; Jn 18:1-19:42
This is the time of the death of God.
Let us not back away from this; that today the creating Word which made the cosmos is killed by human hands. That if the world is empty, a void of random hurt, a series of events without meaning, if silence falls over the earth, it is a thing which human hands have done. That the violence inflicted every day by human bodies upon human bodies is summed up here.
Here is the man. This solitary person, bearing the same suffering as people around the world and through all time, all the anonymous victims, the tortured and the disappeared, the bodies in the mass graves. All the missing and murdered indigenous women, all the abandoned pregnant teenagers, all the trans kids contemplating suicide, all the black men killed by the police, all those broken by political and social powers, all the losers, all the failures. Here is the absolute revelation of God, in the bleeding body of the victim.
The story shows us the ones who did this, the ordinary people, falling into evil without even knowing what they’re doing. There may be no greater tragedy in all of scripture than that appalling game of chicken between Pilate and the religious leaders of Jerusalem, Pilate the weak and vicious puppet governor flirting with truth and turning away, manipulating the crowd as he knew so well how to do, and the representatives of a colonized people trying to work the levers of imperial violence in the ways in which their oppression had trained them, slowly turning into their own oppressors, until that terrible moment when a group of devout Jews stands in front of the Praetorium and cries, “We have no king but Caesar!”, betraying their own deepest beliefs, frantically struggling on the hook from which they cannot escape.
And Peter, the leader of the disciples, first tries to respond with violence, with the easiest and most brutal tool at hand, and, when that fails, gives up and denies his own truth, while the other disciples scatter and run, try to avoid that choice, try to hide from the stark division in the day’s gathering heat, cannot face the choice of standing with the victim, the possibility of becoming power’s victims themselves. It is all of us, and even those of us who are weak and damaged in this world have still played the world’s ugly games. We are all of those people, and the liturgy makes us confront that, makes us declare that we have no king but Caesar, that we are in thrall to the powerful, that we have denied the pain, been complicit in the suffering. That, in extremity, we will sell out our friends and our beliefs to keep ourselves safe.
That we have killed God. That the void of this aching world is of our own making.
But God will not let us go. In the brutal sun of the afternoon, the young man, battered and bleeding and still, somehow, more human than any of them, is nailed hand and foot to a piece of wood, and lifted up to die. To go down into that final dark place, willingly, in this last surrender, because if that is where God has to go to find us, that is where God will go. If we have nothing left in us but the power of death, then God will go into death for us, and find us there. If we are determined to kill love, then love will be killed, will not resist or turn away, will let us do and be the worst that we can manage, and will be love still.
On the barren cliffs of our abandonment, in our bitterest, emptiest place, the God who died comes without defense. The lamb comes to the place where all love ends, and is love still. Here where we are, in the valley of death, compromised, faithless, weak and selfish and stained with blood, tired with an ancient tiredness, here, to us, God comes.
On this day, this Friday we call Good, we must live in this defeat, in this absence we have made, and recognize it truly; because it is in this honesty that our healing can begin, here that love’s rescue can discover us.
And even in that terrible place outside the walls, at the foot of the cross, we see a new thing begin. For we do not always fail entirely; and they did not all run away. The woman whose own body had brought the incarnate Word into the world, who had sung of revolution when her own life was at risk, she remained, and a handful of other women with her. And, at least according to John’s gospel, one of the male disciples. Just one. But that one is there. And from this small group, Jesus, in what will be almost his final words, creates a new family. A family made not by biological relationship or tribe or tradition, and yet a family made, in a real sense, by blood. The family of those who will not turn away, the family of solidarity. Of those who do not fight or run, but stand with the victims, for however long it takes. Not knowing if there will be a day beyond this day, but willing to suffer this day regardless, because that is love’s work.
Then, when the day of murder ends and the body is taken down, two men who have been afraid to live their truth step forward, name their loyalty, whatever the risks may be. Too late, it seems; a futile gesture, no help to anyone, nothing to come of it. Yet in that absolute emptiness, they will dare the gesture, they will say, at that last moment, that it has mattered.
Like all of them, we gather our bits of courage and care, our rags and bones, and we offer them to each other and to the lamb who died, who dies today. In the blazing sun of God’s death, we build for each other our tiny shelters; in the tombs of hope, we give the gifts which are left to give. For even now, at this last moment, even when it seems too late, the things which were cast down are being raised up, and the things which had grown old are being made new. We pray that we may be made the instruments of this mystery.
And we are fed. Even in this time of absence, we are given bread and wine, the breakable, consumable, temporary token of the divine in this world. We cannot hold this presence. We can only take and eat, and in this action say that the presence is now, must be now, in us, our bodies, our weak inadequate bodies. That we must be, in the time of the death of God, the place where love may live.