GoodFriday

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.

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Palm Sunday: Where does the road lead?

The road you find yourself on, where does it lead? This morning we find ourselves in the midst of a wild parade. I know that some of you had a hard time getting into church because of a different parade. We’re not the only ones out on the street this morning, it turns out. Outside our church, making their way in loops around UCity and Clayton are a group of runners raising money for people living and working with Down Syndrome. I do apologize if you encountered chaos driving and parking at church. But in some ways, it is perfectly fitting to have a ruckus outside on Palm Sunday, especially a ruckus for such a cause.

Palm Sunday is the last leg of a journey. In Luke’s Gospel, way back in chapter 9, the text tells us “Jesus set his face to Jerusalem.” But even before Jesus turned toward Jerusalem, he was on the journey. The Gospel this morning centers on a strange back and forth between Jesus and some disciples. He tells them to boost a donkey, to borrow it, without asking. Some commentators have said that Jesus is essentially telling the disciples, “hey, go steal a car for me.” But I would argue it’s not quite that. You didn’t ride on donkeys to go on a journey. This is more like Jesus saying, “hey, go borrow a ride-on lawn mower.” There is an element of the absurd. But there’s also an element of connection. Luke’s Gospel includes the story of Jesus’ mother riding on a donkey. The two incidents are connected. The drama that began at Christmas, with God choosing to dwell among us, finishes in Holy Week as Jesus takes these final steps. The road was long that led to the Holy City. This morning, we find ourselves with Jesus, looking out over the end of the road.

The Mount of Olives has a million dollar view. It’s true today, and it was true in the time of Jesus. Standing at the top of the Mount of Olives, you look out over the ancient city of Jerusalem. Jesus, standing there on the mountain, could see the rest of the road ahead. Today, as you look across the Kidron Valley, you see the whole of the ancient city. The bright Gold and Blue of the dome of the rock is in the front of the field of view. In Jesus’ day, in roughly the same spot, the temple would have been gleaming. Smoke billowing toward heaven. Behind the temple and to the right loomed the towers of the Roman Antonia fortress, that housed the Roman army, and where Jesus would be questioned by Pilate, the governor of Palestine. Less than a mile beyond the temple, and to the left rising on Mt. Zion was Herod’s palace, and beyond the palace was the wall. Jesus looked down from the Mount Olives on the rest of the road, the road that would take him beyond that wall to die.

Jesus knew where the road led. He’s been on this path for at least ten chapters, according to Luke. He’s preached about justice. He’s talked about the coming of God’s Kingdom. He’s challenged the religious and civil authorities. Jesus and his disciples are a danger. They are a threat. They question the status quo. He knows where the road is headed, and Jesus takes the road.

Jesus knew he was going to die, so he refused to live in a way that would have been inauthentic. All along the road in Luke’s Gospel, people warn Jesus: “Watch out for the Pharisees. They’re plotting to kill you. Hide. Be quiet. Don’t heal people today.” Jesus keeps his face turned toward Jerusalem. He keeps his pace on the road. He keeps preaching. He keeps teaching. He keeps healing.

There may be a temptation to compare Jesus to modern day leaders. While the work of Christianity is, to quote the mystics, work of imitatio Cristi, imitating Jesus, following his lead. To cast today just in the language of modern politics would be to miss the theological drama of the story. Yes, Jesus and his followers are involved in a protest, but the consequences are bigger than just their modern day politics. Holy Week is about God choosing to be with us, all the way to the end.

The week ahead is a big week in the life of the Church, the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar. This week we will mark the last moments of Jesus’ life. At the end of our service today, we will read the Passion Gospel. On Maundy Thursday, we will gather to remember the Last Supper with Jesus and the disciples, and all are invited, if they choose to wash someone’s feet, to have their feet washed. We will remember Christ’s call to servant leadership. Wear some sensible shoes. We’ll share a simple meal that night.

On Good Friday at noon and at 7pm, we will walk with Jesus the last steps of the road. We’ll meditate with the cross, and lament the suffering in our world. The road this week is a painful road. We remember the final moments in the life of Jesus. We remember ways in which our world has suffered, is suffering. Holy Week reminds us that in life we face loss. We all face death. Our road is a difficult road.

