Three Hours Devotion - Holy Week Addresses 1975
Good Friday: No 5
It is impossible to imagine weakness more complete than the weakness of Jesus in the last act of the drama of the world’s redemption. Naked, deserted by everyone, pinned to the cross, slobbered all over with blood, sweat, and spittle, he was dying and alone. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow”. No, it was nothing to those that passed by. The death of Jesus was the death of a failure, the death of a trouble-maker, of no more importance than the squashing of a beetle. it is nothing to most people today. The only death we mind much abut is our own. We soon forget the death of others. Though some stick in the mind. I, personally, cannot forget the deaths of the men, women, and children - little squashed Jewish beetles - who died in the concentration camps in the good old days of my blossoming youth. In one such camp, when it was liberated, piles of children’s clothes were found neatly stacked outside the gas chambers. Waste not want not; and the marrow of their bones was rendered down for soap. “They stare at me and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them”. This parcel of clothes for somewhere or other. This crate of small shoes for East Prussia. The world does not change very much. After blanket bombing, this oil field for Britain or America or Russia; after half a million tons of napalm and a billion gallons of defoliant, this sphere of influence for the West or perhaps the East.
Yet Jesus chose to be where he was on that day of the world’s redeeming - chose to be there instead of Bar Abbas, that omnibus son of the father, who deserved to be there - because he loved all sons of the father, all the little squashed Jewish beetles, all the crucified thieves, all the self-seeking, hopeless, futile, despairing products of humanity’s endless self-generation. it is impossible to imagine love greater than that. It is the one thing capable of rescuing all of us from hopelessness, futility, and despair. In it, all may know that beyond death, beyond disaster, beyond futility, beyond tears, they will find life and peace and love. In it all men may know that at the heart of an apparently mechanical and impersonal universe, there is life, which is love - and it holds all men.
But I’m going too fast. As the last act of the drama begins, it is as though the real meaning of what is happening can no longer be hidden. It bursts out. Every incident has its double meaning. No one can make a move without bearing witness to a deeper truth than is apparent on the surface. First of all, a man called Simon of Cyrene is impressed to carry the cross of Jesus. Why? Because another Simon, who had sworn that even if he had to die with Jesus he would not desert him, was absent without leave: a final comment on poor Peter: on human loyalty without the Holy Spirit.
Then that cross was carried to a hill called Golgotha. It means, the place of a skull. Jewish legend had it that Adam’s skull was buried there. It was fitting that the Cross should be planted there. God was upside-downing again. Adam’s life had ended in death. Jesus’s now imminent death was going to end in life. Then there was the incident, which I have already mentioned, of the soldiers playing dice for Jesus’s clothes: army perks. But at a deeper level,. the fulfilling of scripture. “They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots”. And so it goes on. Eternity breaking through the surface of time and sin; and all the old immemorial images clustering round the dying Lord. “Unless a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die”… “bread of the world in mercy broken”. Memories of Attis, Adonis, and Osiris - of the women weeping for Tamus - stir in the literate mind; but beyond a greater than Osiris is here a King. And the King must die.
As he died, his Kingship ws proclaimed for all to see. He had said, “I, if I be lifted up above the earth, will draw all men unto myself”. Now he was lifted up above the earth, and a testimony to his Kingship written in the known languages of the Roman world - Greek, Latin, and Hebrew - was nailed to his Cross for all men to read. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. On the way up to Jerusalem a few days before, James and John had begged to be allowed to sit “one on his right hand and the other on his left, when he entered his Kingdom”. At the time, Jesus had replied: “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared”. Now James and John were not there. As another Simon had taken Peter’s place, and carried Christ’s throne to the top of Golgotha, now that he had ascended it and entered into his Kingdom, two other people had taken the places prepared for them, one at his right hand, and the other at his left. They were sinners. Who else? Jesus had said that he had come not to call the righteous, but sinners. He had eaten with them, too, to the horror of the pious: had sat down to meat with the outcasts of the world. He had also said that the Publican was justified in the eyes of God rather than the Pharisee. So, as it was to the world’s moral rejects that he had gone in his lifetime with the love of God in his hands, so now he showed that his Kingdom was not a kingdom as this world reckons but the Kingdom of God in which there is more joy over one sinner who repents than there is over ninety and nine just people. “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors.”
