Friday, 25 March 2016

Good Friday sermon

Why do we call this day “Good”? That’s a question I’ve been asked many times over the years, often by children in schools, puzzled at what could possibly be good about this story of a man brutally tortured, betrayed by one friend and deserted by most of the rest, dying an agonising, humiliating death on the cross. Even knowing that Easter Sunday is just around the corner, it’s hard to see how this day could be called a good one. If God was going to raise Jesus to new life, why let him go through all this? Why did he have to die?

Some people have suggested that “Good Friday” was originally “God’s Friday”, but even if that were so – and there’s no strong evidence for it – it doesn’t really help us. It looks no more like God’s day than it does a good day.  This day looks like a day that belongs to Satan, to the forces of evil, to the principalities and powers that distort and maim .

And yet Christians stubbornly insist that this is Good Friday. Have we taken leave of our senses? Some people think so, but you and I who have turned up today evidently don’t, or we wouldn’t be here. If this were no more than another tragic death, another young man swallowed up by a cruel world then we wouldn’t come at all. We wouldn’t want to dwell on it, still less put it at the centre of our faith. But here we are, and we mark this day not with a funeral – that isn’t what this service is, however solemn – but  with affirmations that God still rules, that the cross is not a mistake or a failure, but the gateway to life.

In a few minutes, the choir are going to sing an anthem which I am sure many of you will know as a congregational hymn. Its words are by John Henry Newman and they contain within them an image which may help us to understand the “good” in Good Friday a little better.

Christians have used many images to try to understand what the death of Christ means. They have used images drawn from the legal system, saying  that it was a punishment taken on humanity’s behalf by Jesus. They have described it as a ransom paid to release us from the control of the enemy, or as the perfect sacrifice which put paid for the need for any further sacrifices. They have seen it as an example of self-sacrifice, a demonstration of God’s love.

All those images have their place, though it is always dangerous to press them too far. But Newman uses yet another in his hymn. “O loving wisdom of our God!/” he says, “When all was sin and shame/ a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came” . He talks about Jesus as the Second Adam. It’s an idea drawn from St Paul’s writings. In Romans 5 we hear that “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all,”  and in 1 Corinthians 15 he says “as in Adam all die; even so in Christ shall all be made alive” . Paul draws a parallel between Adam and Jesus. Adam, according to the story in the book of Genesis disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit and was cast out of Paradise, but Jesus was obedient even to death on a cross, and that changed everything, creating a new kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven”.

About a century after St Paul another Christian leader, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, gave this idea the name by which it is known in theological circles today – theological jargon alert ! It is called the “recapitulation theory of the atonement”. It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but it is a very helpful way of understanding what God is doing in Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. In Christ, this theory says, God recapitulates the life of the world.

Recapitulation means to go back through something from the beginning, to sum up your arguments, to restate your case in a different way, so people can see it afresh. That’s what God does in Christ. He goes through all the experiences we go through, touching and filling each one with his presence, so that we can learn to see ourselves, and one another, as the people God meant us to be, people who are made to reflect his love and glory.  Irenaeus said that  [Jesus] 'became what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself'. That is a pretty awesome statement, and one which Western Christianity has often downplayed, though it has always been a fundamental part of the theology of the Orthodox Churches of the East.  They call it theosis or divinisation. As Newman puts it, our “flesh and blood” are refined by “God’s presence and his very self/ and essence all divine.”

We are born into a world where no one can escape the effects of hatred, fear and prejudice.  We know that, just as Irenaeus and Paul knew it before us. We don’t need to believe in the literal truth of the book of Genesis, in a literal Adam and Eve, a literal fruit, a literal fall to understand that. We don’t have to believe in Original Sin, sin that is passed down through the act of conception either. It is just obvious that none of us can grow up unaffected, unmarred by the world around us. Before we even begin our lives, the cards are stacked against us. We fight for resources from birth, pick up prejudices from our parents, often without even being aware of it, grasp and grab in our anxiety to survive and our terror of abandonment.

But Jesus , the Second Adam, inhabits our twisted reality without being twisted himself, and so transforms it. In him God is born as a human child, grows up in a sinful world, and is eventually killed for the message of love he proclaims, but in doing so he shows that every human experience has the potential to be redeemed, reclaimed, restored, made holy by his presence. He reframes our lives, turns our priorities upside down, bit by bit, as we follow him.

“Praise to the Holiest in the height” , says Newman. Well, yes, but anyone can praise him there, it’s easy. But Newman goes on “and in the depth be praise”, because God is there also. He is there in the lives of those who today are in private desperation – grieving, anxious, ashamed – those whose lives are a mess that they can see no way out of. He is there in the streets of Brussels as that city mourns. He is there in the refugee camps among people who feel they have no home in the world, but know they still have a home in God’s heart. He is there even among the ISIS troops, even if they don’t know it – no one is denied the possibility of his love and forgiveness. If Jesus prayed for those who nailed him to the cross, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” then so can we.

And that’s why today is good. That’s why today is God’s, not Satan’s. That’s why today is holy, even before we get to the resurrection. Today is Good Friday, because today God goes to the lowest places we can go, to the places we are so often tempted to call God-forsaken, into the darkness of death, into the cruel heart of a world gone awry, and brings his light and love to it. Today God hallows our suffering as well as our joy. He declares that nowhere is beyond his reach – no place, no situation, no human heart is off limits to him.

The cross proclaims that we are not alone, never, nowhere. Our God is with us.  And wherever God is cannot be anything other than good.


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