Short sermon for Good Friday 2015 at St James, Colwall
It’s a Good Friday tradition that, when someone delivers a sermon, that person is said to be “preaching the Cross.” It is a stark title for a stark day. The church is stripped of ornament; the ministers are plainly attired; the music is sombre. The sole focus is that of a human figure fixed to a crude instrument of torture and humiliation. If you focus your mind’s eye on that image, it can produce a range of effects. Many of us simply feel tearful, as we are reminded not only of the suffering of Jesus, but of all the torture, humiliation and cruelty which we know is practised in our world now. Some people feel wretched and guilty as they tell themselves that Jesus died for their sins. Other people feel angry and want to blame Jesus’ fellow Jews for crucifying God’s Son: they may even use that idea to fuel their suspicion or hatred of Jews. Yet others see the image of the crucified Jesus and conclude that religious people did that, that religion never was a good idea, and only brings harm to the world.
Let me take that last point first. Yes, it’s true that religious people seem to have been the ones to set up Jesus’ death sentence and execution. It’s perfectly possible that a high priest could have decided it would be expedient for one man to die in order to save religious and civil society from disruption. And from that, we must learn that – if ever our religion prompts us to act against our humanity – then we must change our religion. It took us eighteen centuries to realise that slavery is a grave sin. It seems to be taking longer to realise how damaging are the patriarchal structures of our churches – but we are, I hope, getting there.
And what about the Jews? St John’s gospel has that phrase “the Jews” running through it like the proverbial text in Brighton Rock. The way the evangelist writes tells us that he has a cast list including “the Jews” as though they are a character in his play. If we forget that he was writing at just that point where Christians were becoming a congregation separate from the synagogue, if we forget that in those days the majority of Christian people in many centres were themselves Jewish, then we will not understand why he wrote as he did. And, down the centuries, from St Augustine to Martin Luther, Christians have used that phrase as the starting point of some of the worst crimes in human history.
Some faithful Christians see Jesus’ cruel death as somehow the price of their personal sinfulness, while others see his death as God’s punishment directed away from them on to an innocent substitute. I want to say that those people are mistaken. The God who made and loves us does not want to crucify us, nor to take out paternal rage upon an innocent person. But what we can believe is that human sinfulness – our individual hatred or cruelty – and, most of all, our corporate, social, financial and political sinfulness does great harm and even kills people. When innocent children die for lack of clean water and nobody cares, then Christ is re-crucified by our corporate neglect of our neighbours. These things should not happen in God’s world.
The great, late Christian song-writer Sidney Carter – the one who danced in the morning – wrote a hymn whose chorus came from the lips of the thief dying next to Jesus: “it’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me, I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree.” Yes, it is God we crucify. But, as the poet T S Eliot reminds us in East Coker, “in spite of that, we call this Friday Good.”