RCL Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13—53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25, Saint John 18:1—19:42

Earlier this Holy Week we acknowledged in formal prayer to God that God had by the passion of his blessed Son “made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life.”[1] That prayer continues to ask God to grant us “so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of” Jesus Christ.

When we glory in the cross of Christ, I am sure that we are to glory in it in a certain way. I don’t think that it is helpful to glory in the cross as an instrument of shameful death, dredging up information about the wood and its splinters, about the time it takes for a man to die once nailed to it. That, after all, isn’t glorying in any way we would think helpful. The weird fascination some people have with instruments of execution and torture has no place today. And yet we cannot forget that Jesus suffered and suffered in most every possible way, in ways not just physical. His innocence of any crime deserving death added an additional layer of suffering upon his physical suffering, because he was not a person who could do anything deserving death and thus was not a person suited to such a shameful suffering.

When we glory in the cross, we are to glory in it for what God so clearly intended it to be: the means of life. The cross brings us life. If you ask me how that happens, I am reduced to putting into pitiful, little words the great mystery of life and of our faith: life itself was nailed to it, and the cross could not overcome it. That mystery gives life to those who know it and trust it. And that mystery Saint John tells us with another image at the beginning of his Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”[2]

The cross gives us life. And it does so at the expense of believing in other things. For our God is a jealous god, requiring us to put nothing before him and nothing before the mystery he chooses to give us life.

Two of the cross’s casualties are two of the noblest pillars of the ancient world: the Roman law and Jewish piety, shown by the cross itself to be wanting, for they together supported the necessity of putting Jesus Christ to death in a manner even for its day was specially loathsome.[3] The cross we glory in stands for life beyond the measure of human comprehension, for the Roman law and Jewish piety stand for the best human beings can be, and yet each for its own different reasons supported the necessity of putting Jesus to death. And so the cross towers not over just the wrecks of time[4] but also over the tragic folly of human beings at their worst and at their best.

The cross gives us life. Jesus needn’t have died. Presumably he could have followed the advice of some of his followers, like Peter, and avoided the otherwise inevitable showdown with the authorities. Instead he chose to die, freely accepting his death, because he believed that he had to if the world was to be saved, if the world was to be given life. And so, again, the cross we glory in stands for the very best that human beings can do for each other as well as the worst that human beings can do to each other.

The cross gives us life. Perhaps the life it gives to us comes with the words of terror and desolation from Jesus just before he dies, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus dies alone and abandoned. In the end, his will perseveres without human or divine succor, without any ordinarily kind help or assistance. The cross we glory in stands for the inevitable and willful neglect and defeat of the best and the worst without partiality: the best being Jesus whose zero deserving nonetheless places him in the company of the worst being those whose ample deserving meets just punishment.

The cross gives us life in yet another way. For those of us who believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead early on a Sunday morning and for those also who believe that he provided food for worms just as the rest of us will, the conclusion is inescapable that he came out somehow the winner. What emerged from the cross in which we glory was a kind of way, a kind of truth, a kind of life, without which the last two thousand years of human history would be even more tragic than they are.

The cross in which we glory gives us life. Among religious symbols it is unique. It is not elegant like a six-pointed star, nor is it sublime like a crescent. The symbol of Christianity never strays from its roots: it is today as it was then, an instrument of shameful death. But to those of us who believe in the Lord and glory in his death, to us the cross is salvation itself; the cross gives us life. Amen.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, page 220.

[2] Saint John 1:5.

[3] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (Harper: San Francisco and New York, 1993), pages 20-21.

[4] Hymns 441 and 442, Stanza 1.

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