This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached for the online Good Friday service, April 10, 2020.
Good Friday April 10, 2020
This has been a long Season of Lent. One person observed that the word for Lent in Latin has the same root as the word “quarantine,” although the word for quarantine is derived from the word for the 40 days of Lent – not vice versa. It sure seems like Lent means quarantine, as we’ve shown our love for one another in the most unnatural way – by staying away from one another. And I suspect many of us have seen the attempts at humor (and we need humor), saying such things as, “I never meant to give up so much for Lent.”
We don’t celebrate the Seasons of the Church Year simply to remember events that happened a long time ago. For example, we celebrate Advent because Christ came once in history, yes, but also because Christ comes every day. We celebrate Christmas because Christ is born in hearts every day. We celebrate Epiphany because Christ is made known – made manifest – every day.
We remember the crucifixion because crucifixion happens every day – as Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “just as you did it to one of the least of these my family, you did it to me.” We celebrate Easter – we celebrate resurrection – because people are raised to new life every day. We celebrate Pentecost because the Spirit comes every day.
And in real life, lived in real time, there’s not necessarily an overlap between the seasons of life and the Seasons of the Church Year. I suspect we are in for a long Lenten-like season of reflection and repentance, even as Easter happens.
Every Good Friday we hear the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. Throughout the Church Year we have ample opportunity to reflect upon the Cross and what it means to us: the sacrificial love of Jesus; the revelation of a Messiah who suffers and dies as one of us; the paradox in the glory of the Cross; the forgiveness granted to us from the Cross – all of it expressing God’s grace and mercy.
On Good Friday, however, we shift our thoughts more directly to our role in the crucifixion. For one day out of the year, if we can stand it, we reflect on our role in the crucifixion, and our need for mercy and forgiveness.
Perhaps that’s why my thoughts turn to Pontius Pilate every Good Friday. For no matter how hard he tries, Pilate cannot escape his role in the crucifixion. Today’s story from John’s Gospel reveals a man who is trapped into doing something he doesn’t want to do. He doesn’t even know Jesus, nor does he feel particularly threatened by him. He just knows that the local religious authorities want Pilate to sentence Jesus to death, and Pilate considers Jesus innocent of any crime.
So as the story goes, Pilate tries to satisfy the religious authorities and their growing mob with something less. Three times, Pilate tries to satisfy the crowd with something less than a death sentence.
First, he offers to release Jesus, as it’s his custom to release a captive at the Passover. The crowd says, “Not this man, but Barabbas” – the bandit.
Then, he orders Jesus to be scourged – whipped, flogged – hoping that would satisfy the crowd. The crowd says, “Crucify him.”
Then he sends Jesus out in front of the crowd, humiliated, wearing the crown of thorns and a purple robe, and he says, “Behold the man!” It’s sarcasm, as if to say, “This is a threat?” The crowd says, “Crucify him.”
Pilate says, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” He tries to wash his hands of it all, but the religious authorities tell him, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor” – implying they will tell Caesar that Pilate released a man who claimed to be king.
So Pilate and the Romans – the political authorities – rationalize handling this mess from a distance, but not without first manipulating the Jews into saying, “We have no king but Caesar.”
This is a drama filled with self-preservation, self-justification, and denial, as the characters in the drama try to get someone else to do it – to blame others for the crucifixion of Jesus. And that’s what the Cross denies. The Cross denies the fiction that the others are the guilty. The Cross says we are all one in our guilt.
Richard Rohr makes the observation that for the Apostle Paul sin is something more than private perverse behavior. Paul writes about “principalities and powers,” and to describe the power of sin, he uses such language as the “cosmic powers of this present darkness” and “spiritual forces of evil.”
Rohr says that Paul understands sin to be a combination of group blindness and corporate illusion – that human beings are caught up in a double-bind, entrapped, enslaved, and complicit in human-made domination systems … like Pilate and the political authorities, like the religious authorities, like the crowd. We are one in our sin.
I wonder if this long real-life season of Lent – this season of reflection and repentance – will lead us to deeper understanding of the ways the human family is one.
I’m mindful that the word “repent” means something more than feeling bad for doing bad things, and even more than turning around from going the wrong way. The word “repent” in the Greek language means “to go beyond the mind,” or “to go into the larger mind.” Maybe, it means to see as God sees.
An astronomer named Fred Hoyle predicted in 1948, [that] “Once a photograph of the earth, taken from the outside, is available – once the sheer isolation of the earth becomes plain, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” This powerful idea is that we human beings “constitute one family on a tiny fragile planet in limitless space.”
Of course, we have now seen that photograph, and if we are honest, we’ve been slow to take on this new big idea. But, in this real-life season of Lent we are witnessing at unprecedented speed the degree to which we are connected as one body.
I’m not one who believes that God sends tragic events in order to teach us a lesson. I don’t believe that at all. But I wonder if this crisis might open our eyes to see what God sees, to awaken us to the reality that we are one human family.
One of my favorite theologians, Beatrice Bruteau, says that we have an understanding of reality which sees others as outside us, different, in competition with us, alien to us. We see the world in terms of separation, alienation, domination. And she wonders if how we see reality is false.
And what she offers is another understanding of reality – what she calls a metaphysic (the word is not important here). What she means is a “spontaneous and natural worldview, the way we see reality without thinking about it, our taken-for-granted perception or outlook on life.”
And the reality she offers comes from Jesus, and the second of his two great commandments, when he says: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
When Jesus says to us, “love your neighbor as yourself,” he does not say, “love your neighbor as much as yourself. It’s love your neighbor AS yourself – as a continuation of your very own being. To love our neighbor AS our self is to see us as connected, as one. So, in this season of reflection and repentance, may we “go into the larger mind,” and see what God sees: one human family in need of mercy, forgiveness, and love from God and from one another.
In the opening prayer in today’s Good Friday liturgy, we prayed: “Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross … .” That’s the prayer that frames today’s liturgy.
Gracious God, behold this your family. May we, too, behold your family in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.