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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Good Friday, 2012

Everyone in the story seemed to wind up at the foot of the cross when Jesus hung their and died slowly and in agonizing fashion. He suffered as he died for the sins of the world. It’s not something I would want to see, yet, somehow, the cross became a gathering place.

Of course there were Roman soldiers. They had to administer the crucifixion and they did so with a demented joy. They performed the task of hammering nails through the hand of another human being – this after they had mercilessly whipped and teased him. It wasn’t enough to beat Jesus up. They had to enjoy it and let him know they enjoyed it.

They were quite busy at the cross. It’s not easy to erect a pole with a man affixed to it and they had to do three of them. One of the soldiers was charged with sticking a spear in Jesus’ side to make sure he was dead, while others used bludgeoning instruments to break the legs of the other two convicts. Yet, for all the work, the soldiers had time for fun. Specifically, they rolled dice to see who would get to keep Jesus’ cloak.

Are they to be pitied, those men who epitomized cruelty? Someone has to be pretty numb and pretty hardened to get to the point that they can inflict such suffering. Only one who himself has been dehumanized can be so dehumanizing. Roman soldiers were there.

So too was a man of North Africa, Simon of Cyrene. He was either a Jewish man living in Cyrene, or he was a black African man who converted to Judaism. Whichever was the case, Simon came to Jerusalem from Cyrene during Passover. He was passing through right at the moment the guards were marching Jesus out to Golgotha. Jesus, weakened by the flogging, couldn’t make the walk. The soldiers grabbed an unfortunate soul out of the crowd to help – Simon.

What was that man thinking? Everyone feared the Romans and tried to avoid them. He couldn’t escape into the crowd fast enough. He found himself unwittingly at the center of the story that would change history. My guess is all he wanted to do was get that cross beam to the site and get out of Jerusalem. But in writing about him, Mark says he had his sons with him, Alexander and Rufus. There are so many characters Mark mentions where he never says a thing about familial relations. No character could be more minor than Simon of Cyrene. So why mention his kids? Would Mark’s readers know who Alexander and Rufus were? In Romans 16 names a man. “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother also, a mother to me” (v.13). Is this the same Rufus?

Oh, no. Mark’s just writing his gospel and about at the end, chapter 15, he decides, “I have not included enough detailed information, so, I’ll start now.” And he puts in the names of the sons of a character that is only mentioned in one verse? We don’t know what went through Simon of Cyrene’s head when he was helping Jesus carry the cross. But something happened in his heart that day or soon thereafter. His sons became so involved in the movement of the church, the apostle Paul calls one of them“chosen in the Lord.” And Paul says Simon’s wife was a mother-figure for the apostle himself.

Simon of Cyrene was there. Roman soldiers were there. Who else was at the cross watching as Jesus died?

The religious leaders who condemned Jesus were there rubbing his nose in it. “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” They had already won by getting the verdict and getting the Romans to do the dirty work (which the Romans were all too eager to do). Now they had to add their two cents worth. “So he is the king of Israel, is he? Let him come down from that cross right now, and we will believe him” (Matthew 27:42).

There were even crowds saying the same thing. People, who had nothing to do with the events or the trial or Jesus, people who were just passing by, stopped the way we do when we see a car crash on the highway. Hopefully when we stop, it is to dial 9-1-1 or help. Not these gawkers. It was like, “Hey here’s someone suffering gruesomely. Let’s watch this, and we’ll play along and mock him as he dies.”

Everyone was there at the cross, watching Jesus’ misery. Roman soldiers; Simon of Cyrene and his boys; religious officials from the temple; anonymous travelers; all get mentioned in the stories in the gospels. So too do a group of women who followed Jesus. Each gospel names some of these women. The list of names is different each time. I am not sure we could put together a comprehensive list of Jesus’ female disciples. They probably included a former prostitute. Jesus’ mother and the mother of James and John were most likely among them. At least a few had money because Luke write in chapter 8 of his gospel that the women disciples were the financial backers who made sure Jesus and the disciples had bread money. We don’t hear a lot of sermons on that passage from the folks who insist that men have to be the head of the household and the boss and the controller of all things in the family and in life. This group of women followed Jesus through every step of the tortured journey. It is also Luke who tells us Jesus speaks to them as he makes his way to Golgotha telling them not to weep for him but for themselves for his passion is a time of judgment and many did not follow Jesus. Those who did not and do not today have to stand before God in their sins without Jesus’ help.

