I've shifted my focus from dealing with the joyful celebration of Easter (preparation details, sermon writing) to write this blog on this day we call “Good” Friday. I had gotten ahead of the story already hearing the brass and singing the great hymns, seeing the children running and laughing, families in front of the flowering cross. To go back into the darkness of this story on “Good” Friday is a little like spiritual whiplash.
I hope you will click on the link above and read the scripture passages for Good Friday and to read the crucifixion story. Here's a recap: the story of Jesus, it seemed, was over. Convicted of sedition, condemned to death by crucifixion, nailed to a cross on a hill called Golgotha, Jesus of Nazareth had endured all that he could—approaching the end he repeated a verse of the 22nd Psalm, a phrase familiar to first-century Jewish ears: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There was a final wordless cry. And then silence. It appears that Jesus’ followers had no answer to his anguished question of why God would forsake him and that they clearly expected an altogether different outcome. If he was the promised Messiah, his followers expected him to seize real power, military and political power, and achieve some kind of victory. There is reason to believe that Judas, particularly, wanted him to lead a military revolt against Rome. Jesus’ arrest and trial for sedition and his subsequent execution as a common criminal came as a crushing blow to his disciples, along with the fact that his own decisions and behavior seemed somehow to be part of the whole sad, tragic, disappointing fiasco. Jesus could have avoided it all but for some reason chose not to, seemed intentionally to put his safety at risk, his life on the line. And so they fled, left him to die alone, and went into hiding. The women alone among his followers stayed with him until the end and watched as he died and as he was buried and the tomb carefully sealed. And after the Sabbath, it was the women who came back to the place of burial, for practical, pragmatic reasons: to ensure that the body was properly anointed. Their major concern was whether they could manage to remove the stone with which the tomb was sealed.
The scriptural accounts are inconsistent (wonderfully so) about what happened next, about who was there, who arrived first, who said what to whom. Click on the link above and it will take you the Gospel of John’s account. For Easter Sunday, I am focusing on Matthew’s account (Matthew 28) so I went back and looked at how Matthew describes the hours before the women go to the tomb on Easter Sunday.
What jumps out at me in Matthew is the delegation of old men, distinguished religious leaders, chief priests and Pharisees, who come to the governor’s office the day after the crucifixion. I know these people. They are good men basically, leaders in the community. They only want to preserve public order, the status quo. I have seen them at large church meetings. I have seen them at Chamber of Commerce meetings and in the halls of Congress. I have seen them on TV, pundits and lawmakers who criticize the teenage survivors of the high school mass shooting, for being too young and naïve with their marches and call for action on sensible gun laws. “We’re here, Excellency [Pontius Pilate],” they say, “because Jesus did say something about rising from the dead, and while you and we know how utterly preposterous that is, his friends could steal the body under the cover of darkness and claim he rose again and then we would have another problem on our hands. So please, Excellency, station some soldiers at the tomb just to make sure there is no funny business.” To them, Pilate says: “Use your own men” and “go, make the tomb as secure as you can.”
Years ago, when in my mid 20s I dog eared a copy of Frederick Buechner’s The Magnificent Defeat where he describes this scene as “old men trying to keep the sun from rising.” Now, years later, my fear is that I am not like one of those “old men” as I sit here finishing up an Easter sermon (what sometimes is referred to my “big shot” for the year to speak to a full house) what will be my Easter message that comes out of the oven that is placed before everyone at the Easter table. How easy is the tendency for me -- and you -- to act like the old men Matthew describes in trying to explain the resurrection story; the ones who try to make it safe and secure. Safe and secure, saying things like the significance of the resurrection is that it really just points to the power of Jesus’ teachings that live on, or to the power of life we see every springtime (cue up the flowers and the butterflies). None of that is very compelling.
Especially when we live in a Good Friday world. “Good” Friday is a sad day of loss and cruelty when all you have to go on is faith that light shines in the darkness and nothing, not death, not disease, not even the government, can overcome it. Nor old men.
Anne Lamott in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith writes: “I don’t have the right personality for the human condition. But I believe in the resurrection, in Jesus’ resurrection and in ours.” She writes for all of us, “I hate it that you can’t prove the beliefs of my faith. If I were God, I’d have the answers at the end of the workbook, so you could check as you went along, to see if you’re on the right track. But noooo—Darkness is our context, Easter’s context; without it you couldn’t see the light. Hope is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us” (p. 274).
I need to get back to putting a wrap on the sermon for Easter. I will leave you with a quote by Jürgen Moltmann on this Good Friday and conclude by saying, I hope to see you as we celebrate the resurrection on Sunday!
“Good Friday is the center of the world, but Easter morning is the Sunrise of the Coming of God and the morning of new life and it is the beginning of the future of the world.’” Jürgen Moltmann (Passion for God)