The Chief Priests were as blind as the crowd and the soldiers. “Save yourself”, mocked the crowd. “He saved others”. He cannot save himself”, echoed the priests. “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross, that we may see and believe”. Saving oneself is the only standard the world understands; self interest: sauve qui peut. It was beyond the comprehension of those who saw Jesus die that, in order to save others, he must not and would not save himself: beyond their understanding to perceive that men would see and believe in Jesus as lord precisely because he did not come down from the Cross. Their understanding was darkened. Now the whole world was darkened too.
Amos the prophet had said that the day of the Lord would be darkness not light. “On that day, says the Lord, I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight”. And Jesus himself had said the day of judgement that “in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened”. Now, when his tribulation was coming to its end, “When the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole world until the ninth hour”. It was the hour of the judgement of this world. Jesus was not judging it, for he came not to judge the world but to save it. it was judging itself. What it did not know, as it mocked the dying man,was that Jesus was making a way for all men to pass through the tribulation of death. The light of the world had nearly gone out, as countless times since then it has nearly gone out, as the love of God has been blotted out by man’s brutality and violence; but Jesus was blazing a trail through the darkness: the darkness of hatred and self-seeking, the darkness of power and success, the darkness of Hiroshima and Dresden, the darkness of Belfast and the Bogside; the darkness of my sin and your sin.
Just before he died, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” Dereliction can go no further; obedience cannot prove itself more completely. For it is a cry of faith in dereliction: faith beyond dereliction. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? They gape upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my gums. Thou dost lay me in the dust of death. Yea, dogs are round about me; as company of evil-doers encircle me. They have pierced my hands and my feet, I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots….But thou, O Lord, be not far from me….You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you sons of Jacob, glorify him! For has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard when he cried to him. For the Kingdom is the Lord’s; and he is ruler over the nations.”
Consistent to the bitter end, the world misunderstood. They thought that he was crying for Elijah when he cried, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, not for God. Their surface misunderstanding hid a deeper blindness. There was a tradition that Elijah would come as a forerunner of the Messiah; and in fact the forerunner had already come and died. The Baptist had cried to them in the wilderness, and they hadn’t heard. Now, when the Messiah cried out, they did not understand him either. Let those with eyes to see see, and those with ears to hear hear. Their eyes were blind, their ears were stopped. So when a bystander handed up a sponge soaked with vinegar to the dying lord, no one remembered that Scripture had said, “For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink”. The world was blind to the very end; and now the end had come.
Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. “I looked for justice, and behold bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold a cry !” It is finished. Jesus is dead ******. “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom”. The work of God can go no further. There is no longer a barrier between God and man. The holy of holies - the dwelling place of God - is laid bare for all men to see the real nature of his love for mankind. Eternity has broken into time and this world. The promises of God have been honoured.
Scripture has been fulfilled. Goad has reversed the consequences of man’s rebellion, taking them all upon himself, and in so doing he has overturned all the values, standards, and judgements of this world. For God does not save from destruction, as we should have him do, if we had our way. he saves through destruction - on the other side of it. God does not save from the lion’s mouth, as he saved Daniel, for the new Daniel dies. God does not let us escape the Red Sea waters, for we must die with Christ in Baptism - a death to self - if we are to rise with him in newness of life. Jesus was not rescued by God at the last minute. he died.
In his dead and broken body, the truth is at last revealed, naked and unashamed; and we are challenged by it to a life of faith in God. God will not save us from the tribulation of this world - poverty, loneliness, suffering, the death of those whom we love - nor from our own death when it comes. But Jesus has shown that in these things we may find and be with God; for he has been there before us. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you, not as the world gives, give I unto you. If we want worldly success, riches, power, reputation, self-advancement, we can probably have them. Many people seem to find them. But we cannot expect to find God in them. For of these things, as such, God knows only that they crucified him: to him they are failure, sin, and murder. But to the poor in spirit, to all those who mourn, to the widows with nothing left to live for, to the bleak-eyed teenagers who look at our affluent world and reject it, to the sick, the humble, and the dying, God has promised to give himself and his peace. The Cross is the eternal pledge that he will keep that promise. This is my Body which is broken for you. This is my Blood of the covenant which is poured out for you and for many.