Good Friday: What Wondrous Love is This?

What wondrous love is this, oh my soul?

The cross is a great scandal. Our faith holds, as its central symbol, an instrument of torture. We place at the front of our churches, we wear around our necks, we trace on our bodies the sign of a weapon, the tool of a powerful state to strike terror into the hearts of would be dissidents. We reverence a cross, a tool of execution. Why? Why do we put so much weight on such an ugly and terrible symbol?

I don’t know that you can ever fully answer the question: Why did Jesus have to suffer and die on the cross? But here’s my start for this Good Friday: I find it compelling that Jesus does not die alone. All of the Gospels mention that Jesus was crucified with others. Jesus suffers with others. Jesus is not alone. In all of the discussion of the cross throughout Christian history, I think it is too often that we miss Jesus’ companions in crucifixion. For me, this is a powerful symbol. The cross signifies God’s choice to suffer with us, to join us in human suffering, so that we know we are never alone.

Across our history as a church, we have done some significant damage with our discussion of the cross. Today, in this homily, I want to talk about two ways we have misused the crucifixion.

The first is the most direct: for centuries Christians blamed “the Jews” for the crucifixion of Jesus. Antisemitism is a part of our legacy, and we have a lot of repentance to do as Christians. Some churches today will edit John’s Gospel for their reading of the Passion. John often uses these words “the Jews,” and in this passage, it is particularly painful. John’s “the Jews” call for the crucifixion of Jesus. Christians, for more than a millennia, used this passage to justify the persecution of the Jewish people. I have left the words because I believe we have to own our history if we are going to avoid repeating that history.

John’s Gospel was written at a time when Christians were the minority in Palestine. Synagogue authorities were expelling followers of Jesus from society. That period was short lived. Christianity came to power in the Roman Empire and has held sway in the Western World since that time. And for the majority of our history we used the Jewish people as scapegoats, pointing to the crucifixion as cause for persecuting the Jewish people.

I chose not to change the Bible today, but I did change the prayer book. Sometimes I tell you not to tell the Bishop when I make a change to worship around here. Today, you can go ahead and tell him. I find our prayer book service on Good Friday to be wholly incompatible with our world today. Following on this sermon, we will pray the “Solemn Collects.” An intercessor will bid our prayers, we will pause for silence, and then the priest collects our prayers with another prayer. This back and forth rhythm between priest and people in prayer on Good Friday has been the tradition of the church for several centuries.

When our current prayer book was written, the writers included a prayer that God would “turn the hearts of those who resist [The Gospel].” I can’t pray that prayer, especially on Good Friday, given our history in the Church of oppressing the Jewish people. “Turn the hearts of those who resist” hits too close for me. So instead, we are praying a set of more inclusive prayers adapted from the Diocese of Massachusetts. We will pray for our Jewish sisters and brothers today, and for our Muslim sisters and brothers. We will pray because we are only going to survive this human project if we learn to collaborate, instead of trying to destroy one another. I didn’t change the Bible, but I did change the prayer book. Go ahead, tell the Bishop.

However you translate John, Jesus was not crucified by “the Jews.” Jesus was crucified by the Roman State, and his own people asked for his death. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “by a perversion of justice” Christ’s own people put him to death. If we blame a scapegoat for the cross, we miss the point of the story. If we blame a scapegoat for the cross, we miss our own culpability. We crucify Jesus, you and me.

This brings me to my second misuse of the cross. I began this sermon with a line from an old hymn: “What wondrous love is this, oh my soul.” There is a line to that old hymn that modern Episcopalians don’t know, because it isn’t in our hymnal. In the Southern Harmony the second verse includes the line: “When I was sinking down, beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside his crown for my soul.” Beneath God’s righteous frown wasn’t appealing to us Episcopalians, so we left it out.

I’m glad. Too often in Christianity, I believe, we have allowed the cross to stand for God’s punishment. In a theology known as “penal substitution” which was thought up by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, a thousand years after Jesus, it was taught that Jesus stood in for our sinfulness. Human sinfulness meant that God could not love us. God needed a victim, so we got Jesus, and the frowning god was satisfied. Jesus was the substitute for our punishment. This became the dominant teaching of the church. If you can’t tell, I’m not a big fan of this theology. I think it is, again, a perversion of the crucifixion. Penal substitution makes it seem like God crucified Jesus. God demanded Jesus’ blood to satisfy some vendetta.

Both of these traditional readings of Good Friday, of the crucifixion share one theme: blame-shifting. In the first the crucifixion is the fault of a scapegoated religious minority. Good Friday becomes and excuse for persecution of the other. In the second, the crucifixion is a purely sacrificial event that satiates an angry God. As Christians then our only response is to give thanks for this strange act where God satisfies God’s own anger.

Both of these readings miss the point of Good Friday. We crucified God incarnate. Good Friday is about sin, but not in some mystical way. The Salvadoran theologian Jon Sobrino has said, “the great stumbling block of history is that sin has power.” The state crucified Jesus. The representatives of the people, the mob. Good Friday is a day of judgement because on this day Jesus, the embodiment of the self-offering love of God got caught up in the cogs of the systems of human injustice.

We crucified Christ, and we continue to crucify Christ. In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus famously says, “as you do unto the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you do unto me.” We have not stopped the wheels of perverse injustice. Humanity continues to kill, to destroy life, to wreak havoc on God’s creation. We continue to crucify God’s creation. Good Friday is a sacrament, a sign of what happens again and again when God’s love encounters human hate and human indifference. Good Friday is an invitation to examine how we participate in human injustice.

Good Friday is heavy stuff. But don’t miss the hope. Rising above all of the human injustice is Jesus, our teacher, our friend, our savior. As Jesus is lifted up from the trash heap of human injustice, the instrument of torture is transformed into the tree of life. Long before Anselm of Canterbury, the discussion about the cross was more physical. The ancients often noted that on the cross Christ’s arms were stretched out. There on the cross, they said, the whole world came into Jesus’ open arms, Christ’s saving embrace. On the cross Christ meets us with open arms, all of us. Christ brings us all together into a saving embrace. In Christ, no one is abandoned. No one is alone. We are held together in those saving arms.

That’s why I find it compelling that Jesus was not crucified alone. There on Calvary’s hill, God joined in the worst of human suffering. The crucifixion was not some one-time event. Sadly, the crucifixion was God’s participation in an event that is ongoing. Good Friday is good news when you find yourself on a difficult road. Notice I did not say “if you find yourself on a difficult road,” but “when you find yourself” on that road. Suffering is an inescapable part of the human experience. Death is part of life. Jesus walks with you. Jesus is right there with you. You are not alone. The suffering Christ says that we are not finally abandoned, but accompanied. Jesus suffers with us. There is room for all of us in Christ’s saving arms. And don’t forget that resurrection is coming. You can make it through this day. Jesus is with you, and we’re heading beyond the suffering. Keep going.

What wondrous love is this, oh my soul, oh my soul? Christ laid aside his crown, became subject to human injustice, was lifted up on a cross, that all of us my receive God’s saving embrace. You do not walk alone. Keep going. What wondrous love, oh my soul.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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