St. Michael and All Angels, Albuquerque, NM
The Rev. Carolyn W. Metzler+
At the risk of sounding irreverent, the first part of today’s Gospel reads like a very bad play that can’t quite get off the ground. After all the build-up, the Last Supper, the foot washing, the new commandment, Jesus’ high priestly prayer, we arrive in the Garden where the greatest betrayal in history is about to take place, but they just can’t quite get it together. It is a familiar place, where Jesus and his disciples had gathered before at happier times. It was a place of intimacy, where friendship had been celebrated. They’d certainly picnicked here, enjoyed conversation, maybe napped under the trees on when the air was still on hot afternoons. It was a reasonable place to go now. And everybody shows up. Judas, with his battalion of soldiers, the temple police, the Pharisees—all who had been plotting and scheming for this moment for a long time. They couldn’t WAIT to get their hands on him. Jesus had the opening line. “For whom are you looking?” They all answered in rehearsed union: “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Literally, his words are “I, I AM,” the name of God. That’s when it all went wrong—perhaps some realized they were in the wrong play, or playing the wrong part. They fell back, some to the ground. Hey wait a minute—we’re supposed to be the good guys! The director yelled “CUT!” and they started again. “For whom are you looking?” “Jesus of Nazareth.” “I told you, I am he. I, I AM. You’ve got me. Let’s these men go.” And then Simon, always the one to act before thinking, grabbed his sword and sliced off the ear of Malchus. I tried to imagine this when Judith read it last night. Do you realize how hard it is to cut off an ear with a sword? That wasn’t in the script, either. It was one bungled beginning.
There is only one person in this whole fiasco of an arrest who is calm, and in control, and that is Jesus. His own time of temptation had passed, his time of doubt, his terrible dread. He had come through it. He was clear, focused, and not about to abandon course at this point. If love was the goal, love was also the way there, and that way led to the cross. Once Jesus was taken into custody, his had no more control over events. Control, the ability to affect the outcome of things, had been surrendered by him. He was without control. But he was not without power.
A little over twelve years ago, I attended an execution in South Carolina. I was the companioning chaplain for Andy Smith, a man I had befriended 16 years earlier, a man I had come to love and respect. We had talked about this event, and how he could approach a death over which he had no control. Every moment of that night of horror, Andy maintained unwavering grace, dignity, and presence. The guards, with whom he had developed a friendship, clearly did not want to do what they had to do. They apologized as they prepared him for death. I’ll spare you the details. Executions are horrifying, especially when they are supposedly humane. But strapped to the gurney, Andy forgave them. The scene was not too dissimilar from our first Gospel. I watched them lash him down and was overwhelmed with rage. I hold the rank of brown belt in karate and had a momentary impulse to take down about three of the guards, stomp on the needles, and halt the appalling chain of events which were coursing down the single trajectory of death. That action would have succeeded in getting me thrown out in disgrace and never permitted to set foot in a prison again; it would have delayed his execution by about five minutes and he would have died without the presence of a single person who loved him. I had no control over these events. But I was not without power. I could pray, and I prayed mightily. I could sing, and I sang the Trisagion loudly enough that it was picked up by the Associated Press reporters in the witness booth. I could love, and love him I did. In that place of incarnate evil, I could bring love and song and prayer, even if I couldn’t stop the execution. Those three actions were far more subversive than impulsive violence.
Throughout the crucifixion narrative, Jesus is a man of power. I came to understand Good Friday quite differently this year while I was preparing a sermon on the Transfiguration. There Jesus was on the holy mount, speaking with Moses and Elijah, and he was “talking with them about his departure which he would accomplish in Jerusalem.” I thought “departure” was an odd word to use for “death,” or “crucifixion.” It sounds like he’s headed for the airport, not for Golgotha. So I looked up the original word which we translate “departure,” and what do you know—it’s “exodus.” Like early sun breaking over a canyon wall flooding the valley with dazzling light, Good Friday was transformed for me. Jesus is not a victim, powerless and helpless against his tormenters. With that one little word, Jesus is the new Moses, leading all God’s people out of slavery to death and the endless cycles of revenge and retribution. This “exodus” is something which he was to accomplish. It was an achievement reached because no torturer, no execution team, no temple police, no religious authorities could take away who he was and what he was about. Shortly before he died, Andy had told me of all the humiliations he had suffered in a cruel attempt to dehumanize him. I asked him how he could remain so cheerful in the face of it all. He gave me this great smile, spread his big hands across the glass separating us and said, “They can’t take nothin’ from me that I don’t choose to give ‘em.” Andy also knew the difference between having no control, and having no power.
The Mystery of it all for me is that this power that Jesus maintained throughout his torturous death came precisely because he “emptied himself,” in the words of Paul in Philippians. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not equate equality with God as something to be grasped, but he emptied himself; he poured himself out and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross.” We read it last Sunday. Godly power is not something to be grasped, earned, manipulated, or honed through workshops and seminars. Jesus had power simply because he let everything go except love. What he was called, what he wore, what he was thought of by others simply didn’t matter. All the things that make for false ego, Jesus could let go like so much chaff in the wind. What gave him power to lead us Like Moses through the wilderness that day was not what he had, but what he released. Only love remained, for his executioners, for his absent disciples, for the terrified Peter, for the slave of the high priest with the bleeding ear. It was love that gave him the power to accomplish what no amount of control could ever fulfill.
When we are invited to “take up our cross and follow him,” the centrality of love is at the heart of that also. Taking up our cross is not about petty Lenten disciplines, certainly not about giving up chocolate (sorry!), not how noble we are because we put up with someone obnoxious. Taking up our cross is not even about coping with cancer or a difficult parent. Taking up our cross is not some unexpected hardship that comes our way. Taking up our cross is about knowing where the real source of our power is—and is not. It is not in our competence, or our wealth, or our education. Real power is not even in how holy we are. It rests only and completely in our openness to the self-emptying God who goes all the way to the cross—and beyond it—to demonstrate God’s limitless love. Real power has nothing to do with how much we control events or other people. It has everything to do with our on-going, evolving surrender to the God who emptied Godself completely to become us; to be born with our birth, live our life, and die our death. Real power is about knowing that we live God’s life, and opening ourselves as fully as we can to that grace. God lived our life, so we can live God’s life.
What began as a bumbled scene in a Garden became a passionate drama where all the forces of life, death, authority, fear, forgiveness and love are played out to their fullest. In life, Jesus’ arms opened wide to embrace all who would follow him. In death, Jesus’ arms opened even wider, embracing those who knew not what they did, embracing those disciples who abandoned him. Beyond the cross his arms continually open wider and wider to embrace us with all our failings and all our betrayals, our bad choices, our ego-driven obsessions. He is the Lover of all he has created, drawing us into that embrace. It is there, in that embrace from the Cross that we find his love has freed us and made us whole. And that, brothers and sisters, is why we call this Friday “Good.” Amen.