Each year on the Friday before Easter we gather on the most solemn day of the year for Christians as we contemplate the death of Jesus. The challenge is not to rush to Sunday yet, but to really think about its meaning. My sermon from the powerful liturgy we had last night based on St. John’s Passion.
Good Friday — 2013
Last year on Good Friday, I received a phone call from my sister informing me that my dad had 24-48 hours to live. There wasn’t much I could do. As a solo priest, I couldn’t drop my responsibilities for the holiest time in our liturgical year and head out to be with my family. I planned for a conversation with my dad late that evening when I could at least say a goodbye if we weren’t able to see each other again in this life.
And then I came to the foot of the cross and heard the Passion read and watched as the Lord I loved deeply died. Never had the pain of Jesus’ death seemed so real to me. Never had I felt the loss so acutely. I could barely keep my composure as I led this congregation in that liturgy.
When I called him after the service, I told my dad how much I loved him, and he told me how proud he was of me. I apologized that I couldn’t be there with him, but he told me not to worry, I had people to minister to and he was surrounded by so many who loved him. We prayed together and then I told him if I didn’t see him again in this life, I looked forward to seeing him in the next one.
As most of you already know, my dad died late in the evening on Easter Day last year, as Melissa and I raced to be home with him. We made it as far as Buffalo, NY. Still a good 6 hours from Detroit. He went to be with the Lord on the Day of Resurrection.
However, I do not want to jump ahead to Easter, as the reality of Good Friday is much too strong. I am certainly not the only one in this room to lose a parent, and I am probably not the only one who has missed standing by the bedside of a loved one who is in their final hours. I know many of you have experienced loss as well, and have been beside those you love at their death—something I have experienced both with my Mom and for parishioners. Whether we are together with family or if we are waiting for a phone call to bring us the news, experiencing the death of a loved one stuns us.
Mary, the other women, the beloved disciple and the others who were present at Jesus’ death are trapped by feelings of helplessness. Even those who fled the scene out of fear are shrouded in a sense of powerlessness. They know Jesus will die; the question for them is simply how long must they watch him hang from that cross. They look on this one they have followed, the one they cherish, as he slowly languishes.
St. John the Gospeler wants us to remember that this is what love looks like. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” It was Jesus who uttered those words after sharing his last meal with the disciples; he said them only a few hours before he was strung up like a criminal. He went on to say, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” The word “friends” is the Greek word philos which finds its root in the Greek phileo or “love.” These friends are beloved. They love Jesus because they seek to keep his commands, and he loves them more than they can imagine.
It is no wonder then, that Jesus tells Pilate this his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus is not bound by an earthly perspective to save his own skin first. In this worldly kingdom of ours we watch our own backs, and then, maybe once we’re all covered, we’ll help out a family member and possibly a friend. But then they owe us big.
Not so with Jesus. He gives his life freely for his friends because of his deep love for them. He wants them to be known as the beloved of God and so he offers himself. Jesus came to bring life, but it is only in passing through suffering and death that this life is offered to us. Jesus’ work in this world was incarnational. With human flesh, he loved, ate, cried and was tempted, yet he performed miracles and signs to show his divine nature. The work he came to do on this earth as God incarnate revolved around love and life and showering us with those things again and again. Jesus healed the sick and spoke words of encouragement; he turned water into unbelievable wine. He raised the sick, and showed mercy and care and told wonderful stories. All to bring life and love. To show any who would follow him what God is truly like.
One commentator writes, “Because Jesus is human, because he can and will die, he can reveal the fullness of God’s love in ways never before possible, because he reveals God’s love in categories that derive from human experience. In his death, Jesus gave up what human beings hold most dear—life—and he gave it up because he chose to do so in love. Jesus lays down his life in love for those whom he loves, and the meaning of both ‘life’ and ‘love’ are redefined. Life becomes an expression of love, the ultimate gift. Love, love unto death, becomes the only true source of life. Jesus’ gift of his life on that cross is the ultimate gesture of generosity and grace. It is, indeed, pure gift—not required of him, but offered by him, so that we may understand the full extant of God’s love for the world.”
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Love. It is before us in poignant reality on this day as we take our place among Jesus’ beloved at the foot of the cross. With his death we remember the death of those we have loved so much, wishing we could have taken away their pain. Through Jesus’ gift, we recognize that death certainly was not in God’s plan for us, and that he offers us fullness of life.
Jesus finished the work he came to do. He died for us; he gave himself. We need only to receive his gift. As we weep at the cross, may we know that through it we can find grace and eternal life. Amen.
 The New Interpreters Bible, Vol. IX. Luke & John. Abingdon Press:Nashville. 1994. Pg 837.