Sermon, Good Friday, 29 March 2024 – the Vicar

When I was growing up, Reverend Rankin’s sermons featured on high days and holy days, when he would tackle mysterious or difficult Bible passages by swerving disputatious detail in favour of the main message. “The main thing is the plain thing”,he was fond of saying, “It will also get us home in good time for dinner.” Here is a fine grasp of how Christianity is grounded in and speaks to both physical life and spiritual hunger. No wonder we are moved on this momentous day when we approach his cross in veneration.

Today, amidst the celebration of the Lord’s passion, a precious and intricate act of
remembrance and worship, the epistle from Hebrews provides a summary answer to the main question: Why do we call this Friday ‘Good’?

From Chapter 10 of this mysterious New Testament book by an unknown author: “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.” A dazzling promise: in relationship with God, the heart becomes a thinking organ and the human mind possess perfect memory of how to life righteously whilst God cancels his memory of our failings .

For ‘after those days’, read the Triduum Sacrum – the Sacred Three Days of Paschal Mystery dramatically presented as passion, death, and resurrection. Every year, we are invited to walk with Jesus on the path to the cross, through the cross, and beyond the cross…the path that defines the Christian Way.

Today, we are in the very thick of it. As our transfigured saviour revealed to Moses and Elijah on the Mountain, he will soon achieve perfection of the first exodus from bondage, restoring the relationship of God Almighty with his beloved creation, and healing a fatal estrangement from his love and holiness by their sinful choices. Jesus is fully empowered and committed to God the Father’s plan for redemption, willingly entering history in occupied First Century Israel as fully man AND fully God. In the same way, the story of Good Friday plays out in physical and historical terms whilst it fulfils the highest spiritual function.

On Good Friday, the humanity of the son of Man is nakedly and humbly displayed. On Good Friday, the divinity of the incarnated Christ of God fulfills the Scripture and its Laws. On Good Friday, our Lord’s obedience unto sacrificial death washes away all our sin, once and for all, with his sacred blood.

Sadly, many of the details of the day’s narrative are familiar components of our news cycle – unlawful arrest and imprisonment, kangaroo justice, false witness, brutality and torture, brazen execution in front of a world that doesn’t seem overly troubled.

You don’t need me to tell you that Good Friday does not eliminate this reality. Yet
miraculously, today’s portion of the salvation programme re-opens the borders of
to heaven. From now on, death and misery are not foregone outcomes, thanks to Jesus’ pain and death.

For Christianity is the faith where God suffers to spare us … so we can be liberated into joyful relationship with his person and even with each other. That is why fixation on the gruesome details of death on the cross will yield only fear of a wrathful God and fresh inspiration for all the evil that men can do. For example, the Persians initiated execution by crucifixion, but the Romans perfected it as a humiliating and excruciating capital punishment reserved for slaves and conquered peoples. That is the opposite of the good news of the gospels!

Such a concern may explain why St. John reports Jesus’ execution in such a matter-offact
way:
. 19:1 Pilate took Jesus and scourged him.. 19:2. The soldiers plaited a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe.
. 19:18 They crucified him.

This brevity contrasts with four fulsome chapters of Jesus’ discourse at his last supper among his remaining eleven apostles, a master class in coaching and team building with love, encouragement, and joy at its heart. Betrayal and arrest follow on, then a series of through- the- night- into- dawn trials, religious and political in turn, culminating in a triangulated conflict between Caiaphas the high priest, Pilate the Roman governor, and Jesus their prisoner and Son of God, moving between outside the Praetorium to the Hall of Judgement and finally, Gabbatha. The crowd, uncontrollable in size and roused to hatred, shout ‘Crucify him!’. Jesus is led off without demure; carrying his own cross: stripped, nailed, and lifted between two criminals in place of a notorious thief of civic order, Barabbas. He is a veritable lamb to the slaughter at the time of Passover, the perfect sacrifice who surrenders to the sovereign power of God
the Father and not to those who slay him.

