(Christ on the Cross with Two Maries and St. John, El Greco, 1588)
If you missed a Good Friday service or you aren’t sure why you would go to one but are interested, here is the story told at The Road Church’s Good Friday service. We played Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings following the story and gave space for silent reflection. I’d encourage you to try that too.
Walking Through The Days
So we have been gathered today to live into this story that marks us as a peculiar people, the story of a very dark Friday that we call Good. We are going to talk about the story, and sit inside of it, just as those first hearers of the gospel would. I’m telling the story as it comes to us in the book of Luke, if you want to read along, or go home and take a look at it, with a couple details included from other gospels for good measure.
A day before the big yearly Passover festival in Jerusalem, Jesus said to his friends Peter and maybe his friend John, “We should find a place to have a Passover meal. Could you guys go get ready for that?” And they serendipitously found a place, and they got the evening ready.
On that Thursday night, Jesus and his friends sat down together and they ate. They ate this Passover meal, Maybe they had this done every year since they were kids with their families. But this year, this rag tag group of unlikely friends, ate like they were their own new family. They got ready their meal of lamb, of bitter herbs, of unleavened bread. They ate to remember when the angel of death passed over the houses of the Israelites that had been marked with lamb’s blood, when God saved them from slavery by bringing the realization of death onto their captors.
They sat down and ate together. It had been a long week of keeping up with Jesus preaching in the temple, of being with him while he said hard things and then going off to the Mount of Olives at night, to be quiet, to listen. So it was good to be eating, to be together. But as they ate, Jesus said something strange. Something they did not understand.
And because we are putting ourselves in the story, I’m going hand out the bread and hand out the cups, and we are going to wonder at the actions, the words, this person of Jesus. I’m going to pass around a plate of bread and cups of wine or juice – take it like you normally would, eat it and drink it like you would when something was passed to you at your dinner table. Feel free to eat and drink it now as the disciples would have that Passover night.
As Jesus passed the bread around he said something strange, “Take some of it. Grab a piece of this bread. This piece of bread in your hand, in your mouth, its my body broken for you, given for you my dear, dear friends. And he then he passed around a cup, and he said, take some, drink some – this wine is my blood, spilled out for you.”
His friends, used to his ways, but unsure what he meant, broke off hunks of bread and swallowed some wine, and wondered at his words. They continued with their meal as usual. They talked, they argued over who was going to be greatest. Just like a bunch of humans. And so Jesus took off his robes and sat at their feet like a slave and once again tried to get them to see – that its not the greatest that is to be revered, its not the greatest that saves you,– it is the last and the least, the servant in your midst, the lowering of your own heart. His words, and especially his actions were deeply affirming to the disciples hearts and deeply disturbing to the ways they were used to living – and well, that’s the way it was with Jesus.
Now, at some point in the meal, something happened to the disciple Judas—he got up and left, not saying a word to any of them, he left—I wonder if someone like John or James noticed the looks, the furtive words between Judas and Jesus. I wonder if Jesus met their questioning eyes, or did he look at his hands, and with a knot in his chest take a deep breath, knowing what the night would hold for him, and knowing what the night would hold for his friend Judas.
After this strange, beautiful, unsettling dinner, they followed Jesus and went to the Mount of Olives, to the Garden of Gethsamane. They spread out under the trees. Jesus asked, quietly, “Pray-stay awake and pray with me. Please.” I wonder if his voice betrayed him, if it wavered. I wonder if they picked up on it and if they had any clue what day it was that they were walking through or if it was just another normal, wonderfully strange day with Jesus.
Jesus watched his tired friends, fumbling into sleep with all their humanness, and walked to a tree a few yards away. His panic was strong now, his fear rising in his throat. I wonder if He saw the flickers of firelight coming up the hill. “Father, Father,” he cried. “Please, please take this cup. You could, please.” He tried to remember, tried to put back together in his mind the promises, the promises of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-the promises of God to his own heart. He tried but he could not talk himself out of the fear, he could not get his head above the anguish of waiting for what was coming and so all he could do was surrender to it, let go inside of it, and say “But… Father…do your will.”
