Good Friday – not remembering, but re-living

Peter Seal, 14 April 2017

Psalm 22: 1–20; John 19: 1–42

We come to be at the foot of the cross as we re-live the last hour of Jesus’ earthly life. To be here takes courage; it’s demanding and uncomfortable. It’s a curious privilege to share this time together, and we’ll never be quite the same again.

We’ve just heard read for us, and very beautifully, St John’s moving description of the last days of our Lord’s life. Last Sunday in both churches we heard Matthew’s account. After the 9.30 service at St Paul’s, the two people who took the parts of the evangelist and Jesus, and did so with skill and deep feeling, described how they hadn’t slept well the night before. They went on to say how exhausted and relieved they felt when the reading was complete. Their disturbed sleep and emotional exhaustion are a sign that they had really entered into what they were doing.

For all of us, today is hugely demanding. If you don’t feel exhausted and wrung out at the end of this service I will be disappointed! If our Christian faith isn’t personally costly, something isn’t quite right. You see, today doesn’t have much to do with simply remembering; rather it’s about re-living. The only ‘anaesthetic’ available to Jesus as he hung painfully on the cross was vinegar – sour wine – which aggravated his thirst and intensified his suffering.

If the Christian faith is experienced simply as remembering it will find itself confined to the annals of history. Because of the powerfully present work of the Holy Spirit we, the people of this place and age, are called to re-live the life of Jesus in as full a way as we possibly can. We’re challenged to do this – not just today, but every day.

Sometimes people talk of ‘their faith being tested’. In recent weeks I’ve found myself turning that sentence around, so instead of ‘my faith is being tested’ we might say ‘my faith is testing me’.

I want to read for you a famous poem by the theologian Bill Vanstone. It works perfectly today, leading us from the wonders of creation to the mystery of the love of God exemplified in the cross.

‘A Hymn to the Creator’ comes from his book Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense.

Morning glory, starlit sky,
Leaves in springtime, swallows’ flight,
Autumn gales, tremendous seas,
Sounds and scents of summer night;

Soaring music, tow’ring words,
Art’s perfection, scholar’s truth,
Joy supreme of human love,
Memory’s treasure, grace of youth;

Open, Lord, are these, Thy gifts,
Gifts of love to mind and sense;
Hidden is love’s agony,
Love’s endeavour, love’s expense.

Love that gives gives ever more,
Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.

Drained is love in making full;
Bound in setting others free;
Poor in making many rich;
Weak in giving power to be.

Therefore He Who Thee reveals
Hangs, O Father, on that Tree
Helpless; and the nails and thorns
Tell of what Thy love must be.

Thou art God; no monarch Thou
Thron’d in easy state to reign;
Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.

Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.

The contemporary theologian Patrick Woodhouse has written a fascinating book about someone called Etty Hillesum. From the back cover I quote:

‘On 9 March 1941, a 27-year-old Dutch Jewish student living in enemy-occupied Amsterdam made the first entry in a diary that was to become one of the most remarkable documents to emerge from the Nazi Holocaust. Over the course of the next two and a half years, an insecure, chaotic and troubled young woman was transformed into someone who inspired those with whom she shared the suffering of the transit camp at Westerbork and with whom she eventually perished at Auschwitz.’

I want to quote a few poignant passages which directly relate to today’s theme: Etty Hillesum ‘shows that a truly human life is lived on the courageous and paradoxical path of self-discovery and self-emptying’. [p. 147]

‘From early on in her diary, Etty is clear that the only truly creative response to suffering is to bear it. She writes: “… you must be able to bear your sorrow; even if it seems to crush you, you will be able to stand up again, for human beings are so strong, and your sorrow must become an integral part of yourself … you mustn’t run away from it, but bear it like an adult … Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears his grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate.”’ [p. 73]

‘So in the midst of darkness she found joy, and was alive in that place in spite of the power of death.’ Woodhouse comments by way of reflection for the days we live in: ‘In the circumstances of our time, particularly amid our fear and pessimism about the future, she invites us, too, to live courageously’. [p. 147]

‘There is an entry of 8th July 1942 in which she writes of her deliberate choice to share the “common destiny” of her people. She writes of strapping her share of this destiny tightly on her back until it becomes part of her, as though it is some kind of tightly fitting rucksack in which a great burden is carried and which fits so tightly that it even becomes part of her body. Her sense of identification with her people is that strong. “And that part of our common destiny that I must shoulder myself; I strap it tightly and firmly to my back, it becomes part of me as I walk through the streets even now.” As she walks through the shattered city, past the houses and businesses of people she has known who have disappeared or been shot or imprisoned, she shares some small part of their loss and agony. It is a “common destiny”.

‘Where the English translation is simply, “It becomes part of me”, the Dutch word … carries the meaning of becoming misshapen as she becomes more and more identified with this burden … As one ponders the image of this young Jewish woman picking up and strapping to her shoulder a burden so heavy and ugly that its weight and outline deforms her as she walks through the streets … it is difficult not to catch a glimpse of another Jew, on another street, bearing the burden of a destiny which “deformed” him.’ [p. 87]

In conclusion:

  • Jesus was given the death penalty.
  • Jesus was put to death.
  • Jesus was put to death because of the way he lived and the things he said.
  • Jesus was put to death because of the way people reacted to the way he lived and the things he said.
  • Jesus died because he was killed.
  • Jesus died but he did not perish.