Once upon a time, a prophet named Martin Luther King said: “There is no crown without a cross. I wish we could get to Easter without going to Good Friday, but history tells us that we got to go by Good Friday before we can get to Easter. That’s the long story of freedom, isn’t it? Before you get to Canaan, you’ve got a Red Sea to confront. You have a hardened heart of a pharaoh to confront. You have the prodigious hilltops of evil in the wilderness to confront.”
On this solemn day, it is hard to wrap our minds, let alone our hearts, around Jesus willingly being humiliated and put to death. We live in a culture that doesn’t like talking about death because it takes us to a place of darkness and grief too difficult to bear. We deny it, ignore it, and do all in our power to avoid it. There is a tendency in our culture to pursue happiness at any cost. However, if we want to follow Jesus, we must confront death.
Imagine for a moment that you are there, that you are part of the scene. You’ll see a small group of courageous women gathered at the foot of the cross bravely witnessing the suffering of Jesus. Can you imagine Mary the mother of Jesus, watching her son in pain, being tortured, humiliated, and unable to reach out to him and ease his pain? I cannot imagine her anguish. The pain and the heartache she must have felt.
Twenty-two years ago, a shooter entered my daughter’s school. She was 12 years old. One adult was killed. One adult was physically injured. Many adults and children were emotionally injured. For the next few days afterwards, I wanted to keep my daughter close. It was with fear and courage that I sent her back to school reassuring her that it was safe.
I believe that the Mary we first read about in Luke’s gospel was a brave, young woman, who was willing to risk her reputation, her very life in order to obey God when God asked her to be the one to bear God’s son. I believe that God specifically chose her because of her bravery. Like any parent, Mary did not know what she was getting into, how her life would unfold and how the life of her child would turn out. Yet, when the shepherds came to see the baby Jesus lying in a manager praising God in the highest, Mary treasured their words and pondered them in her heart.
If and when we ever face heartache like Mary, the parents, spouses and children at Columbine or Sandy Hook or Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we can look to the courage of Mary and bear witness to the suffering. In those moments of anguish, we have a choice. We can choose to become bitter, vengeful, and violent; or we can soften our hearts to trust in God’s compassion and love. We can choose not to close down or turn away from our grief. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love and to forgive. As Christians, we make that choice. In the face of death, the women wept and clung to one another. We don’t know if they spoke since their words aren’t recorded, but their silence –and their presence- was powerful.
What is Jesus’ response from the cross? What do we hear and learn as we picture ourselves at the scene? In the depths of his pain and his dying, he gives us words of comfort and release, of lamentation and love. He turns to his mother and places her in the hands of John. I believe this is more than Jesus wanting to make sure his widowed mother is taken care of. Presumably, she had other children to care for her. Instead, Jesus is asking that she and John become family.
Jesus is also telling us to form a new family, to create a new community where love embraces us and heals us. He is calling us to reconcile with one another and become part of a new creation. God is not acting out of retribution and wrath, but in compassion and mercy and in love and grace. It is here at the foot of the cross as Jesus looks down at Mary and John, a new heaven and earth meet. Jesus knows that in death is new life, through our struggles, we find strength.
We can’t avoid the suffering of this world. We can only go through it, believing Jesus carries us. Every day we must choose love over death. That decision determines our world view, guides our relationships, affects how we approach life’s circumstances and colors our image of God. Can we trust and see the love Jesus offers this day in our own lives, in the violence that surrounds us, in our losses and sufferings?
That is both the challenge and the claim of Good Friday. Pain is not the goal, but becoming vulnerable and risking to love and open ourselves to one another is. Jesus is showing us how to live. His death is the door to new life. It takes courage to tell a hurting, angry, divisive world, to a people who have lost faith or have never had faith that God loves them.
We have not only an opportunity, but a responsibility to share our own stories of brokenness and hurt, and our struggles with one another. The core of the gospel is Jesus reconciling the world to God. If we’re not telling the story, than what are we offering as a church, as believers? It is through the stories we tell of our own deep pain and betrayals that others can begin to see that we are not perfect, we don’t have all the answers. But as Christians, our lives should reflect a power stronger than us, a love that binds us to God and to one another across all boundaries.
We are being called into a new way of life. The cross of Jesus was the ultimate revelation of true power and true love. It is a triumph of good over evil. It is about God who has come into the middle of our pain, and our sorrow, and taken the full face of it unto God’s Self. Through Jesus’ unconditional love, he makes known God’s love. Good Friday means the beginning of change.
Once upon a time, there was a prophet named Jesus who confronted our hardened hearts and gave us hope, who took away our brokenness and healed us through his love. “For now, we watch, we weep, we bear witness, we wait.” Amen.
Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook, Good Friday: Speaking, Still
Katie Ong-Landini is Project Director for the new Retreat Center in Wakeman, Ohio, a property acquired and being developed by and for the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio. Ms. Ong-Landini is also a member of Christ Episcopal Church.
Do not be far from me,
We have come to a hard place, a place of death, desolation and defeat in this story. We read John’s account of Christ’s passion every Good Friday, so we know it well. Like many stories, we often view it from a distance so we can easily step outside and observe. Sitting here this evening, we are at a distance looking at what is happening, but taking no part. We might empathize with the pain and suffering, but, ultimately, it is difficult for us to understand how the characters in this story are feeling.
One part of this tale has caught my attention as never before, and to me, it has challenged my own sense of connection to the drama and my own vocation as a Christian. I am referring to the story of the Denial of Peter, and I think it lies at the heart of the passion story to those of us who follow Jesus.
This message is as relevant today as it was when the gospels were written.