His friends, the disciples, They tried to stay awake, they tried to pray but must have nodded off because suddenly, in the darkness, flashes and flickers and voices were seen, heard, waking them up. They saw Judas—he had brought soldiers. He brought men to arrest Jesus. To take him, to try him. The disciples’ anger was quick, firey, palpable, their adrenalin suddenly flooding them. They tried to fight and Peter grabbed his blade, lunging at the big man in front of him. But Jesus’ voice, strong now, was clear as a bell ringing in the mist,
“Peter, no, that is not the way your wholeness will come. That is never the way your salvation comes.” And He, He reached out his hands, touched the man who was there to hurt him, and he touched his wound, his pain, and restored his ear.
The shadowed crowd surged around Jesus and seized him by the arms. They walked too fast for his feet to keep up, or maybe it was his knees giving out, betraying his heart and he stumbled. The disciples watched, baffled, so very uncertain as to what was going on, they watched as the soldiers took him, they took Jesus, their friend, they took my lord, to the high priests house, in the dark and his friends, his friends, who had been woken out of their sleep, what had awoken to find the work they had given their lives to was taken and they just stood there. Just like that. What was happening? What should they do? His friends, with the bread and the wine still in their bodies, were bewildered to the point of anger. Afraid to the point of denial. They were flooded with Confusion, anxiety, despair. These are not words we associate with the triumph of life and love in the world, and yet they are part of the story. They are here, they are part of OUR story and we don’t get to Sunday until we walk through them, honestly.
When we, 1000s of years later – generations later, read our story and live into our story, this is the hard part. I find I don’t “live into” Easter like I do with Christmas. At Christmas it is a thing of joy to wait, with expectancy—there’s hardship there, but we know at the end, the gift, the joy, the new life will come and so I’m ok with living in anticipation. But in a very real way, I do not want to have to live through these days that lead up to Easter.
I do not want to live through fear, the kind of fear that makes it hard to breathe. And yet I have. I do not want to live through confusion, bewilderment, the kind that makes me doubt every thing around me. And yet I have. I do not want to have my expectations about my worth, my work, my family, dashed and trampled – that hurts more than we admit. And yet I have. I do not want to live through pain, through wounds, through messy messy hurt. I don’t want to do the hurting and yet I have . I don’t want to acknowledge that I am afraid and that I’ve denied the truth because of it. And yet I have.
But if we read our story, when we live into it, we know that its exactly here, in fear, sightlessness, weakness, doubt, confusion, destroyed hopes, anxiety, depression, even death, that our Father, our redeemer, plunges his hands right into the middle of it, deep down, and THERE, right there, does his work of transformation. He is not afraid to walk the days before Easter.
I don’t want to have to live into this story. I want a page of instructions, a guarantee and a happy ending with a bow on top. I want to win at life, or at least do well enough that nobody thinks to say anything. I do not want to stumble or fail or not finish in high standing, I do not want my hopes to go unfulfilled, I do not want to fear or be confused. I do not want to be in the dark.
And yet we do not serve a “Winning” God, we serve a “Transforming” God, a Transforming God deeply, inextricably woven into this life. And this changes the whole game.
Jesus, the Son of God, the Son of Man, was here, now, on this day that we are walking through, at the mercy of thugs. The guards watching him, dragging him, began to mock him. Beat him. Cruelty comes easy. They hurt this man they did not know but had been told was the enemy. They blindfolded him, pushed him around, taunted him with “Prophesy then! Who hit you?” Cruelty comes easy.
Jesus was then dragged to the Sanhedrin, the place where the Jewish leaders met. They had gathered in the early morning, anticipating their victory over the rabble rouser, the one threatening their identity, their power, their understanding of the world. No proof was needed, the only thing that mattered was that his words made them feel threatened. They dragged him before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor who could punish this man the way they wanted. “This man is subverting our nation, he is disrupting what we do. He does not follow the order, the law, we need – that you need.” Pilate looked at Jesus, this bleeding, weak, hurt man. His eyes did not say rebellion, but I wonder if Pilate saw something much deeper in them – much deeper than rebellion, much more disruptive.
