Marc Chagall's painting, White Crucifixion, which depicts Jesus as a Jewish martyr in the midst of Nazi pogroms, burning synaguges, and Jewish refugees.

Good Friday | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 7 April 2023 | Isaiah 52:13-53:12 | Psalm 22 | Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 | John 18:1-19:42

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who shared our human nature and lived and died as one of us. Amen.

Friends, today we dwell with a difficult and violent story: the story of Jesus’ death. This story of Jesus’ death is bloody and yet somehow it is also precious to us in this faith. So today I want to spend some time with the strangeness of the story, and the question of why it’s part of our faith, why it’s holy, why it makes a difference.  

Violence is already around us, and for me that makes Good Friday both especially difficult and especially important. In our country, shootings happen in schools and grocery stores and places of worship. The police that are supposed to protect people sometimes murder them instead. People all around the world die from war and from hunger, people who didn’t ask for any of this and just want to be safe and live their lives like any of us.

So we might wonder—why do we need another story of violence? We want to see less killing and not more. Most of us pray for peace and for safety. Some of us spend our time and tears working to change the conditions and the laws and the structures that make our world so violent and so unfair. We long for justice and for peace.  

So then what does it mean when we come to church and hear about another innocent person who came up against the unfairness of the world and died in terrible pain? And what does it mean when the person who died this way is also God?

Since early on in our faith, Christians have both embraced this story of Good Friday as holy and struggled with its meaning, often at the same time. We’re not going to solve all the questions about what Jesus’ death means today. We are not here to fully unravel the “holy mysteries” that we celebrate at the altar and remember in Holy Week. There is something about the cross that’s too deep for words.

And yet, it does matter what we say about the cross. For one thing, it matters because the story of the cross has been used to justify terrible violence in turn, especially Christian violence against our Jewish siblings; we need to tell the story in a way that won’t repeat that. It also matters because what we say about the cross flows into how we make sense of the violence and suffering we see around us now.

We know that we’re not going to solve everything. And I think if we asked everyone in this church what the cross means, we’d get a lot of different answers. That’s okay, and we can talk about it together; you don’t have to agree with my favorite ways of telling the story in order to be nourished by God’s mercy in the mystery of the cross.

So we’re holding these things in balance: We’re not going to fully understand the cross, and yet at the same time, what we say about it matters. There are many ways to tell the story, and we’ll look into three of them today as we try to make sense of Jesus’ suffering and our own.

One way of telling that story of the cross is that humans have messed up, and punishment has to happen in order to satisfy God’s justice, so Jesus steps in and takes that punishment for us by dying. For a lot of Christians, Jesus’ death in this story is key; it’s how God saves people from sin.

This is what I grew up believing. I grew up singing hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” and “There’s Power in the Blood.” And this way to tell the story gets at part of the truth of Jesus’ deep love for us. It also helps a people make sense of their own pain by seeing it as something connected with Jesus’ pain, something that ultimately has a meaning in God’s plan. And it fits well with some of the metaphors that Paul uses in the New Testament letters.

But at the same time, this way of telling the story, where Jesus takes our punishment, opens up some troubling questions about God for me. Questions like: Why couldn’t God just forgive us if God wanted to? If we can forgive people without making somebody pay, why can’t God?

And questions like: If God loves Jesus, what does it mean that God set Jesus up to be hurt on purpose? And also: What does it say about God and the world if more violence has to be the answer when things go wrong? Now, for many faithful Christians, these questions aren’t too troubling; or they’ve found answers that work for them while telling the story of how Jesus saves us in basically the same way.

But for me, wrestling with questions like these made me wonder if there might be other ways to tell the story. And eventually I learned that the story I grew up with wasn’t the only way—in fact, there are lots of other ways, some of them much older than the punishment story I learned.

Many early Christians didn’t even think Jesus’ death was the key moment in the story at all. They focused instead on the incarnation, the story of God becoming human in Jesus’ birth. For them, it wasn’t the Good Friday and Easter story of Jesus’ death and resurrection that mattered the most; it was the Christmas story of God being born as one of us.

These Christians believed that by becoming human, God changed what it means to be human and opened the way for us to become more like God, and that’s how we’re saved. It was by taking on human nature that Christ redeemed humanity and made us a new creation.

This way of telling the story of salvation is beautiful and gives me so much life. It also fits really well with a lot of the language in the New Testament about incarnation and about salvation as a new creation. It gets at another part of the truth—the truth of God’s loving relationship with us and God’s desire for us to flourish and be strong in coming near to God. It’s profoundly hopeful, and I fully believe it’s true that Christ’s incarnation changes the world and us.

