…..he was…..crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. Isaiah 53: 5
Today we gather, as millions of Christians are gathering, to commemorate the death of the man at the centre of our worship, our religious culture, our personal lives, a man whom we also call God. We gather to commemorate. To look back in the same way that we commemorate, for example, each November those people, who laid down, or at the least lost, their lives in armed conflicts. We look back then with sadness, with profound respect, with sorrow, that such loss was found necessary. We do that too with Jesus, except that we know that Jesus was not killed in a war.
On Good Friday, as on Remembrance Sunday, we look back with sadness, with respect so profound we must call it
worship, and with sorrow that – apparently – such loss was necessary.
But how can that be? Why was that death necessary? Why should we be sad? And what is there to worship in such an ugly death?
For it certainly was ugly. We cannot know with certainty the physical details, but what we know for certain is that crucifixion was designed by intelligent people to produce three outcomes. The first was humiliation, degradation and depersonalisation. The victim was first stripped naked and taunted, before, second, being subjected to lengthy torture, and, thirdly, – thankfully – dying.
You may think that those Romans were barbaric people to dream that up. What kind of warped mind does that? The answer, of course, is the same kind of warped mind that thought hanging, drawing and quartering was the right way for English Christians to treat other Christians with whom they disagreed on matters of faith. Or the same kind of highly civilised engineers in Germany who designed machinery for the mass extermination of Jews, Romani, Jehovah’s Witnesses and gay people. In other words, the people who dream up these things and do them are ordinary people. Dare I say it? I dare say it, people uncommonly like us.
Now you may immediately rebut this as insulting to your good nature, but I’d urge you to consider for a moment the circumstances in which inhuman horrors take place. Why is it, do you think, that a usually decent Catholic priest in Rwanda will allow terrified people to hide in his church and then betray them to a howling mob who will butcher them? How is it that decent Christian people in Bosnia who have always lived in peace with their Muslim neighbours, turn on them and murder them, men, women and the little children who used to play with their children?
I want you to consider on this Good Friday that Isaiah, in our reading this morning, had a point. He was preaching (as his disciples later wrote) a grim picture of human nature. Suppose, he said, some Servant of God were to appear in our midst. What would happen? Why does he appear so broken, bruised, beaten? Who has done this to an innocent representative of God? Isaiah is unflinching in his conviction. The Servant has been afflicted for our transgressions, he is bearing our sins.
Jesus, in the gospels of Matthew, Mark & Luke, clearly sees in this broken figure a model of his own life and ministry. He knows where it will lead. But that doesn’t tell me how I am implicated now. Jesus was crucified nearly two thousand years ago. How on earth can it be anything to do with my sins? And anyway, I don’t think I’ve attacked another person since I was a toddler, let alone set out to harm and kill someone. I was going to say, I don’t have that within me, but that, I know, would be a lie.
Jesus tells us how our sins afflict him in another part of his teaching. “Inasmuch as you do it to one of these, you do it to me.” I cannot get out of that. For good or ill - by my action or my inaction - whatever I do or don’t do to or for another of God’s children, I do to that suffering servant of God, to Jesus. The two thousand year time gap collapses, and cannot exempt me from implication in Jesus’ sufferings, because Jesus is in every one of these other children of God.
But, I argue, I am not a murderer. I’m not part of a howling mob. I’m not a Roman soldier.
I’m not in the mujahedeen; I’m not in the interahamwe; I’m not in the SS; I’m not a Serbian Christian killing his Muslim neighbour. The fact, of course, is that none of those people was born into those situations. None of them was born a murderer, a butcher, a fanatic. None of them was born part of a crowd, carried away by rage, fear, hatred, desperation – whatever powerful force grips a crowd that one day shouts “hosanna to the king of David” and, five days later, screams “crucify him.”
And yet. And yet where is the good news that we look for in the gospel of Jesus?
The poet TS Eliot offers us an answer,
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
(Four Quartets, East Coker, Part IV)
The answer is a hard one. We begin with the acknowledgement that we like to think we are sound, substantial flesh and blood, but, actually, we are the same as the rest of humanity. We have great potential for good, for love, for doing justice, for walking humbly before our God. And we have great potential for hatred, for doing injustice, for walking arrogantly before our God, denying that the obvious wickedness of humanity has anything to do with us. If we deny this last, we put our souls in peril, for we deny our humanity: we disconnect from the needs of the least of God’s children, people caught up in fear, rage, hunger, violence, oppression. The world will continue on the road to hell if those of us who are not trapped in those dreadful circumstances fail to reach out, do not get the link that binds us to those others.
OK, so not all of us are living in the hell that is Syria today. We are not in a position literally to intervene, to attempt to reconcile people driven by hate or fear to acts of atrocity. But we can do something. We can pray – for the killers as well as for the murdered, raped and dispossessed, because Jesus died for all of them. We can support Christian Aid’s refugee action. But, just as important – perhaps even more important – we can live our own lives differently. We can, in our hearts, reach out to people we find it hardest to identify with. In every stranger in our society, in every Muslim neighbour, in every traveller at the door, there is a child of God. Harder still, in every hateful neighbour, in every social or criminal offender, in every “feral” child, in every crook or mugger, even – dare we imagine it? – in every sexual offender, there is a child of God.
I am not, of course, suggesting that we should not support the rule of law. Jesus himself warned of the terrible judgement on those who harm children. But, and it’s a big but, if we fail to look for and find our common humanity with such people, we condemn the world to continue on its miserable road to hell. Only that extraordinary vision and imagination we find in Jesus will enable us to find a better way forward. It’s a hallmark of Christianity not to hide from human wickedness and hope for the best, keeping ourselves pure, but to recognise evil when we see it, to recognise further that we ourselves could, in other circumstances, be that person / those people: recognise, in other words, that they are nonetheless children of God, and try to find what God would have us and them do. The crucial step that only we can take is to recognise ourselves in the other person.
If we had been there on that Good Friday, where would we have been? Cowering, like Peter? sobbing like John or Mary? jeering like the crowd? or, like the soldiers, just doing our job and getting on with life? I don’t even want to think about those possibilities. I know enough about myself to say “I don’t know”. What I am sure of is that I would have been, at best, a guilty bystander.
The good news is that we are not condemned: cowards, broken-hearted onlookers, jeerers, soldiers. We are forgiven. We are forgiven by God. And we are charged by God to see in all around us, other children of God in need of that forgiveness offered at such cost.