“You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. But I don’t see it. He has done nothing to deserve death. I’ll punish him for you, a good flogging, and then release him,” Pilate finally pronounced.
The roars were deafening. The crowd bellowed to the point of rage – and rage in groups is a terrifying thing. Pilate was faced with the choice of killing an innocent man, or having an unruly protest led by the powerful religious leaders of the region. That wouldn’t look good on his resume back in Rome.
He looked at Jesus, the hurt bleeding man, whose eyes saw way more than Pilate was comfortable with and said, “Fine. But his blood is not on my hands.” He released another man convicted of insurrection and murder. And the Pilate stalked away leaving the People to their own devices. And all I can think about is how when the Everyone is loved, how when everyone matters, and every one is seen by God, how this is incredibly threatening to the ways we are used to doing things.
Nameless soldiers then led Jesus away, away to die. They marched him through the city, down the dirt path. They grabbed a man named Simon from the Passover crowd and made him help Jesus carry the cross, carry that which was going to kill him. A big group gathered behind the soldiers including women, the text says. Women who wept, wailed, and mourned the suffering about to happen. Jesus saw them and knew that the pain they were going to suffer, and soon, even outweighed his own. I wonder what the disciples were feeling. Their friend, their beloved, their cause, the reason they had left all that was comfortable and easy and embraced all that was hard but good, He was being led away to his death and they could do nothing to stop it.
Jesus was taken outside the city, to a hill called Golgotha which means Hill of the Skull with two other men who were to be crucified. The soldiers hammered nails into Jesus’ hands and into Jesus feet—there’s blood here, there is bodies being broken. They hoisted the rough wood up and let it drop into its hole. The Body of my lord, the Body of this man hung there, heaving, dying, shutting down on itself, its life being drained with every breath. We have a hard time imagining the pain. So we don’t. But we do not deny that it’s there, right there in the heart of God. The pain is great and Jesus of Nazareth, eyes blinded by shock, pain, broken heartedness, cried out “God, where are you? Where did your face go? I cannot see you.”
Two thieves accompanied Jesus to the door of his death. I can’t help but think of Jesus in the towel washing his friend’s feet the night before and thinking that this is fitting. Jesus with the rabble, Jesus with the sinners, Jesus with those who have no recourse, Jesus with the lowest, the least and there, there the lowest being found.
One thief said, “Why don’t you save yourself? If you are the Messiah?” And the other rebuked the first and said, “This man has done nothing wrong. We deserve this, he does not.” Then, in what I can only imagine as a miraculous feat of energy, this thief said to Jesus, “please, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Remember me.” And in a feat of unimaginable kindness in the middle of his pain, Jesus said yes.
“It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land.” For the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple, the curtain that separated the place where God dwells from the people, this curtain was torn in two from top to bottom and Jesus called out with a loud voice, “FATHER! INTO YOUR HANDS I COMMIT MY SPIRIT. It is finished.” And when he had done this, he breathed his last breath.
Its not many of us who get to watch as our loved ones breathe one last breath. But its surprising in its finality and its quietness. Life, and then no life. Breath and then no breath. Thought and then no thought. Sense and then no sense.
A centurion, seeing what had happened, was compelled to praise God and said, “Surely this was a right and righteous man.” When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts, as they had been taught to do at such things, but then they went away.
But those who knew him, his friends, with the feeling of his hands on their feet, his voice in their ears, the memory of his bread and his wine being shared among them still bright in their minds–his friends, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Christ has come, Christ has died, and this is the story we walk through today, remembering that we do not serve a Winning God, we serve a Transforming God. We serve a God who transforms death, not by denying it, but by wading right into the middle of it and declaring even it is His.
Let us pray
“Father in heaven, you are holy. This is your kingdom and we do not understand it and it weighs heavy. And yet we live in it. Be with us as we go home to our lives and ponder the nails, ponder the death, ponder what it means to be friends, brothers and sisters with Jesus in this season, and on this day. Be with us in our vigil, in our waiting, until we meet again. May your hope be what keeps us going. Amen.”