That answer satisfied me then, mainly because whenever my quiet grandfather answered my questions, I listened. Now I know there is much more to the issue of suffering and salvation than an either-or answer. Much of Jesus’ life and teaching rests on paradox. Jesus challenges us to live in tension: the first will be last, lose your life to gain it, the burden is light, those who come late will be paid the same as those who worked hard all day. His very human death was no different: Suffering is a way to salvation.
The cross symbolizes suffering and salvation. Today we embrace the suffering. And although we know the end of the story, today we sit at the foot of Christ being crucified. As a child it may have felt good to have the clean cross of victory and salvation, but I learned you cannot live without the flip side of the crucifixion. This very emotional day tells us precisely that: we cannot have one without the other. It is something to contemplate. In pursuit of that, I give you two questions to ponder.
The first question is: Why are you here? The second is: What is saving you today?
Why are you here? What brings you to this place on this black Friday they call Good Friday? Are you here out of habit because this is simply what you do during Holy Week? Is it because Fr. Christopher told you to go for a home run? Is it for an emotional high or low?
Are you here because you, too, are feeling crucified and want company? Or is it because you simply wonder about this day and are trying to understand what the Gospeler John meant when he wrote: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” What kind of God do we have anyway?
Is there a more subtle reason? Do you have this nagging feeling that perhaps you have not been able to hold your ground in this post-Christian era and too many times you were guilty of shouting “crucify him” without saying the words out loud. Perhaps your actions didn’t reflect your heart. Perhaps it was just easier to keep your mouth shut than to open it and reflect the heart of Christ. Perhaps you are here to just say to God that you are sorry.
Well, there are as many reasons for being here as there are persons in this place. Times haven’t changed. In the 4th century there was a pilgrim named Etheria (or Egeria or Sylvia…we are not sure or her name) who travelled from Spain to Jerusalem and kept an extensive diary which included the events of Holy Week in the Holy City.
In her account of Good Friday, she relates that when it came time to venerate the cross, the Bishop seated himself at a table behind the large crossbeam, holding the beam firmly in both hands. Two hefty deacons stationed themselves at either end of the beam as the faithful came by to kiss the cross in memory of Jesus’ sufferings. Etheria writes that this precaution resulted from an incident several years earlier when a pious pilgrim, anxious for a relic, took a bite out of the cross instead of kissing it.
I agree with the commentator who says this story holds a warning for us. As we gather here to remember Jesus’ death, we must guard against becoming that ancient pilgrim with strong teeth and splinters in his gums. We could say, “Look! I was there! I can tell you about the emotions, the music, the words, the silences.” I showed up.
Whatever brings us here, Jesus on the cross is our common ground. Why are you here? Are you a pilgrim looking for a relic? Are you a casual visitor searching for answers? There are answers at the foot of the cross. But how does one sort out the intense suffering and the resulting salvation? Here is one analogy: Think of yourself as parents who are bedside of their very sick child and are praying to God to let them bear the pain instead of their child, not because they are masochistic or guilty, but simply because they love the one who is suffering.
Today’s Good Friday Liturgy invites us to embrace the suffering of Jesus on the cross as we would the pain of a family member or friend we love deeply. (Read quote from Nouwen’s Road to Daybreak) And through our prayers in this service we are invited to embrace not only Jesus’ suffering, but the suffering of our brothers and sisters throughout the world. A commentator continues, “The cross is raised before us, not as a souvenir taken down from the shelf and dusted off for our admiration, but as the bed of our suffering brother, who incarnates and bears the world’s pain.”
“Like all the events of his life, the death of Jesus stands as our judgment. We can respond to it like curious tourists, who look and then move on, little changed except for some painful splinters. Or we can recognize the face of the one we love, though ‘marred beyond human appearance,’ and embrace his pain as ours, In that embrace, we find our own pain enfolded in God’s love, united with the world’s pain and healed because Christ first loved us and embraced our pain.” (Author unknown. Excerpt beginning with story Etheria comes from Homily Service: An Ecumenical Resource for Sharing the Word, Vol.20, No.1, April 1987,pp. 27-28)
Why are you here today? My second question folds into the first: What is saving you now? I was away from the parish for most of Lent. As a Lenten study, many here read Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World. I read it a couple of years ago when it first came out and frankly had not reread it for our communal study. But when I picked up the book last week, I found I had highlighted the story in the introduction where Ms Taylor relates that she was invited to preach on the topic of “what is saving your life now.” BBT writes, “It was as if he(the priest)had swept his arm across a dusty table and brushed all the formal china to the ground. I did not have to try to say correct things that were true for everyone. I did not have to use theological language that conformed to the historical teachings of the church. All I had to do was figure out what my life depended on. All I had to do was figure out how I stayed as close to that reality as I could, and then find some way to talk about is that helped my listeners figure those same things for themselves. The answers I gave all those years ago are not the same answers I would give today—that is the beauty of the question….the principle is the same. What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth.” (unquote,p.xv)
No spiritual treasure exists apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. That is precisely what Jesus taught by his life and death. We say: Jesus is my Lord and Savior. Jesus saved me. What does that mean? How is Jesus your Savior? How is Jesus your Salvation? What does he teach? What does Jesus say to you? What does his suffering on the cross and death do to save you?
What, indeed, is saving you now? Now, this moment. The answer can and will change. Here are only a few things I have discovered for myself. It isn’t a job that saves me. For years I depended on my various job identities in church work to explain to the world who I was. It isn’t my good looks. I still have a great smile that has blasted me through and saved me a lot of times. But I am, friends, growing older and am shaped differently and I have a decided limp. Good looks aren’t going to save me. Alcohol saved me from reality for many years. It helped me to get away from inner pain, to go somewhere else. It no longer saves me, it will in fact kill me if I abuse it.
I say Jesus is my Savior. What do I mean? I mean just that. Jesus teaches me how to live in paradox, how to live mindfully each moment in this world if I simply pay attention. It’s pretty simple because it’s about embracing the suffering in a circle of love that reflects God’s love to me and to the world. It is about relationships. It is living out the great commandment to love God with all your heart and mind and soul. And if you love God, you must surely love God’s creation, this earth, our planet home. I felt it more than ironic that during this Holy Week we remembered the first anniversary of the Gulf spill, that we continue to read of the impact of nuclear power uncontrolled in Japan, and today is in fact Earth Day. I find it hard to believe that my husband Fred as a reporter covered the first Earth Day in 1970 in Bloomington,Indiana.
Another sermon might be: Are we crucifying the earth which is, in fact, the same as crucifying God? More simply, sitting at the foot of the cross, we might ask ourselves if we are playing any part in causing the earth’s suffering. Are we, in fact, connected to everyone and everything, by the arms of Jesus stretched out on the cross? That is connected, of course, to the rest of the great commandment. Jesus says, to love the Lord your God with all you heart and mind and soul. The second is like unto it: love your neighbor as you love yourself. Can you love your neighbor, can you love God if you don’t love yourself?
Can you embrace the suffering? Can you prepare yourself to walk from the foot of the cross and through the cross knowing you are not alone? Can you wear a two sided cross of suffering and salvation on your chest and in your heart?
Why are you here? What is saving you now? Amen