Good Friday 2014—A Sermon from John’s Passion
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.
At times I remember the people who have done great harm to me in this life. Thankfully, I’ve not been inflicted with much real physical harm. Most of the venom directed at me has come through words and actions and occasionally through outright hatred. Often this came in spite of the fact that I had been doing my absolute best to engage with others and find neutral ground in the midst of conflict, in trying to do what I thought was right.
These memories are hard, of course. While I’ve mostly gotten past the point of vindictively wishing harm on them for what they did to me, I still want to make them see my way of thinking or to ask them why. I want to make meaning, to understand what I could have possibly done to make them respond so spitefully, and, most of all, to hear them ask for my forgiveness.
Those words have not come. They will probably never come. Wrongs have been done and life has gone on as time marches forward.
Jesus’ Passion puts wrong doing front and center. We watch as Judas betrays Jesus even though he is clearly innocent. We don’t know why Judas does this. Is he really that greedy that he wanted a measly thirty pieces of silver? Thirty coins is not much when we remember that Joseph was sold by his brothers to slave traders for twenty pieces of sliver way back in Genesis, some 1500 years earlier. Maybe Judas wanted to incite a rebellion and have Jesus stand up against the Romans who oppressed the Jews at that time. We just don’t know. We only know that his betrayal put Jesus’ death into motion with that band coming late at night to arrest him.
As Jesus is bounced between the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman governor, we don’t get any other viable answers. The rulers just scapegoat him. He’s beaten and mocked and ultimately sent to a painful death for no good reason at all. Our reading ended with his body being placed in that tomb and that’s all there is.
In his book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, theologian Miroslov Volf asks the hard questions around what to remember when people inflict pain on us. In 1984, Volf was required to participate in military service in what was then communist-Yugoslavia. However, because he had married an American, studied theology and was the son of a minister, Volf was seen and treated as a serious risk to their national security as communists. One of the captains there (“Captain G” as Volf calls him) began interrogating him and making vicious threats. This went on for many months, causing him great mental anguish. He recounts much of what happened to him. But after eight months, it all abruptly stopped without explanation. But of course it didn’t stop. The ordeal kept replaying in his mind for many years to come, as any person who has experienced a harrowing ordeal knows all to well.
With these events as a backdrop, Volf explores throughout his book how one is called to remember and possibly respond to wrongs committed against them and others. Is it appropriate to forgive but never forget? If we do forget, do we do dishonor the ones who have been victimized? How far does forgiveness actually go?
His theological reflections eventually bring him to focus on Jesus’ Passion. He writes, “When we remember the Passion, we remember what God has done for the whole of humanity, both the wronged and the wrongdoers.” Put another way, Jesus died for all of us, even those religious leaders who brought false charges against him and Pilate and Judas too. God sent Jesus not to condemn the world, but in order to bring about the salvation of the whole world through him. Volf continues, “The memory of the Passion recalls God’s acts as exemplary and demonstrates how God frees and empowers humanity to emulate them. Through the death of Christ, God aims to liberate us from exclusive concern for ourselves and to empower us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to reach out in grace toward others, even those who have wronged us. Because the God who justifies the ungodly lives in us, when we imitate God we do no do so as people who simply observe and do likewise, but instead as human beings whose lives reverberate the life of God.”
You may think that this is impossible; that the wrongs you have suffered in life by the hands of others are too great to forgive. Yet, Volf reminds us, that when we come before the cross of God with our memories of being wronged, we realize as well that we have wronged others, that we too are in need of forgiveness. Or in the words of St. Paul to the Romans, “There is none that is righteous, no, not one.”
This is a hard truth to bear, especially when we have been wronged. This does not negate the wrongs done to us or brush them under the carpet; those events were sin-filled and vile. But it was Jesus himself, in Luke’s gospel, who declared from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for the don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus forgave his oppressors.
He stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. Everyone. Wronged and wrongedoer alike.
My prayer is that we Jesus would clothe us in that same spirit so that we might reach our hand out in love too. While it may be very hard for us individually to imagine a reconciliation with those who have done us harm, this community of faith can be a place that supports us and encourages us to move forward. Remembering wrongs rightly doesn’t necessarily mean that we will eventually forget—Jesus retained his scars even after Easter—it does mean however that we forgive and give up a desire for retribution. As Anne Lamot put it, “[N]ot forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
Jesus came in to this world to bring forgiveness to each of us living in the world. We desperately need that forgiveness ourselves, and we desperately need to offer it to others as well. As we come to the end of our Lenten journey and gather once more before the cross, may we enter within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace. If we do so, if we both receive and extend his love, new life will be waiting for us on the other side. Amen.