But Jesus, looking down from the mountain chooses the road anyway. When the Pharisees tell him to get the crowd to quiet down, he says “impossible.” “If these [women and men] were silent the [very] stones would shout out.” Today is a day of celebration. Palm Sunday is a joyous day, because this day tells us that God is with us. If we remain silent, God’s own creation would proclaim the good news: “God is with us. Hosanna!” Jesus chooses the difficult road to be with us. God is present to us in the darkest places, in the midst of the greatest losses. When all seems to be going wrong, Jesus walks that road with us.

The long road finishes at the tomb and Holy Week finishes in that darkness. Late on Saturday night, some of us will gather here in the Church for the Great Vigil of Easter. We’ll stand outside and kindle a fire. We’ll carry the Easter flame into the church and read lessons by candlelight. This year, one of our members is going to be baptized at the Easter Vigil, as the light is breaking through the darkness. If you’ve never been to a Vigil, I encourage you to participate. The ancient moment when dark turns to light, and we shout Alleluia for the first time in Easter. when we exclaim that light has overcome darkness, life has overcome death, Jesus is Risen: there is no moment more beautiful and more mysteriously joyful in the Christian life. If you need additional incentive, the festivities aren’t just about worship. After the Vigil we will pop corks on champagne bottles and sparkling cider. You’re invited to bring your favorite chocolate or other treat to share. Ellis is making a mousse that looks just heavenly. We’ll celebrate the Easter Vigil with style, and with chocolate.

A priest I knew in college used to say: “Your Easter joy will be in direct proportion to the time you invest in Holy Week.” Over the years, I have found his words to be true. Looking down from that mountain, we can see the road ahead isn’t an easy road. But, if we are honest, neither is the journey of life an easy road. This morning, Jesus chooses to take the final steps on his journey. Knowing what lies ahead of him, he rides that colt down the mount of Olives and in through the gates of Jerusalem. So shall we join creation and shout Hosanna? Shall we follow Jesus along this road?

Maundy-Thursday

Introducing Holy Week: Maundy Thursday

Reblogged from my post on our church site: http://holycommunion.net/introduction-holy-week-maundy-thursday/

A week from today at Holy Communion, and in churches around the world, we will be starting a series of three services over three days that mark Holy Week. In Latin these three days are called the “Triduum” (which simply means “the three days”). These final days of Holy Week are the most sacred in the Christian calendar. This week before Holy Week I will be posting a simple meditation about each service, and how we remember the Jesus in the Triduum.

Maundy Thursday starts the cycle. On Thursday evening of Holy Week, the church community gathers to remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. We call to mind the night that we remember week in and week out in the Eucharist, and Jesus’ words about the bread and wine: “this is my body, and this is my blood.” The word “maundy” in old English means “Mandate” or “command.” There are actually two commands on Monday Thursday, and they are connected.

The first command is the Eucharist: “Do this” Jesus says, “in rememberance of me.” In his classic work on Communion, “The Shape of the Liturgy” the Anglican Theologian Gregory Dix wrote:

“Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and every country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance…[people] have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowing and for criminals going to the scaffold.”

Indeed, this mandate to remember Christ in the Eucharist continues to shape the life of millions across the planet week in and week out.

There is, however, a second, and I would argue deeping connected commandment. On Maundy Thursday we read John’s account of the last supper. John doesn’t mention bread and wine. Instead the action centers around Jesus’ washing the disciples feet. Jesus says, “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” The teacher spends his last night with the disciples connecting the dots. To remember Jesus is to serve another.

On Thursday at church, we will gather to celebrate Eucharist, to remember Jesus, and to wash one another’s feet. After the Eucharist, we reserve the sacrament in the chapel, which is decorated to remind us of the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus went to pray after the Last Supper. Some of the congregation may choose to pray awhile with the reserve sacrament on Thursday night. The service will conclude with stripping the altar, taking away every decoration that isn’t bolted down. We empty the sanctuary to prepare ourselves for the stark reality of Good Friday.