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The Paschal Triduum: Good Friday April 14, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for Good Friday, April 14, 2017
Were we to make our way to the slave quarters of the imperial palace in second century Rome, you and I would encounter the first visual evidence of the cross: an image carved in stone with a few words inscribed below it. The inscription reads, “Alexamenos worships his god” and is a reference to a slave or low-level guard in the imperial household – a household that considered the emperor its only lord and savior. The young man is depictedwith his arm raised toward a cross in which hangs a body. But it’s clear the grafitti artist was no friend of Alexamenos or Christianity – for where you would expect to see the head of the crucified man, the artist has drawn the head of a donkey. The inscription could have easily read, “The Christian slave Alexamenos worships a beast, an animal, a loser.”
One wonders why each gospel writer spends so much energy in describing the arrest, trial, torture, and death of Jesus given that the gospels were written as public documents to be read aloud in Christian worship. In the hands of a clever publicist, would not the confusion, misunderstandings, and betrayals that course through the story of Jesus and his followers be whitewashed, cleaned up? Wouldn’t one expect such documents to present a positive and uplifting message rather than a detailed account of the execution of this Jewish man? But, then, I wonder: doesn’t the story of Jesus’ death hold a truth the graffiti artist grasped: that Jesus was executed by Rome as a criminal – and who would ever claim such a crimininal as her lord and savior? While I was raised with the notion that Jesus suffered death because he claimed he was the son of God, I’ve come to see that his commitment to the kingdom of God brought him into conflict with the kingdom of Rome: with its violence, its rampant materialsm, and its exploitation of women and colonized minorities – all of which denied the God-given dignity of every human being and diminished or destroyed life. Believe me: no one has ever been crucified because he or she was nice and went along with the crowd. Is it not fair to say that Jesus’ commitment to peace rather than war, to loving one’s enemies rather than hating them, to forgiveness rather than resentment, to free healing rather than ignoring the sick and troubled, to an equitable sharing of all God’s gifts rather than the hoarding of one’s treasure would run counter to the values of the society in which he lived, in which we live?
Since the 1980s, many American churches have followed the strategies of corporate marketing in the attempt to present themselves as welcoming and inclusive communities. But I ask: welcomed into what? I ask: inclusive to what end? For you must know that McDonald’s is welcoming and the public library inclusive. Do we not recognize as Christians, what no corporation or government will ever grasp, that participation in the Way of Life promoted by Jesus will entail a death for us: a dying to conventional ways of thinking and acting, a dying to the violence, comfortable materialism, and exploitation so remarkably alive in our culture? Do we not recognize as Christians, what no corporation or government will ever grasp: that to participate in the Way of Life inaugurated by Jesus will entail a rising into peace-making, into forgiving others, into loving the one we’d rather clobber, into simplicity of life, and the equitable sharing of God’s abundant gifts?
Many Christians in our country have been raised with the view that the death of Jesus either paid a debt owed to God by dishonorable humans or satisfied God’s anger over human disobedience of God’s commandments. Such views oddly invoke an “economic exchange”– Jesus pays with his death on the cross the price that God demands for human failure. How good, then, to recognize another view in our Anglican tradition, one that is rooted neither in the alleged anger of God nor the urge to place a price tag on forgiveness, a view that is rooted in the remarkable love of God for all God’s creatures: a love that is marked by steadfast care for the wellbeing and welfare of others, a love so profound and enduring that it can embrace and transform any unloveliness within you and me and the world in which we live; a commitment to the wellbeing of others so strong that it resists the forces of diminishment and death alive in our society and does so through you and me and countless others who lean into the wounded and risen Christ. Isn’t it ironic, then, that the fierce love of Jesus during his life and in his supreme act of love – the pouring out of his life in death – is considered too loving by those who prefer a punishing angry god? After all, worshipping a punishing god makes it so much easier to punish others, doesn’t it: Jewish others, Muslim others, transgender others, poor others, undocumented others? Is it possible that the charge of being too loving is made because, in fact, such love is threatening – for this love intends to put to death in you and me all that is still unlovely so that we might actually live more clearly and with greater confidence the liberating and thus life-giving power of the holy gospel? All praise, I say, to the One who hangs on the cross for, indeed, he is our death and he is our resurrection.