Good Friday, 2014
It’s a long gospel. It’s a powerful gospel. It’s not that we don’t hear about the cross at other times of the year – and indeed we began this week with the gospel of the passion as well as the gospel of the palms. But today, sitting, standing here at the foot of the cross, we hear it differently; we hear it. We hear it anew.
Even when things have been clearly – or less clearly, however much Jesus tried to explain in the final few days – heading in this direction, shock is still the order of the day. To hear the full passion gospel, at the foot of the cross.
The prayer group found it really moving to hold our Lent meeting in the sanctuary, at the foot of the cross. The vicar and I have spent our morning prayer this week in the sanctuary, at the foot of the cross, and we’ve found it moving too. The cross pervades our faith. Without it we would not be here. But how often do we forget its brutality, its reality, its power? Its hope?
Leaving aside the commercialism of Christmas-which-starts-in-September, it is a great hope, I think, that churches’ numbers (or at least Cathedrals) are gradually going up at Easter. Drawing people to church in Passiontide says something different from Christmas. It says something more than family traditions, happy memories, angels and cute babies. Says something powerful in itself. Says something hopeful.
Here we stand, at the foot of the cross, church stripped as Jesus was, naked before the crowd, before injustice and jealousy, before the desires and designs of power. Here we stand – sit – in shock and wonder, as a group of those who have followed Christ’s life, who have walked alongside him as he journeyed to Jerusalem, who have kept vigil with him this week, who have shared around the table as he taught us, to remember him, who now sit and watch and wait.
We are glad that we know that after crucifixion comes resurrection. We are grateful that we know today is not the end, as those who sat and watched and waited and grieved at first did not.
But let’s not rush to Easter Day, rather linger with those around the cross. What is Good Friday? Is it a moment of historical fact that we ‘remember’? Or is it something live and real and repeated? Does it still hold the power to shock and grieve us because just as Christ lives, we continue to crucify him?
‘Gospel’ means the good news. We know that in the movement through Holy Week to the torture of Good Friday and the bleak emptiness of Holy Saturday, the concept of ‘good news’ can seem far away.
But when we leave church and look around – ‘good news’ can seem far away too. From the half ton of donations to Gateshead Foodbank which have been distributed back into our parish to the sorrowful numbers seeking foodbanks’ help nationally. From the statistics released by Shelter about families and poems by children about their homelessness and hunger, to the tough decisions councils need to make about budgets which cut services to one or other group of those needing care.
When we look further afield and see floods, earthquakes and fires; bombs, kidnappings and military incursions, we see a world battered and bruised. Battered and bruised as Christ was. We believe in the kingdom he came to initiate. We believe in the values he taught us, the care he instilled, the healing of his grace, the need for community, the fellowship and worship of his people in the presence of God the Father.
We come to the cross on Good Friday to acknowledge all this, but while we are glad that we are not the crowd clamouring for crucifixion, we must also acknowledge that so many still suffer today, from hunger, poverty, debt, shame, persecution. And while that situation exists, Jesus remains on the cross as a very present and relevant horror.
We cannot skip promptly through to Sunday and the good news and the light of the resurrection. We must linger in the darkness and ask what it means for us, today. What it changes for us, in us today. What we bring to the foot of the cross in our prayers and our presence, and what we take from it back out in to the battered and bruised world.
In Paula Gooder’s new book, The Journey to the Empty Tomb, she has a reflection on Simon of Cyrene coming into the city, bumping into and getting caught up in the execution party. She concludes that section as follows:
When we think about the proclamation of the gospel it is often in terms of the gospel at its best. If we proclaim it really well, with all the skill available to us and present Christianity in its very best light, then perhaps people will be persuaded…
Simon encountered Jesus at one of the worst moments of Jesus’ life… but Mark’s gospel suggests it was enough for even his sons to be drawn in…
I am not suggesting for a moment that we should consciously and deliberately cultivate our worst selves as a missional strategy but it is, perhaps, worth reminding ourselves that it is not excellence that draws people to Christ, but Christ himself. Here Christ, battered, bruised and about to die, seems to have drawn to him someone whose whole life was changed as a result… p104
An article in the Telegraph the other day said Christianity isn’t just about being nice. It has to be about more than being kind and a few good deeds. That’s the rosy outlook of Christmas – the nativity which brings hope and good cheer and cute cards and happiness. No wonder it’s the more popular festival.
But right now, around the world, when people and places, hopes and dreams are battered and bruised, people are still – newly – being drawn to the Christ who suffered. Realising that there is power in vulnerability, embrace in the darkness and hope in the horror. For this is truly a Christ who is recognisable and alongside them. And there, in the midst of hopelessness, is hope.
In the shock of a redundancy, the grief of the loss of a child, the self-worth issues of marginalisation – the abandonment and loneliness that we see on the cross becomes powerful and personal. The power we can too-easily forget through the year, because the cross is always there. It’s a good shock to revisit Good Friday and the passion gospel, to be brought up short again, and hear it anew.
The gospel is good news, for all of us. Good news in resurrection, in gold and white and glorias and the bunnies and the eggs and the new life, yes. But also there in Good Friday, as the Christ who came to share our humanity and live our lives stands crucified, suffering in love for us. In the shock and the horror of Good Friday, and through the quiet of tomorrow, the good news is that this Christ, battered and bruised and about to die, can still draw people to himself.
In the baptism service, on Easter day, the vicar will say to two children and their parents and godparents ‘Never be ashamed to confess Christ crucified’. As we linger today, in the passion and death of Christ, ‘never be ashamed to confess Christ crucified,’ because in the worst moments of life, he is there too, and that truly is powerfully good news. Good Friday reminds us that the cross is central to our faith, is a symbol of hope, hope in despair, hope in suffering.
Our worst selves may well be far from a good missional strategy, but ‘there is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed, there is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the Head.’ May the crucified Christ continue to draw us and others ever nearer to him. Amen.