Proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ

Featured Sermon: Good Friday – Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett

Good Friday, 2017

Passion Gospel John 18:1-19:37
Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. (John 19:15b-16a).

In a few minutes we will pray the Solemn Collects for Good Friday as a way of bringing the needs and suffering of the world before God and before our own hearts.

We just heard the Passion Gospel once again, the heart-breaking story of Jesus’s suffering: his arrest, questioning, and crucifixion, made worse by the responses of the gathered crowd and Peter’s denial of any connection with Jesus. There’s another denial in this story that seems especially poignant this Holy Week: “The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’” It’s not a surprising denial from those who did not accept Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, and did not see him as any sort of a king; it’s a whole different thing when people who identify themselves as Christians today consciously or unconsciously give their highest loyalty to the emperors of our time.

To be fair, as the Roman governor Pilate questioned him, Jesus was very unclear about his kingship. When Pilate asked, “So you are a king?”, Jesus said, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ And then Pilate cynically asked him, ‘What is truth?’ But even with that, the religious authorities’ readiness to assure Pilate of their full support for the Caesar, the emperor, is chilling. And even with that, people living now who sing about the newborn King at Christmastime might be expected to give primary allegiance to Jesus.

The Romans were not the sorts of benevolent rulers who might deserve the support of religious people. We hear at Christmas about Herod’s desire to kill the baby who is rumored to be a king and about Herod’s killing of innocent children when he can’t figure out which of the Jewish babies is the one he is after. We know about the crucifixion of Jesus and of the two thieves who were crucified on either side of him. What the Gospel doesn’t tell us, perhaps because it was so well known when the Gospel books were written, is that the Romans lined the roads in some places with criminals hanging from crosses so that those traveling by would be afraid to disobey the Roman laws. Not all of the Roman soldiers were cruel people, but the system itself was a system of oppression designed to keep the Romans wealthy and the people of the occupied countries subdued. To support the emperor in Judea was to support a cruel system.

There aren’t a lot of us here this evening, and that’s not unique to our parish. Many, many more people will show up in churches on Easter morning than at Good Friday services today. Some of that is just a matter of logistics — evening shifts and travel plans and children who need to get to bed — but some of it is our discomfort with suffering. The suffering of Christ that we remember tonight and the suffering in our world are interconnected. There is a lot going on in our world that calls for Christians to be compassionate witnesses to suffering, but it’s tempting to look away and act as if everything is fine.

Jesus didn’t come to give us personal peace alone, though; Jesus came to empower us to be disciples, to serve as Christ’s hands, eyes, ears, and voice here and now in our world. In the words of the Eucharistic prayer, it is presumptuous if we think that Jesus came two thousand years ago or comes to us now in the Eucharist “for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”
It may be tempting to numb ourselves to suffering, to live in a sort of gated community of the spirit, walled off from anything that might disturb. Jesus does give us peace, but genuine peace comes when Jesus stand by us in the midst of suffering.

If we listen deeply to the story of the Passion, we will grieve at Jesus’s suffering. If we listen deeply to the Easter Gospel to come, we will emerge from that grief with hope and joy. Good Friday invites us to look at Jesus’s suffering so that we can experience the fullness of Easter.

The powers that be encourage us to numb ourselves to suffering. The empire — the powers that be for the sake of being the powers — would like us to look away from suffering and numb ourselves with food, drink, drugs, and lots of consumer goods. They do not want us to notice our own distress or the distress of other people or the distress of other living things, the plants and animals on whom our existence depends. But keeping our eyes on King Jesus even when he is wearing a crown of thorns rather than taking seriously the pronouncements of the powers that be is part of our Christian witness to the world. When the powers cheer on the “beauty” of missiles or the explosion of the “mother of all bombs”, when the powers tell us the suffering of people who were killed in the Holocaust wasn’t all that bad, when the powers ignore the rapidly warming Arctic and dying coral reefs — and the new crack in one of Greenland’s biggest glaciers, when the powers discount the suffering of people worried they might lose their healthcare, when the powers speak in ways that encourage us to hate people different from ourselves, Jesus calls us instead to look and listen and acknowledge and feel the suffering: the suffering now, the suffering in the past, the suffering that awaits us if we don’t change course.

We can be compassionate witnesses to suffering even when it is hard to look at it because Jesus calls us to live in hope. Oddly, while the powers that be want us to ignore suffering as if everything were fine, they want us at the same time to think there is little hope for a better world. They tell us we must continue to burn fossil fuels, that we cannot afford to welcome refugees, that we are wise to fear people whose skin is a different color than ours or whose faith is different from ours or whose primary language is not English. They tell us we can’t possibly provide basic health care for everyone in our nation, that public schools cannot adequately educate our children, that gun violence is inevitable. The powers that be don’t want us to grieve with those who suffer, but they also don’t want us to engage in any form of hope other than selfish hopes for our personal security and prosperity.

But we can grieve and we can experience genuine hope for ourselves and our neighbors because we know well the story of Jesus on the cross and the story of Easter resurrection. We can look at death in all its forms because we are resurrection people who know death isn’t the final word. And not only can we grieve and hope, but if we are not to betray Jesus and deny that we know him, we must grieve and we must hope genuine hope.

We have a king other than the emperor. His name is Jesus, and today on Good Friday we grieve his death on the cross and all the ways we continue to crucify him. Today we grieve, but tomorrow night we rejoice because love wins and Jesus is King. Amen.

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