He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;
Yet through him, the will of the Lord shall prosper,
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for us all (based on Isaiah 52-53)
In our Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy for Good Friday centres around the Passion Gospel that we have just recited and the Solemn Collects. Everything else we do this evening – the veneration of the Cross, the reception of Communion from last evening’s commemoration of the Last Supper – these are options that we embrace because they feed us, because we feel that they draw us closer to Jesus in his hour of self-giving love. But telling the story of Jesus’ death, for us and for the whole world, and the succession of bidding prayers and collects which we are about to pray, are mandatory to our Good Friday observance.
Because of that, they have rightly come under scrutiny and are under review right now from those who have noticed that the recitation of John’s description of the Passion, and the prayers for those who, as the BCP puts it, “have not received the Gospel of Christ” have led some – too many – into the sin of antisemitism, of a cruel kind of Christianity that seeks to elevate its own judgement above the mercy and justice of God, which is all-embracing.
When I was about thirteen, I went to a friend’s house where her parents were just wrapping up a prayer meeting for spiritual and financial support to send missionaries across the world to preach the gospel to those who had never heard it. My friend’s mother had genuine grief and loving tears in her eyes as she asked me, “What about those poor people who have never heard of Jesus?”
It is a good thing, a right and joyful thing, to share the faith that we have found in Jesus, to share the love of God that we see revealed in his journey through the womb, to the cross and the tomb, and the hope that we uncover in his resurrection, and especially to deliver hope to where it is most needed. The problem with my friend’s mother’s home church’s approach was that she honestly believed that if “these poor people” did not hear about Jesus (preferably from their approved missionaries), those poor people would end up in hell.
This kind of fearful dogma has historically created hell on earth for those whose lives have been invaded and colonized, or destroyed, by missionaries across centuries of the church, old and new. There is a cruelty that masquerades under the costume of the gospel; as when proselytizing missionaries “conquer cultures for Christ.” We see its unkind underbelly uncovered as graves are unearthed in residential schools for indigenous children, for example.
And we see it acutely in the horrors of antisemitism, which persist and are even regrouping today.
But the love of God, which created the world and has sustained it since its inception, has been mediated to us by the prophets, promised to God’s people through Moses, through Abraham. Jesus was born into those covenants, celebrated as a son of David, and he did not break them, but he broke into the hearts and minds and imaginations of the Gentiles so that we might know God’s love, too. There is plenty to be heartbroken over in our prayers and in our lives, but God’s redeeming love should never be the source of sorrow.
Jesus died, was born, lived, and died, and rose again so that we might know the height and length and breadth and depth and endurance of God’s love for God’s own people, made in God’s image, all whom God has made.
The cross does not narrow down God’s love for the world. It raises up God’s love so that all might see the compassion, the deep and abiding compassion, of God for God’s people, that God would even suffer with us in order to redeem us from our suffering and sin.
The cross is not a dividing line, although the Romans intended for it to divide a person from his personhood, the living from the dead, the human from humanity, and they succeeded for too long in pitting us against one another, we who should be cousins. If there is judgement here (and there is), it is the condemnation of the kind of unimaginative, power-hungry, violent, and narrow-minded pride that still hails Caesar and fails to honour the subversive, universal, enduring, and all-encompassing salvation that is God’s love, that is God’s mercy.
The cross, precisely because Jesus died upon it, is no longer a dividing line, but a beacon of God’s mercy, like the pillars of cloud and fire. There is enough strife and persecution in the world of all kinds to flood rivers with God’s tears. But if the cross is still frightening people anywhere, then we are still wielding it as Romans, rather than as Christians. If we sorrow at the foot of the cross, let our sorrow be for ourselves, for our continuing sinfulness, our persistent selfishness, our failure to commend the generosity of God’s love that has embraced us.
If we pray, as we will in a moment, for those who have yet to hear the words of salvation, or to embrace the gospel of Christ, let it be only because we yearn to share the joy – the complicated, painful, penitent joy – that we have found; but let us be terribly, awfully careful not to steal or stifle the joy that God has already planted in the hearts of others.
There are many things to be heartbroken over in our prayers and in our lives, and at the foot of the cross. But God’s redeeming love – that should break our hearts wide open, with hope and love enough for the whole of God’s beloved world.