And yet, this telling also has some gaps; it raises questions for me too. Beautiful as it is, I think it’s not the whole story on its own. It doesn’t tell us much about our own pain and our neighbors’ pain. And it doesn’t tell us what we’re doing here at the cross on Good Friday.

So we’ll look at one more way to tell the story of how Jesus saves us, and we’ll see what peace we can find there. In this telling, Jesus’ death is about how God chooses to be with us in suffering. We could say it’s about solidarity.

Liberation theologians have explored this way of telling the story—Latin American Catholic theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez and Black liberation theologians in the US like James Cone and Kelly Brown Douglas. They read the Gospels and see the ways that even before the cross, Jesus puts himself in the company of folks who are poor and oppressed and suffering; he’s on their side, and he’s with them, and he’s one of them.

And so when we tell the story this way, the cross is the culmination of Jesus’ solidarity with humankind, especially with the people who suffer the most. In the solidarity story, God not only chooses to become human with us at the manger, but chooses to stick with us through the worst of human behavior at the cross.

When people hurt the most vulnerable ones among us, Jesus is still here with us, still being human even when it means dying in pain. Jesus’ death puts him right alongside the people who are the targets of violence in our sinful world.

So in the solidarity story of the cross, God doesn’t call for the violence against Jesus; it’s not a punishment given to him in our place. It happens for the same reason any other violence happens: because we humans haven’t yet figured out how to love and protect each other. And yet, the cross still matters deeply to the way that Jesus loves us and saves us. On Good Friday, God holds onto us even at our worst, and God is with us even when the worst happens.  

In this story, the cross means that if there’s a shooter in a classroom or a synagogue or a church or a Wal-Mart, Jesus gets shot too. Jesus is with those who die in prisons and traffic stops. Jesus is with folks who don’t have the care they need and die in childbirth. In the cross, when a transgender kid in a hostile state dies by suicide, Jesus does too.

The cross means that Jesus is with those who die in war and those who die hungry. God loves us so much that God chooses to be among us bodily even when we haven’t yet learned how to love one another, and even when the worst things happen to God’s body because of our sin.

In this liberation theology way to tell the story, Good Friday means that God is on the side of those who get hurt the most when our world is out of balance, so much that Jesus is willing to die among them. And Easter Sunday means that God will raise up everyone who suffers; God not only suffers and dies with us but delivers us from the sting of death and raises us to freedom and life.

But come back on Sunday for that. For today, let’s stay with the Good Friday part of the story: the part where Jesus’ body is broken for us, among us, with us; the part where the people who followed Jesus weep at the cross; the part where God loves us to the last breath.

This story is a mystery beyond our understanding. Sometimes we may feel it deeply in our bodies and our spirits, and sometimes it may be too much to take in. We do what we can to make sense of it with our minds. We tell the story in many ways. And year after year on Good Friday, we are invited to pray at the cross. God’s love meets us here, whatever words we use to tell the story this time.

And today at the cross, I hear an invitation to be present with suffering, our own and other people’s. Many of us tend to put these difficult feelings aside because we’re already overloaded and we’ve got to get through the day, and that’s normal.

But today when as we tell the story of Jesus choosing to abide with us in the worst of this world, I wonder if the cross might give us the strength to abide with our own pain awhile. Maybe we let ourselves feel it in our bodies, or talk it over with someone we trust, or pray it aloud, or find some way to mourn instead of putting it away again.

I wonder also if the cross might give us the strength to be present with someone else’s suffering, and maybe even to ease that suffering as we are able. When awful things happen in the world, it’s easy to be numb, and it’s normal; we can’t take on everything at once.

But today, I wonder if the cross might give us what we need to turn our numbness into compassion and our compassion into wise and courageous action. That’s the invitation I hear when the cross is about God choosing to be with us through pain.      

And I wonder what invitation you might hear as we gather at the cross this time. I wonder how you are telling the story of God’s saving love this time.

And friends, whatever words we might use, whatever sense we can make of it, whatever call we might hear at the cross, I pray that we meet Jesus here. I pray that whatever trouble we carry to the cross today, these holy mysteries may carry us toward God’s peace that passes understanding.

Amen.

This is Marc Chagall’s 1938 painting White Crucifixion, which portrays Jesus’ crucifixion in the context of the persecution of Jews in Chagall’s own time.
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