Introduction to the Scripture: What the Cross Has Done
To begin with, I need to acknowledge that you’ve made an extraordinary choice to come to church this afternoon. I mean come to church on Christmas Eve, or Easter, or Pentecost, there’s a good chance you’ll go out the door singing Joy to the World or Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee.
Coming to church on Good Friday is a brave decision. We know what story we’re signing up to hear. Thank you for being here and making sure we don’t have to do this alone.
And so it’s this. When it comes down to it, Jesus’s death on the cross is a problem.
If we had been part of the crowd all those years ago, if we can imagine hearing our own voices shout: Crucify him! Crucify him!, you can tell. This is a problem.
For centuries now, Christians have tried to find a way to tell the story of the cross that solves the problem.
Some Christians will tell you, all the events leading up to Jesus’s execution were part of God’s plan. Maybe God even wanted this to happen, as though God, herself, is choosing to give up her only begotten son as an act of love.
Some Christians will tell you, Jesus had to suffer so intensely in order to save us. The betrayal and humiliation that he endured, the violence that was inflicted upon him, all of that works to prove his immense love for us. Indeed, some of the hymns we sing about the cross celebrate this notion.
It’s no wonder we’re trying to find a way to tell the story that fixes the problem of the cross, but here’s the thing. If a relationship requires violence in order to prove itself, that isn’t love. If the deal is that God had to sacrifice his son in order to save us, that’s a lot of things. That’s a dreadful thought experiment, or an ethical dilemma, or a hostage situation. That isn’t love.
One of the hidden dangers of violence is the more we practice it, the more we come to believe in it, the more we become convinced of its inevitability. Alongside the actual harm it causes, something else that violence does— it captures our imagination.
As Christians, we’re all looking for a way to tell the story of the cross that somehow redeems its horror. We don’t all reach for the same story, but I’ll tell you the version that’s got me.
It could be, when we joined the crowd that killed Jesus on the cross, that broke the heart of God. He fell down on his knees and wept, and tore his clothes, he ripped the curtain in the temple. Through tears in his eyes, God looked around at this world he had made and the LORD our God loved this world.
The Holy Spirit saw the violence we were practicing. She saw child abuse and poverty, what happens in secret in prison and at war. Then God spoke up and said: I know. Why don’t we pick up these pieces and make something new… Why don’t we take this, says the LORD, and you know what. We could make this into something beautiful…
I still believe God looks at this world, and loves this world, and dreams of the day when we will turn toward peacemaking, when no one is afraid and everyone gets set free… I still believe in this.
And I would believe you if you said to me: Yeah, but have you seen the world lately? There is quite a chasm between God’s dream of peacemaking on top of the mountain where all the nations study war no more and this actual world we live in. And you’re exactly right.
It could be, this is what we’re doing here. This is the holy work of coming to church on Good Friday— to hear the story again, even though it triggers our shame, even though it makes us look at the violence that’s still raging in the world, the sin that has not been taken away. We are choosing to listen to this one more time because being here puts us in exactly the spot to see the turning.
Maybe we don’t have to let violence be the force that captures our imagination.
We could choose to listen for what God is trying to do.
God is still turning this world toward love and more love, and maybe we will be there to see it.
May God give blessing to our reading and hearing…
Reflection on the Scripture: What the Cross Could Become
The Bible says Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus. He didn’t come out because he was afraid of the Jews, and before we go any further, it’s important to note. Joseph of Arimathea was Jewish; so were the disciples; so was Jesus. When the author of the Gospel says “The Jews,” he’s referring to a particular group of temple authorities, not the Jewish people.
What happened was that after Jesus died on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea goes and meets up with Nicodemus. Now you might remember Nicodemus from way back when. He’s the Pharisee who came to the Lord in the middle of night looking for answers. When Jesus told him you must be born again, he went home in despair. We thought he was ready to give up! Who would have guessed that Nicodemus is the one who shows up now! But here he is.
After Joseph gets permission to retrieve Jesus’s body, he and Nicodemus remove the nails that had been driven through his hands. They somehow shoulder him off the cross.
They carry him to a tomb in the garden and get to work. Nicodemus had gathered one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloe. They anoint Jesus and wrap him in a linen cloth. With their own hands, these two blessed our Lord and laid him to rest. And where do you suppose they learned how to do this…
Days earlier, with their own hands, the Roman soldiers twisted thorns into a crown. They ripped off Jesus’s clothes and put him in a purple robe. They used their hands to nail him to a cross, to poke a sponge of vinegar in his face, to stab him with a spear.
By handling Jesus’s body with tenderness, Joseph and Nicodemus are defying the cruelty that touched him before. Their anointing is the opposite of the nails and the spear. Their linen clothes are the opposite of the thorns. Their compassion goes and ruins the cross.
The cross tried to make us hate the Lord, but these two took its power away. They decommissioned that weapon.
What if compassion is always a threat to violence?
What if compassion is always an option for us?
I recently heard an interview with a businesswoman from Mariupol. She had been hiding in a crowded bomb shelter for a month. There was no electricity, no heat, no diapers for babies or old people, no pads for women having their periods. Her neighbor died in the shelter and her body began to smell.
This woman made it out and told the BBC reporter that the people with whom she was hiding think the world has forgotten them. She made it out of the city, but now she had to go back to rescue others who were trapped with her. She couldn’t leave them behind.
The stories of compassion have been mindblowing and heartbreaking.
You might have seen the photograph of all the baby strollers in the Polish railway station. In the early days of the war, Polish parents were leaving baby clothes and strollers for Ukrainian mothers who had to flee carrying their children in their arms.
Zookeepers in Kyiv began living at the zoo so they could continue to care for the animals even while their city was under siege. They’ve been staying with the animals overnight to try to keep them calm during the bombings.
People around the world are raising money for organizations helping refugees. We’re collecting donations, and painting sunflowers, and praying for people who have lost everything. And I know it seems like these tiny, tender acts of kindness are not stopping the war, and that’s true.
But what if they are doing something else…
In the short term, violence can do incredible harm. But in the long run, violence only has power when we believe in it. Violence needs us to throw up our hands and confess that it’s the only way. Kindness challenges all of that.
Every act of compassion releases our imagination.
Every act of love allows us to choose exactly where we’re putting our faith.
The peacemaking that’s happening right now will shape our world for generations to come, and we can help. With our own hands, we can send cards to people in prison, and collect donations for World Relief; we can create paintings and play music. And whenever we do this, violence loses some of its power.
We will not turn away from what’s really going on. We have come to church this afternoon because we want to see something of what God is dreaming for our world. And maybe it’s this…
It could be the Holy Spirit looks around and sees all the ways that we are hurting, all the ways we are hurting each other, and it breaks their heart. Through tears in his eyes, God looks at this world, and loves this world, and you know what, says the LORD. Would you give me a hand? Why don’t we pick this up and make it into something beautiful…
When Nicodemus and Joseph retrieved Jesus’s body, they began dismantling the cross. It was supposed to be the end of Jesus, and that didn’t work. Their kindness took the power away from the cross. Now the cross will have to become something new…
Nicodemus and Joseph began the work of turning violence into compassion, and they were just getting started, so I’m telling you. You’ve got to come back on Sunday!
Just wait till you see what happens next…