Sermon for Good Friday (The Solemn Liturgy of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ), April 6, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9
Psalm 22John 18:1-19:42

At the foot of the cross

A few weeks ago I was sitting over supper with a group of family members.  As we finished our dessert, we started chatting, as our family does sometimes, about what Garrison Keillor would call “life’s persistent questions.”  For instance, in what ways do we change when we know that we are deeply loved?  What makes us feel creative and alive?  What happens when we die?  I can’t remember what sparked it, but with a burst of energy, my ten-year-old grandson, Noah, suddenly exclaimed, “What I want to know is: what’s up with having a crucifix in church?  It’s so gruesome.  Come on, there are children here!”

A ripple of laughter flowed around the table, followed by a rather pregnant pause.  I had the distinct impression that all eyes were about to turn toward me.  Was I going to answer Noah’s question or not?  I looked at him for a moment, considering what to say, and finally offered a few thoughts.  The conversation moved mercifully on.  But it is to Noah that I want to dedicate my homily tonight, for he asked a question that deserves a more complete answer.  Why do Christians focus so much on the cross?   What does the cross mean to us? 

Some critics dismiss the cross as proof that Christians are ghoulishly, even morbidly, fascinated with suffering and death.  But it’s obvious that Jesus didn’t value suffering for its own sake, as if being in pain were inherently virtuous or ennobling.  Jesus was not a masochist.  In all four Gospels there are times when Jesus deliberately avoided attack.  In John’s Gospel, the one from which we read tonight, Jesus sometimes steered clear of trouble by traveling in secret (John 7:10; 11:54), and during a visit to the temple he hid from an angry crowd that was about to throw stones at him (John 8:59).  After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he removed himself from public view and hid with his disciples until the night of the Last Supper (John 12:36b). 

Jesus did not seek out suffering.  Suffering was not his goal.  What Jesus did seek was to do the will of God.  His goal, as we heard in tonight’s Gospel, was “to testify to the truth” (John:18:37): to let the divine life flow through him and to carry that healing, redeeming, transforming love into every situation, whatever the cost — “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18, citing Isaiah).  When that message of liberating love came up against the powers-that-be of this world — the forces of cruelty, hatred, greed, and injustice — Jesus stood with the powerless and poor, the oppressed and forgotten, and was willing to suffer pain and be crucified. 

Love shone out from the cross that day, a love that has never died and that can never die, a love that continues to abide at the center of things and whose length and depth and breadth and height we humans are still groping to understand.

Yes, Noah, the cross is gruesome, but to Christians it expresses a divine love that is willing to go anywhere, even into the darkest, loneliest, and most brutal places of the world, and of our own selves, to embrace and transform everything it touches. 

I want to tell about a time I glimpsed the power of the cross with particular clarity.  One April morning back in 1995, a bomb exploded in a federal building in Oklahoma City.  I’m sure that many of you remember that event.  One hundred and sixty eight people were killed that day, including nineteen children. When I heard about it on TV and in the newspapers, I resolutely did not pray.  I refused to pray the next day, too.  Who wants to pray about suffering like that?  Who wants to get close to that much pain, or the evil that caused it?  Far better to keep busy, keep moving.  I intended to put my head down and look away.  I was sure that the bombing had nothing to do with me.

I held out for as long as I could, but within a few days I was practically propelled to my prayer cushion, as if my whole body had taken in what had happened and needed to pray every part of it through, as if my own body needed to find Christ’s body in the enormity of that pain.  When I was finished praying, I scribbled down what I had seen and heard in the silence of my heart.  I called it “A Prayer after the Oklahoma City Bombing”:1

I am the building that was blown apart by a bomb in the “heartland” of America.  My heart is blown open.  The front of me falls away: I am the gaping floors, the broken glass, the dangling wires, the film of concrete dust that rises into the air.

This is my body.

I am the children who were killed: the little ones, the innocent, tender little people full of play and laughter.  The babies.

This is my body.

I am the women and men who were killed, the mother, father, husband, wife, grandparent, neighbor, relative, friend, startled by death on an ordinary day.

This is my body.

I am those who mourn: the suddenly bereaved, the shocked, the bereft.  I am the mother clutching a picture of her two children, the husband grieving his newly-wed wife.

This is my body.

I am the rescue workers, the medical personnel, those who hope against hope, and those who are faithful even when there is no hope, those who press on into the rubble, searching for the living, the wounded, the dead, searching for what is human, for what is loved.

This is my body.

I am the ones who planned and planted the bomb: the hardhearted, the fearful, the numb and angry ones who no longer care.  (When Timothy McVeigh is shown pictures of the dead, particularly dead children, he has no reaction at all.  Says one source, “[There was] nothing.  Zero reaction from that son of a bitch.  This guy is a stone.”)

This is my body.

I am the ones who fill the airwaves with venom and hate.  “Take them out in the desert and blow them up.” “Shoot ’em.”  “I hope they fry.”

This is my body.

I am the Holy Spirit, brooding over our bent world with bright wings.  I am the wings of Jesus, tenderly outstretched above the city, sheltering everything and everyone beneath.

This is my body.

I cannot hold it all.  I hand it to you, Jesus.  Hold it with me. 

And suddenly I see that I am handing you the cross: here, you carry it.  I cannot.

And he has taken it up.  He is carrying all of this, all of this.  The dead, the wounded, and those who mourn; the killers and those who were killed; the frightened, the angry, the sorrowful — he is carrying all of this, all of us, every part of us, into the loving heart of God.

 Looking back on that prayer, I am reminded that we hold everything in our bodies, that our body-selves already sense – even if dimly – our kinship with all things.  The moment we discover that kinship and make it conscious, compassion is born.  Everything is in us, and everything is held in love.

That long-ago prayer, which began in anguish and ended in joy, also showed me that if I prayed everything that was in me, eventually I would perceive my connection with everyone else.  I am the murderer and the one who is murdered; I am the abuser and the one who is abused; I am the hunter and the animal that is shot.  I am human, and everything human is in me — as it is in you.  And all of it is joined to the body of Christ, whose incarnation catches up every aspect of humanity and whose suffering love, poured out on the cross, embraces the lost and the forsaken, the embittered and the angry — even someone like you, even someone like me.  No one is left out of that loving embrace — neither the torturer nor the tortured, neither the perpetrator nor the victim.  I agree with theologian Richard Rohr, who says that this is exactly how Jesus redeemed the world “by the blood of the cross.”2   The crucifixion, he writes, “…was not some kind of heavenly transaction, or ‘paying a price’ to God, as much as a cosmic communion with all that humanity has ever loved and ever suffered.”

So when Noah asks, “Why do you care about the cross?” I want to tell him:

Because it is here at the cross that Jesus holds what we can’t hold, and bears what we can’t bear.

Because it is here at the cross that all our malice and ignorance, all our willfulness and pettiness and hardheartedness are continually met by the love of God.

Because it is here that we see God’s willingness to be utterly vulnerable, and here that we learn that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Because here we are set free from the power of death, and set free as well from the endless, futile attempt to save ourselves and to earn our own salvation. 

What do we see when we gaze at the cross of Christ?  A love without bounds, a love without limits.   

Tonight we venerate the cross, and we give thanks.

1. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “A Prayer after the Oklahoma City Bombing,” Women’s Uncommon Prayers, ed. Elizabeth Rankin Geitz, Marjorie Burke, Ann Smith, Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2000), pp. 276-277.

2. Richard Rohr, “Holy Week: Good Friday, April 6, 2012,” daily email meditation adapted from The Great Themes of Scripture (no longer available; see New Great Themes of Scripture”: http://store.cacradicalgrace.org