Friday, 18 April 2014

Good Friday: Is it nothing to you?

In a few minutes the choir are going to sing an anthem which might be familiar to many of you, The Appeal of the Crucified, from Stainer’s Crucifixion. “From the Throne of his Cross, the King of Grief cries out to a world of unbelief. “O men and women, afar and nigh, is it nothing to you, all you that pass by?”

Stainer’s oratorio is a traditional part of Good Friday for many people. Written in 1887, with words by W.J. Sparrow Simpson , it has fallen from popularity somewhat – it is very much of its time. But it can still have quite an impact. It’s based on traditional words for Good Friday, words from the book of Lamentations in which the prophet Jeremiah is mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Does no one care? he cries “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow…”

The other influence on the the anthem comes from words known traditionally as the Reproaches in which God calls to his people, shaking them out of their apathy.
My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, but you led your Saviour to the cross.

I’ve used the Reproaches sometimes in this service for Good Friday, and my experience is that they aren’t comfortable words to read, or to hear. “It wasn’t my fault that Jesus died”, I want to protest, and of course, in a way that’s right. I wasn’t there back in the first century when Christ was crucified – neither were you. But the point is that if we had been, would we have acted any better than those who were? At best, like his friends, we might have looked on from a distance. At worst we might have been baying for his blood. More likely we would have just kept our heads down,  turned away and tried to get on with our own lives. Perhaps we’d have done so with a shudder of fear or even disapproval. It could have been us pinned up there on the cross if we had stepped out of line the way Jesus did.

Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by? asks Jesus from the cross.

Stainer’s anthem isn’t really about what happened 2000 years ago in Jerusalem. It is about how we react to suffering and need today. All too often we turn away. It is nothing to us, nothing to do with us. They’ve probably brought it on themselves by their own fecklessness or recklessness. If only they’d done this, or hadn’t done that, all would be well. After all, we’ve managed our lives ok, haven’t  we?

And perhaps we have – until misfortune or illness strikes us, of course. It’s only when we find ourselves on the other side of the fence that we realise how wounding those attitudes can be. Often the misfortune or illness is the least of the problems. It is the feelings of isolation, humiliation and helplessness and the the sense of being judged which really hurt.

That is why the crucifixion is so challenging, and so important. Jesus is no superman. His terror in Gethsemane, knowing his death is coming is no less than ours would be. His pain is no less as he dies on the cross. There is no golden glow that proclaims it will be all right in the end. We look back on the crucifixion with the gift of hindsight, but at the time it was just one more squalid death, like so many others.

And yet somehow those who saw it up close knew that there was something holy about this man, something holy about this death. “Surely this man was the Son of God “ the soldiers who crucify him say in wonder, and a squalid death becomes a glorious proclamation of the love of God, shown in Jesus by his refusal to turn back from his message, even when it cost him his life. And in him we see that the deepest human suffering can be transformed. What looks like the end is a new beginning. What looks like a place of death and loss becomes a fountain of life.  

Stainer’s anthem begins with the words “From the throne of his cross”. In the kingdom of God it is love not power that counts. And that means that crosses can be thrones, and the place of suffering can also be a place of blessing.

The picture I've put on your service sheets has stirred up opposition in some places where it’s been displayed.  Timothy Shmaltz’s “Homeless Jesus” is a life size statue of a sleeping figure on a park bench, apparently so lifelike that some people have thought it was a real person and called the police to come and move him on. It’s only on closer inspection that you realise that the feet poking out of the end of the blanket have nail marks in them.

Even then, though, some people have objected to having the statue in their neighbourhood. One woman put her objection in a nutshell. “Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help…” she said. “We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is also needy”
Somehow, though she sounds as if she’d call herself a Christian, I can’t help feeling she’s missed the point. On the cross Jesus is indeed helpless. There are no miracles on offer, no last minute rescue. But the truth is even better. God is with him and in him just as he is, suffering and dying. God is working in the darkness, as well as in the light. And his promise is that he can with us in our darkness and helplessness too.

Timothy Schmaltz very deliberately made the bench on which his homeless Jesus lies a bit longer than the figure itself. He wanted to leave enough space for people to come and sit on it, next to the sleeping figure, perhaps to pray for others in need, perhaps to pray for themselves. In doing so, he hoped that they would discover that the God who walked with Jesus through the pain of death to the glory of resurrection, would never desert them either. Pray God that we should find this truth as well.


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