One of the great remnants of this country’s Christian heritage is that Good Friday is still a national holiday (we even still close shops for one day a year! Hooray!). For most of our society, and sadly, much of the church, this holiday that was for allowing time to stop and contemplate the love of God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus, became mostly a chance for a final family holiday before winter. One thing this current lockdown creates is an opportunity for us in our “bubbles” to slow down again, stay present, and walk the whole Easter journey, not just skip to the Easter eggs on Sunday. How can we possibly celebrate Easter Sunday if we don’t first go through the cross and the grave? No cross, no glory!
This year, many of us will relate much more personally to the pain of the world, the sorrow of suffering, the fear of death, and a sense of exile and disappointment. Good Friday is a day that speaks loudly, and clearly into this experience. The next three days are great opportunities for families for intentional discipleship, and meaningful conversation with friends and neighbours that connects our faith with the very real experiences of life. It might be the optimist, or evangelist in me, but I simply don’t believe that people have no interest in God.
People are still desperately looking for hope. People deep down still want to believe in the enduring power of love, and desperately want to believe that good triumphs over evil. Just look at your average Disney movie. We see the seeds of this in the outpouring of love and neighbourliness in our communities at the moment. We need to point them to the reason we can be sure of these things, and the fullest expression of what love is. Today, we point to the cross.
We struggle with the reality of evil and suffering. We should. In my experience, the thing people wrestle with is not a question of “is God real”, but rather, “where is God in the midst of our struggling, pain and sorrow?” Without an answer to this deep struggle, people often jump to a rationale that goes something like this: There is suffering in the world, therefore either God does not care about suffering and is therefore not good, or is powerless to do anything about it, so can’t help me.
The cross shows us a different reality. We may want a neat and tidy answer for why God allows suffering, but he doesn’t give it. What he does give us is himself. The profound claim of the Christian faith is that despite our sin and the evil we have perpetrated in God’s good creation, God is not distant or indifferent to our plight. The astounding claim we make as Christians is quite the opposite - that God condescended from glory, put on human flesh, and became part of his creation, partaking in all of the joys and struggles of the human experience.
Where is God in the midst of sorrow, injustice and suffering?
Walking in our shoes, right there with us!
In this Holy Week we get to see a God who isn’t distant or indifferent, but experiences the fullness of sin and evil and the fullness of its consequences. We see Jesus tempted, betrayed, abandoned, lied about, unjustly tried, mocked, stripped naked, shamed, spat on, ridiculed, beaten, whipped, hit, his meagre possessions taken and gambled for, publicly shamed, physically tortured, and nailed to a tree in the most extraordinary form of torture imaginable. Innocent, yet treated as though guilty and cursed. A man of sorrow. Jesus, God in flesh, takes upon himself all of the sin, the evil, the injustice and the suffering of the world, experiencing the greatest enemy of life - death.
God is not indifferent to our suffering. God is not absent!
God is also not powerless to save.
Ironically, it is through the darkness, through the valley of the shadow of death, through the “weakness” of God, in sacrificial, self-giving, love, that the fullness of sin and evil is taken to the grave and defeated through the resurrection. Death is swallowed up in victory, defeated through death, and has lost its sting. Jesus’ words to his followers are this: In this world you are going to have troubles, but take heart, I have overcome the world.
Without walking the path of the cross in our homes, and without contemplating the cross as the true glory of God, it’s little wonder our children struggle later in life if they encounter the reality of sin and injustice. If our faith is little more than disconnected bible stories, moralism, or self-help, God won’t seem to be the steadfast hope we need in times of trial, and they will look elsewhere. Likewise if we don’t take seriously the call to take up our own cross and to follow Jesus, it’s little wonder we slip into lives of privileged comfort at the expense of the poor. We need to proclaim the cross and Christ crucified.
The cross helps make sense of our guilt, our shame, and our experiences of injustice, suffering and death. Our Christian hope isn't in believing the right thing so we can go up to heaven when we die, it is, as we declare in the creed each Sunday, that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” That's why the last exclamation in the bible, the second last verse, is “Amen. Come Lord Jesus!” Sin, evil and death (and COVID-19) do not get the final word! But then that’s jumping ahead to Sunday...
Until then, as you continue reading the gospels this weekend, can I encourage you to look through two lenses:
Pretend you are hearing the story for the first time. Try putting yourself in the shoes of someone hearing the story for the first time. Perhaps imagine being an ethnic minority, living under oppression, holding on to the promises of a saviour you have left everything to follow, who you believe is God’s anointed. Watch him at every scene. Listen to every word he speaks. Where are you? What are you thinking? What happens to you emotionally at each scene?
What are the powers of darkness at work against Jesus? Note that although the authority of Jesus seems to be being taken from him, he is in fact still in control. “This is my hour, the hour for which I came, the hour for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23-27). He gives the Temple guards permission to arrest him on Thursday night, “This is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). He says to Pilate, “My kingdom has a power independent of you.” John 18:36-38. He chooses silence under trial, and when Jesus finally speaks, it is from the cross. Let these words, from the Word of God on the cross, be the words that tell you about who God is.
Lastly, note in the reading from John’s gospel today, that it starts and ends in a garden. This should draw your mind back to the garden of Eden, and to the tension in the biblical narrative that needs to be resolved. Which garden ended up with a tomb in it?
What are we learning about God?
What are we learning about what it means to bear the image of God?