Friday, April 18, 2014

The Good Friday Project

Sermon Notes Good Friday, 2014

Good Fridays were always busy for my family. As a high schooler, I remember hearing the passion according to John’s gospel in our little mission church, and then driving up the road from McPherson, Kansas, to Lindsborg, where my parents and I would play in the annual performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It was, at one level, my first acquaintance with the distinctions between two biblical renditions of the passion narrative. It was, at another level, finding a way to really begin to grapple with the texts at the very heart of our religious tradition. As a youth, Bach’s musical treatment of the passion always moved me, as he would capture the emotion of each verse and repeat it in glorious counterpoint passing between orchestral sections and the double choir. . . until its meaning sank into the very depths of the soul. It was, you might say, a striking example of eighteenth-century lectio divina.

I remember my first Good Friday without playing in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion as a capstone, and how empty I felt without it. Recovering a sense of deep engagement with the passion narrative then became part of my struggle to grow up spiritually, to grow up in faith.

Richard Rohr argues, “All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. . . Great religion shows you what to do with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust.”

Good Friday is precisely about all these things, and no amount of theology seems to get us beyond the absurd, tragic, the nonsensical, and the unjust nature of the passion. And yet, it is tempting as we have often done in the Western Church: to simply project all of that onto Jesus, call it redemptive, and then go home. But that, we all learn sooner or later, is not enough.

One of the great steps in my own journey was to reflect in recent years with my spiritual director on my own pain and suffering. At a critical point in that conversation, I finally said out loud – with more than a little trepidation after years of ordained ministry – that I had learned my pain and suffering were nothing compared with others’.

“Yes,” he replied, “but it is still your suffering and pain.” No one else’s. Just as much in need of redemption as anyone else’s. And no amount of undertaking the odious task of comparing my suffering with others’, or denying it, or looking for the right pill – spiritual or otherwise – to take it all away would accomplish that.

Until we are ready and willing to see the cross as God’s identification with our own suffering, individual and shared, we will not get past treating Jesus as only a mere scapegoat, only a cosmic carrier of our sins. Jesus’ suffering, much as we often misapprehend our own prayers and theology, is not a simple substitute for ours. Good Friday always ran the risk of turning into an abstraction for me: the next step in completing a theological formula that would perhaps end all my heartache and pain. But reality ultimately confronts and challenges our abstract notions about salvation. Most of us learn through the trials of experience that no matter how much we focus on Jesus’ suffering or think about it, it doesn’t take away our own. I often wonder if this isn’t an unspoken reason that many people leave the church or abandon Christianity all together. At our worst moments, the Church has sometimes behaved no better than snake oil salesmen, promising relief if you buy the mythical magic formula.

But we must learn that Jesus’ suffering is not some great cosmic talisman to ward off our pain. And the Church is not a simple pharmacy where we pick up our medicine and then go home and follow the prescription.

No, Christ’s suffering faces and transforms ours. In the old language, his redeems ours. His takes on the absurdity, tragedy, nonsense, and the injustice of our lives and makes it – sometimes with great endurance and sweat – all something holy. Through the cross, he takes the awful pain and messiness of this life and infuses it with meaning, purpose, and transformational power. And if we let the cross do this work in our lives, it not only transforms us, but turns us into true Christians, ready to help transform the pain and suffering of others. That is what we might call the project of Good Friday – a project that begins with Jesus, and into which each of us is called. We have been, of course, very much like the disciples, running away in fear and denial. And yet the cross remains: our invitation to become part of the mighty salvific act that God is offering all of humanity in Christ.

As a healthy religion, our tradition of the cross encourages us to offer our pain to God. Sometimes it will be relieved. Sometimes it will remain. But either way, the promise is that it will be transformed into grace for us. As a great religion, our tradition of the cross offers us a pathway to transform the suffering of others as well. Sometimes we will be able to relieve that suffering. Sometimes we will not. But either way, the cross calls us into the transformative acts of compassion that end the loneliness that suffering engenders. We then carry it together, lightening the load for one another. And God in Christ carries all of us together.
In that way, we see that our suffering is shared, and ultimately made holy. In that, we partake in God’s sharing with us in Christ, broken in the bread, poured out in the common cup. All that has blighted our life, then, is re-purposed for redemption. Our suffering is like Jesus’, and his like ours: offered out of love rather than resisted or denied in fear. And our life, like Jesus’, becomes an offering poured out for all the needs of others.

Recovering a deep engagement with the passion narratives for me began with recovering a fuller sense of my own pain and suffering, my need to see that redeemed, and my choosing to actively participate in that redemption. And that is where we all begin again together on Good Friday: at the cross, with the suffering of Christ identifying with our own, remembering our place on the cross with him, and seeing in his eyes our own reflected back. . . and through them, a God who loves us so earnestly that no part of us is beyond the renewing, life-giving touch of the divine.

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