It seemed that day that there was an obliteration of love, an annihilation of life, an extermination of goodness, a total eclipse of God. That is how the renowned Episcopal preacher, Fleming Rutledge, described Good Friday. It is a bleak assessment. And a true one. Because the story of Easter is incomplete without Good Friday; the resurrection of our Lord is nota forgone conclusion. We cannot feel the joy and release of Easter without first feeling the grief and agony of the crucifixion. My Holy Week would feel fraudulent if I tried to skip the sorrow of this day, as if I were attempting to skip the wedding and head straight to the reception. That may seem a peculiar analogy–comparing the crucifixion to a wedding. And yet I do feel that to know my Jesus the way my God wants me to, I must wed myself not only to his infinite love, but to his terrible grief as well.
I will assume that you are here today because you need to be here, in this sacred space, immersed in the awesome and beautiful sorrow of Jesus death. You have chosen the better way by coming this noontimehour. There is no other day like today. There has been no other day like today in history. And there never will be. Millions of people have been put to death. But of this death alone can it be said that the salvation of the whole world flowed from it. Your presence today demonstrates your commitment to this claim.
Many people are not here, however. They are out doing what they do on ordinary weekdays working, shopping, eating lunch, running errands, taking care of children. This is nothing new. When Jesus was crucified, most people did not even notice; they were preoccupied with their own concerns. And yet, among those of us who do revere the sorrow of this day, there are starkly different understandings of what Good Friday means, and even of what Good Friday should feel like.
Most of us here at St. James’s are, in the scheme of things, affluent people. Our faith grounding largely concerns “personal” issues like illness, divorce, addiction, and financial mismanagement issues for which we seek personal support and healing, rather than issues that require us to overcome systemic injustice and oppression. People who, at least from outward appearances, seem to have found their reward in the here and now.
But it has been my experience, firsthand, and through the study of history, that poor people and people of color who suffer the effects of systemic injustice and oppression feel there is little, if any, human agency in this world. They grasp better than anyone, the Biblical truth that the real reward lies in the next life. They intuit at a very young age, both spiritually and intellectually, that Jesus gave his life for the sin of the world. For the poor and for people of color, African-Americans, most especially, the crucifixion isn’t just something that happened to someone else on their behalf. It is a direct representation of their experience here on earth. Yes, they see Good Friday as a time to bear witness to the pain Jesus suffered, and to the promise inherent in that suffering. But they also see the crucifixion as an act of testimony an act that bears witness to, acknowledges, and validates the pain they themselves suffer here and now, in this life. As such, Good Friday is day of celebration.
Many of you remember Faye Perry, the wonderful black gospel singer who for years brought a great big pair of lungs and an even more generous portion of soulfulness to the West Gallery Choir. She married a man from Detroit and left us for the Motor City two years ago. At one of her going-away parties, she spoke at length about her experience with St. James’s, with as she put it all you strange and wonderful white people.” Before the Whitmires hired Faye, she sang at an Assembly of God church and had never set foot in an Episcopal white peoples church. She spoke about her initial fear that her brand of fierce musical witness would not be welcome here. (Of course she was wrong about that–we miss her still.) But she also spoke about how strange she found the way we conducted ourselves during Holy Week. She did not see the crucifixion as a total eclipse of God. “I had never seen such sorrow!” she said. “Where I came from, we celebrated Good Friday! We’d sing to the rafters! But you people get so terribly, terribly sad it made me cry! You changed it all for me. Now I don’t know how to feel on Good Friday. I want to sing and I want to cry and I pretty much end up doing both.”
The hymn that we will sing at the end of the service, Were you there when they crucified my Lord? comes out of the African-American tradition and experience. The refrain sometimes it causes me to tremble does not refer simply to the suffering witness of crucifixion. For some, there is a trembling grief. And for others there is the trembling of cathartic release.Sometimes it causes me to tremble…tremble…tremble…: For African-Americans, this line in the spiritual evokes layers upon layers of historical meaning: the connection of Jesus suffering to their suffering, the similarity of the evil done to him to the evil of slavery done to them, the forgiveness of his enemies reflected in their forgiveness of white oppressors.
In the extraordinary Biblical theology of the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King and others articulated a vision of justice which was grounded in a belief in the moral order that God has already done something so powerful and definitive that it cannot be stopped. When Dr. King kept saying, the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice, he was referring to a faith that was nourished by the fact that God had already made the down payment 1 a down payment for their individual lives. In response, this gift from God inspired the familiar spiritual:
We shall overcome, we shall overcome
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome some day
Think about it: Jesus made a down payment for your life. Were you there when they crucified my lord? elicits the confession, Yes, I was there my sins were part of the reason Jesus had to die. But for many people, this day of execution is their Easter celebration.
In my ministry with the poor, I see a familiar pattern. Once a family has the opportunity to move into a decent housing situation it is rarely able to scrape up the extra money for the down payment or deposit. They can manage to pay the first month s rent, but the burden of the security deposit is likely to prevent them from breaking free of their crummy and substandard existence. Nothing makes me happier than when this church is able to put a deposit on a new home or apartment for a family. It is then up to the family to fulfill their end of the bargain by working, paying their rent, and keeping up with their utilities. They certainly are not off the hook–and neither are we.
Theologically, the down payment was made at our baptism; for most of us that means in our infancy Christ s sacrificial death was the down payment so that we might have salvation and freedom from damnation. What is interesting is that nowhere along the continuum of our lives are we required to make payments at certain official markers. We reap the gift of eternal life at our death, but what are we to do in the meantime?
What we do is live our lives as if the Kingdom of God were in the here and now. The old world of sin and death came to an end on the cross. The new life of grace is gifted to all. This is the Christian proclamation. Somebody had to pay it. God has paid it. We need to start acting like he did. If you or I were in God’s position, we probably would have arranged for somebody else to pay that price, somebody who we figured deserved condemnation. God arranged for his own self to pay the price; Jesus, the one person who did not deserve condemnation.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
The down payment made for our lives requires us to be there the next time a decision has to be made between sparing the life of Jesus or Barabbas. We line the streets waving palms in celebration as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, but on the day of his trial and execution we scatter. Ah, he will be alright, we rationalize. I need not concern myself with being there. Someone else will stand up for him. I ve got my own life to worry about. The sins of selfishness and indifference are the shame of humankind. The shame belongs to us; the effects fell upon him.
The more we enter into the meaning of Christ s death, the closer we see into our own precariously balanced inner lives. A great many people go through life without ever facing their own potential for hurting others, their own aptitude for greed and rapacity, for selfishness, for cooperating with systems of evil. They are not here today. You are here in their place. You are not here for yourself only, but also for others. In a very important sense, you are doing something Christ-like, aligning yourself with our Savior, who is there on the Cross in your place while the world goes by.
How do we measure the gravity of sin and the incomparable vastness of God s love for us? By looking at the magnitude of what God has done for us in Jesus. Calvary was the scene of courage conquering fear. It was militant love showing its superiority over violent hate. We have seen the down payment at work. In the lives and witness of modern day saints such as Abraham Lincoln, who saved our nation’s soul and was murdered for it on Good Friday, 141 years ago today, and also by the likes of Dr. King, Bishops Oscar Romero and Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa and believe it or not, even in our own lives, in acts great and small.
As you reverence and pray at the cross today ask God to grant you courage in the measure he sees fit, that you may bear witness in both words and deeds so that your down payment may be at work now and until the day of your great reward.
1 Rutledge, Fleming. The Undoing of Death, 2002, p. 172
Ibid, Down payment idea fleshed from her writing on p. 124