Sermon for Good Friday, April 18, 2014: Sacrifice
“Lord Jesus Christ, on this day we seek to understand your suffering that we may share in your glory. Give us the willingness to follow your path from darkness into light, from death into life, and from heartbreak into joy.” Amen.
Depending on how you observe it, Good Friday can be a very long day. You may choose to attend several different church services, one lengthy one, or opt to spend the day primarily in silence. You could decide to fast, but might wonder whether it still counts if you only skip one meal (it does). And if you’re the one hosting Easter dinner, your main concern may be how you will get your preparations done – after all it’s hard to hide Easter eggs while wearing a black cassock. So, for many of us, Good Friday may simply be something to get through to get to Easter.
I certainly never thought of it as a “good” day. I think we’ve all asked ourselves (or a clergy person) why such a bad day is called “Good Friday.” The standard answer is that Good Friday is good because the death of Christ, as terrible as it was, led to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, which brought new life to those who believe.
“Good” Friday is actually known by seemingly more appropriate names in other parts of the world, including Sorrowful or Suffering Friday, Long Friday, Holy Friday, Black Friday, Great Friday and Silent Friday. The word “Friday” does not appear in the Bible; the only day called by a given name in the Bible is the seventh day, which is called the Sabbath. So, it’s likely that when Good Friday was instituted by the Christian Church in the fourth century, it was observed as part of a regular Sabbath.
Historians tell us that early Christians initially commemorated Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in one festival, called the “Pascha” (which is Greek for “Passover”). They do not suggest that Jesus’ passion was identified as taking place within a specific time frame – with Jesus sharing a meal with his friends on Thursday, being arrested sometime Thursday night, tortured, tried, and crucified on Friday, and rising on Sunday morning.
We follow a specific sequence during one “holy” week so that we can experience the passion of our Lord as an escalating, emotional journey, and give ourselves a chance to symbolically walk with Jesus as he blazes the trail to our salvation.
But how are we to do that in a meaningful way? How can we honor the second most important day of the church calendar rather than just getting through it? What can we learn by attempting to understand the suffering of our Lord? How do we make “Good Friday” good?
One place to start is by making it a choice – because that’s what Jesus did. I recently heard of a sermon in which the preacher encouraged her congregation to think about the victims of female trafficking as being akin to Jesus in that they, like him, are victims of a corrupt political system. While I agree that these women are being victimized, and it is important to see the face of God in all people, and to remember that in helping any other person we are helping God, I am not so sure about her characterization of Jesus as a victim. The writer of the Gospel of John says that Jesus went willingly from the Garden of Gethsemane, telling his disciples, “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me”? Over and over again in John’s gospel, we hear Jesus refuse to defend himself – we hear him allow himself to be beaten, whipped, and mocked – we hear him choose to be killed.
Earlier, we heard the choir sing a beautiful piece called “Solus ad Victimam.” When I saw the title of the music, I assumed the word, “victimam,” would translate into English as, “victim,” but it doesn’t. It actually means “to sacrifice.” “Alone to sacrifice thou goest, Lord, giving thyself to Death whom thou hast slain.” Jesus allowed himself to suffer pain, to bear humiliation, to give himself to death – but he did it by choice. And because he did it by choice, Jesus was not a victim but a victor. This anthem is not a cry of loss but rather a plea for God to allow us to suffer along with him. The composer recognizes that it is by suffering with Jesus that we can begin to understand our own pain, and our heart’s sorrow gains meaning.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an early 20th century German theologian, sought and found such meaning in his life. An author, musician and pastor, he is best known for his stand against the persecution of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and ultimately executed for refusing to renounce his beliefs. His letters from prison make it clear that he knew the potentially lethal consequences of his actions, and embraced them. He wrote:
To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us. If in the end we know only him, if we have ceased to notice the pain of our own cross, we are indeed looking only unto him. To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life.
Whatever we choose to call it – Good Friday – Holy Friday – Long Friday – Black Friday –today gives us an opportunity to become more fully aware of Jesus’ sacrifice by denying ourselves. It is our chance to fix our eyes on the cross of Jesus the Christ and taste the fruit of our allegiance to him. It is a day when we can understand what it means to be a Christian – and for that reason, it is a very good day indeed. AMEN.
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