The women were there at the cross. There was a man with them. John’s gospel tells us it was the “disciple whom he loved” (John 19:26). Most readers take that to be the Apostle John, but I am not sure. It says in John 11 that a man named Lazarus was beloved of Jesus. “Beloved” here indicates a special, deep friendship. It is not something erotic or sexual, but filial. I would say of my roommate from college that I love him deeply. John’s gospel says that is how Jesus felt about Lazarus. Was the “beloved disciple” who stood at the foot of the cross Lazarus and not John? I don’t know that we can be sure. Either way, this beloved one stood with the women as they wept and Jesus spoke to him. He entrusted the care of his mother to this disciple. Everyone was there at the cross.

What an odd gathering place. It still is a gathering place, only there’s nothing odd about it now. We’re all here in church on Good Friday. Millions of churches, who like us worship on Sunday, are worshipping today as we are. In languages that would sound strange to most of us – Amharic, Farsi, Mandarin – people around the world worship Jesus. But some of us here, gathered in this place, speak those and a hundred other languages. The universal draw of Jesus’ accomplishment attracts everyone. There are people reading the same scriptures in languages we have found to be hostile – German, 70 years ago; Russian 25 years ago; and languages we find hostile today. Millions of passionately devoted Christ followers worship our Lord and theirs in Arabic. It’s Good Friday. Everyone comes together.

Well, not everyone. Millions of people around us and billions around the world are not in church, worshiping, commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus as a sacrificial death for the sins of the world. I don’t mean here people who are devoted believers but for whatever reason could not make it into church. I mean billions who are not interested in Jesus’ message. They’re not with the church tonight or at any time. But, they do have a role in the story. They play the role of bullying Romans and scoffing religious leaders and mocking crowds and Greeks who challenged Paul in Athens and legalists who tried to assault the early church by denying the sufficiency of the cross for salvation and Gnostics who denied Jesus’ humanity. All the enemies of the gospel from the days of Jesus and the days of the early church still exist today, just in different forms.

We who we weep at his death and rejoice at what comes after (but we’ll save that for Sunday) are not superior to those outside the church. We’re here because we are miserable sinners and we know and we have receive forgiveness, new life, and a fresh start. We receive it all because God gives it. He gives it in the form of his only son, Jesus, dying on the cross for us. As we read in Hebrews 11, “By single offering [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” All who have the Holy Spirit are sanctified. You, me, everyone; all who confess with their mouths and believe in the Lordship of Jesus in their hearts are saved, sanctified, and invited into God’s love. We enter the Bible says by the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 10:19). It’s Good Friday, and it is good because Jesus died thus giving us life.

The early church was comprised of late first century communities that reflected on what Jesus and what that meant for their identity. There was not just one answer. Read 1st, 2nd, and 3rdJohn; it’s not the same as James. James is not very similar to 1st & 2nd Timothy. The Timothys and the Johns and Jude are different that Revelation. I don’t find anything contradictory in these early communities, our spiritual ancestors. They all proclaimed Jesus, but uniquely. Their proclamation and their worship was related to their context.

What was going on when the church that received the letter we call Hebrews, anonymously written, celebrated Good Friday? As we have said previously, the writer wanted that church to reflect theologically and also pragmatically on what it meant to be in relationship with God through Jesus. In addressing the cross, the community knew as we know that crucifixion ended in resurrection. The emotion was not grief but joy at knowing forgiveness is complete, and also determination. Because the story of Jesus true, we won’t let it go even if someone tries to force us to, even if they torture us. We hold fast to our confession (Hebrews 10:23).

Moreover, Hebrews 10 says that in light what the bloody cross means – our sins wiped away– we must provoke one another. What? Hold fast to confession; we understand that. Jesus did because it was true. He died, but he held fast. We must also hold fast. But provoke one another? We provoke one another to love, Hebrews 10:24 says, to love and to the doing of good deeds. For that community, Good Friday was certainly an occasion for deep, meaningful worship. It was also a time to remember who they were in Christ and what God was calling them to do in the world on the Easter side of Good Friday. The beauty of having the witness of all those New Testament communities before us the Bible – 1st & 2nd Peter, Titus, Philemon, James, Revelation, Hebrews, and others – the beauty of it is it all informs us as we understand who God is leading us to be.

We are who we are in Christ when we are together. Good Friday is for us because Jesus is for us. One more note from Hebrews 10; it says, “Do not neglect to meet together … but encourage one another” (v.25). The women disciples were together at Jesus’ cross. The men, who ran and hid, were called together by the resurrected Christ. We are together in worship, when we receive forgiveness and when we lift our praise. Together we provoke one another to love and good deeds done in Jesus’ name. Tonight, together, we will hear the entire passion story read in a merging of the four witnesses, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We’ll experience the whole story because Jesus is for us and Good Friday is story of our salvation.


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