Peter and another disciple followed Jesus from his arrest in the garden, to the Kidron Valley, back to the City of Jerusalem and the court of the high priest, Caiaphas. If we really think about it, this act is considerably brave. The rest of the disciples scattered since they were fearful of getting arrested themselves. Although Peter and the other unnamed disciple were probably also afraid of getting arrested, they stayed close by to determine what was happening to their friend and teacher.
Despite Peter’s attempts to blend into the crowd, other people recognized and challenged him about his identity, where he is put on the spot. In fear for his own safety, Peter’s gut reaction meant denying to whom he belonged. Peter denied Jesus three times. In the Bible, the number three denotes a perfect completion; so Peter’s denial of his relationship to Jesus was absolute. It is as if Peter was washing his hands of Jesus and all that he had done and taught. This is what Jesus predicted would happen: When the going got tough, Peter would abandon Jesus, too.
As I have been contemplating this passage from John, I feel a greater kinship to Peter than I ever had before. I empathize with Peter in his denial of Jesus, because it is something that I also do. I am acutely aware of this, due to my participation in a series of activities throughout Lent:
First, I have been participating in the diocesan-wide Lenten discipline, “Growing a Rule of Life;” so, like many of you, I have been thinking about the various ways I need to cultivate a daily and seasonal rhythm that connects me more consciously to God’s presence in my life. For the past six weeks, I have been intensely contemplating how my life does not truly reflect a strong relationship with God, and I fail in many ways to live a life that shows I am a follower of Jesus. I am good at managing the easy stuff, but, too often, I do not focus on some of the harder internal work that is necessary to live out my Christian vocation. Like Peter, I also deny to whom I belong.
Second, I have been participating in the book study group, led by our own George Richards, and we have recently read two books that deal with our country’s criminal justice system. Both books, “The New Jim Crow” and “Just Mercy,” have profoundly affected my understanding of race relations in the United States, and I realize how ignorant I have been about policing, the court system, and mass incarceration over the past 20 to 30 years. I have been too focused on issues that directly affect my life; so I have not paid attention to the profound injustices that are now the law of the land. I might have taken the opportunity to do something about these changes before they became entrenched. In my willful ignorance, I have denied to whom I belong.
Third, like the rest of you, I have been acutely aware of an especially contentious political climate, and the news media has focused largely on the negative and divisive rhetoric of people who are attempting to appeal to our basest fears and anger – and mostly for their own political gain. For the most part, I have tuned out what is happening and what people are saying. And yet, by tuning it out and not engaging in a constructive way, I have denied to whom I belong.
It is in these experiences that I have come to Good Friday, with a new understanding of “Peter’s Denial.” I have said before that the character of Peter is a literacy archetype: He is the Everyman. He represents us, the average people who try to live honorably, do good works and help others. Those of us who are faithful followers should really relate to Peter. Look around! Here we are attending church on Good Friday! Some of us have been here every day this week! We are just like Peter. Trying to figure out what is going on, trying to find some meaning to what is happening. We are brave enough to show up and say that we are Christians.
But like Peter, when really pressed, we often deny what Jesus is calling us to do:
Bryan Stevenson, a public affairs attorney and author of "Just Mercy," notes these sobering statistics at end of the book [page 317]:
For the most part, the people connected to the criminal justice system are unable to vote, get access to public housing and other government assistance, and secure many types of employment. Where is our Christian voice in this?
Third, we deny our common humanity through our own prejudice – by treating people who do not look like us, live like us or share our views or life experiences as “other,” as something to fear or to look down upon. This week, the attack in Brussels exacerbated negative opinions about Muslims and immigrants. We continue to demonize people who hold different views, and we often feed our own fears and prejudices, rather than attempt reconciliation. Where is our Christian voice in this?
Yet, this is the point where we need to turn back to the story of the Gospel, because it guides us how to move forward. At the end of today’s reading, Peter didn’t not know what would happen – but we do.
In "Just Mercy," Bryan Stevenson writes:
"We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent…But our shared brokenness connected us.
'But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion." (pg. 289)
So, here is the message of Peter’s Denial. We are the faithful, and all of us stumble. We also know that even when we are fearful or angry and deny our role as Christians, we have God with us to fix the brokenness of the world. That is why we put the “Good” in “Good Friday.” This day reminds us that we, as people of the Jesus Movement, are never alone in promoting God’s distributive justice.
The Letter to the Hebrews emphasizes this point:
"Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." (*Hebrews 4:16)
*Psalm 22 states:
3 Yet you are the Holy One,
enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
4 Our forefathers put their trust in you;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 They cried out to you and were delivered;
they trusted in you and were not put to shame.
And the prophet Isaiah proclaims:
See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high. (*Isaiah 52:13)
Before I end, I invite you to join me at Wednesday morning Bible Study, or at our monthly book study group on the third Thursday of each month, or at coffee hour after Sunday services – or any time to figure out how we become advocates for change that impacts those people we most marginalize. I am serious about wanting to address these issues, and I wonder how we can work on this together. So, please let me know if you are interested in doing something. I hope that you feel as ready as I am to own up to our relationship with Jesus Christ and get out there and make a difference.
As we live into Good Friday, go ahead and embrace your own pain and brokenness, your own fear and anger, your own denial of Jesus. But do so in light of knowing how the story ends, knowing that the resurrection is almost upon us, knowing that God’s Kingdom of love and distributive justice will prevail. Knowing that our God is with us, we can proclaim boldly that we belong to Jesus. Amen!
*Note: All Bible references refer to the New Revised Standard Version, also known as NRSV.