Undoubtedly, the brief report of this extreme and transformative event indicates it came as NO surprise to Jesus. Throughout his ministry on earth, he kept divine time, entering into his return to the Father at exactly the right hour to give himself as sacrifice, but one with absolute agency and authority. Yes, evil men and weak men are overtaken by demonic influence to plot and act against him. They bear responsibility and infamy for their deeds. Yet God can arrange all things to achieve his purpose.

Throughout the Passion Gospels, Jesus acts to fulfil God’s original covenant with
Abraham, renewed across the generations with Moses and David. Further, he acts with consummate knowledge of and reverence for The Word of God. Consider that first century Jews and educated Gentiles, whether new Christians or not, could rely only on the Old Testament as codebreaker for the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, reflected in biblical motifs from Genesis through Malachi. Citing these references gives rise to something like 300 concordances between the Passion Gospels and the laws and prophecies given by God to his chosen people. These motifs create a master story framework that points the way to the Cross, achieves deliverance and salvation through the Cross, embeds the living triune God amongst us from the Cross, assures the new covenant of kingdom come under the Cross.

The comfort offered by theology and tradition aside, what breaks our hearts is Jesus’ very human presence throughout the ordeal. John focuses on 3 such expressions, the word of God spoken by a dying man nailed shamefully to a tree at a busy crossroads during the most populous festival of the year.

The first: Jesus looks upon his Mother grieving below with the disciple who expresses his entire identity as one created by and for his Saviour’s love. With some of his last words on earth, he gives Mary and John to each other: “Woman, behold thy son”; to his disciple, “Behold thy mother”. Before the tomb was emptied, before the risen Christ stood in front of Mary Magdalene and appeared to his downcast disciples, before the wind and fire of Pentecost, this gift of love and belonging blesses the church of the family of God in perpetuity. It provides a pattern for material as well as spiritual support that honours our dual needs and his dual perfection.

The second: As the three hours of darkness draw to a close, Jesus summons voice to call out “I thirst”. The divine part of Jesus knew he was fulfilling Psalm 69, a lament at being given ‘gall for meat and vinegar to drink’; in real time, his human body was painfully dehydrated. The executioners soaked a reed of hyssop in sour wine and lifted it to him. In extremity and total commitment to drain the cup of sin, suffering, and spiritual death, he received it. Just as he received beatings about the head with reeds administered by Pilate’s soldiers in cruel mockery of a king’s sceptre, and the blows and abuse by priests and false witnesses in Caiaphas’ palace.

The third: Our incomparable source of living water, with water and blood yet to flow from his side pierced by Roman spear after death, cries out one final time. “It is finished”. Here is a call of triumph and hard-won satisfaction, made in defiance of physical limitations, a final assertion of his god-nature. By this time, a crucified man would suffer asphyxiation as pain and injury slowly shut down his ability to breath. Of course, Jesus is not an ordinary man! Rather, he may lay down his life, then take it up again upon his sovereign wish. By choosing to sacrifice his life, our Lord nailed all sin, our sin, and all evil, our evil, to the cross. This cancelled once and for all our debt and bondage to spiritual death by faith in God the Father through Christ our great high priest. “It is finished” asserts the full satisfaction of Christ’s mission on earth until his second coming, and calls out to God the Father, the heavenly hosts, and all those with hearts open to his word.

On Good Friday, the Son of Man gathers us at the foot of his cross.
On Good Friday, the Son of God enfolds us in God’s family.
On Good Friday, Christ paid for our sins with his blood and overcame spiritual death for all who believe on him. The divine ecosystem that sustains, unites, and blesses us with the love and presence of God is fulfilled. Clearly that is the main reason we call this Friday of all Fridays ‘Good’. What follows is the plain thing: upon solemn contemplation and in the midst of our congregation, PRAISE HIM for the good things he has done. AMEN.

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