Friday, March 25, 2016

Separation Itself Is Torn Asunder

March 25, 2016 – Good Friday
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
There are certain places in this world where we are not supposed to go. Most of them are roped off for our own protection. High voltage, vicious dogs, molten lava—these are all good reasons to KEEP OUT! But what about the not-so-good reasons. What about your neighbor—the one who keeps the perfectly manicured lawn, practically mowing the grass with a pair of scissors. That sign in his front yard that says, “Please keep off the grass,” doesn’t it make you want to veer ever so slightly off the sidewalk into his lawn when no one is looking? What about the Teachers’ Lounge? Don’t you still want to know what happens in there? Aren’t you just a little bit curious to know what your mother has been keeping in her purse all these years?

As far as I know, my two grandmothers didn’t coordinate their efforts, but both of them laid down the same unbreakable law: thou shalt not enter thy grandmother’s living room. A grandmother’s living room was, by definition, a room in which no child would ever have reason to go. I still remember standing in the foyer of one of their houses and cracking the louvered doors that screened off that sanctuary so that I could get a peek at what was enshrined in there. Pristine ivory carpet. Perfectly upholstered chairs. A sofa that looked as if no one had ever sat upon it. Even the light, straining to shine in through the decorative curtains, seemed too rich for a boy like me. It was beautiful. It was more than beautiful. It was holy. And it was off limits.

But, when you tell a child that something is too nice, too wonderful, for him to experience, what do you think that makes him want to do—want to do more than anything he has ever wanted to do in his whole, short life? “What is behind this door is too marvelous for you to fathom. Please, don’t peek.” Yeah, right.

I don’t know whether it was my experience in my grandmothers’ houses that caused it or whether it was simply the same innate desire that was awakened by the pictures in my children’s bible, but the only other place on this earth where I wanted to go more than my grandmothers’ living rooms was the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. That might sound like a stretch, but I assure you that, for this nine-year-old, it was not. On one of the picture pages in the bible that we used in Sunday school was an illustration of what the holiest place in the world might have looked like. And, when I heard my Sunday school teacher tell me that I wasn’t allowed in—that only one man was allowed to go in on one day of the year and that even then a rope was tied around his ankle in case he did something wrong and God struck him dead on the spot—I knew that that was the place I wanted to be.

It was, after all, the place where God lived—where his presence dwelt on the earth. And, in that strange paradox that strikes at the heart of the relationship between God and humankind, the Holy of Holies was, therefore, both the place of perfect communion with God to which all of God’s people are beckoned yet also the place where no one except the High Priest was ever allowed to go. Like all paradoxes, that makes perfect sense yet also completely defies understanding.

What does it mean for us to believe that we are unworthy to stand in the holy presence of the Almighty yet also believe that God wraps his loving arms around us? What does it mean for us to worship God as transcendent and ineffable yet name him as “father” and “friend?” What does it mean for us to know the depths of our imperfection—our complete inability to be the people we know God is calling us to be—yet still hear God say to us, “You are my beloved son,” or “You are my beloved daughter?” That is what today is all about. In the crucifixion of our Lord and Savior, the Son of God, whose flesh was torn for us, we see the temple curtain ripped in two. We are given a glimpse into the inner sanctuary. We are beckoned into God’s holy presence. But how?

One of our Lenten speakers this year was the Rev. Kelley Hudlow, who serves as the manager of The Abbey, which is a church disguised as a coffeehouse in the Avondale Neighborhood of Birmingham. She came and spoke to us about what it means to be a church in a non-church context. She invited us to consider how we, too, might be a place for unchurched people to call home. Before she came to visit, I heard her say in a workshop on that subject that, if you’re going to make yourself available to inquirers who didn’t grow up in the church, you’d better be ready to explain your theology of atonement. In other words, she cautioned us that non-Christians who are asking about the Christian faith really want to know how it is that Jesus’ death on the cross makes a difference. How is it that what happened at Calvary changes our relationship with God? How does Jesus’ death work?

I heard her make those comments two months ago, and I still can’t get them out of my head. And today, Good Friday, I find myself confronting my own theology of atonement. What is that I believe about the cross of Christ that makes a difference in my own life? How has my relationship with my Creator been changed by Good Friday in a way that gives me good news to share with our congregation and with the world? Do I believe, as so many Christians do, that God’s wrath against humanity needed to be satisfied and that Jesus, the perfect sacrificial offering upon the cross, took my place—that he was damned so that I did not have to be? I don’t know about you, but, when I peer through the torn curtain and get a glimpse at the divine nature, I see not a wrathful God but a loving one. So what, then? Is Jesus merely an emblem of God’s unchanging love—a testament to God’s unwavering willingness to forgive? If so, why was the cross necessary? Why was Jesus necessary? I know in my heart and in my bones and, more importantly, in the words of scripture that Jesus’ death changes everything, but how can we believe that without believing in a God who makes no sense? How can we understand that which cannot be understood?

Today we make our journey to the foot of the cross in order that we might stare up at the one who was crucified for us and, through his torn flesh, see beyond the curtain that has always separated us from God. It is by his blood, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, that we have confidence to enter God’s sanctuary and stand in his holy presence. This new and living way has been opened for us through the tearing of the curtain, which is his flesh. As William Barclay put it in his commentary on Hebrews, when God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, the flesh of that man was a veil that covered the divine nature until, at last, that veil was ripped upon the cross (p. 134). Now, staring at the one who died for us, we see for the first time that which has always been true even before time itself existed: God’s nature is always to love.

As I understand it, it is our sinful nature and the guilt and shame that our moral failures have produced within us that have made it impossible for us to see God’s loving nature. We are the veil. Our human nature is the veil behind which the Incarnate Word was covered. It is our sin that necessitated the curtain which kept us out of God’s holy presence. But the cross of Christ is the final translation of the Word of God. And the Word that God has spoken is love. The death of Jesus does not change God—it does not even affect him at all—but it has the power to completely change us. Now, standing at the foot of the cross, we see the unveiled love of God for the first time. Now, in the agony of the crucifixion, we hear God say to us plainly and clearly and perfectly, “I am love without limits. I am love with no end.”

Look upon the Crucified One and see God’s nature unveiled. Stare at the flesh of Christ torn asunder and peer through the ancient curtain. We are beckoned inside. We are welcomed into God’s presence. There is no separation anymore. There is only love.

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