© 2021 Evan D. Garner
Video of this service can be seen here.
A month and a half ago, as we approached Ash Wednesday, I heard several people mention that it felt like last year’s Lent never ended. We have been stuck in a period of sacrifice and self-denial for more than a year. Last year on Good Friday, I preached to an empty church and to a congregation that was only able to gather online. This year, things have improved, but still only a few of us are able to come into the church for worship.
Each day, however, things are getting better, and, as we gather now both virtually and in person to commemorate the passion and death of our Lord, it feels as if both of those Lents are coming to a close. Our forty-day journey with Christ in the wilderness will reach its end at Easter, and, although it will still be a while before our endurance of the pandemic will come to an end, we can see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Yet to suggest that both of those journeys possess a Lenten quality is to say something more substantial than to label them as miserable, difficult, and undesired experiences of penitence and punishment. To say that last year’s Lent never ended is to acknowledge the need to search for spiritual renewal even in the hardship that the world has faced.
As we stand in the shadow of the cross this day, we do so as a people who have been reminded of our mortality. We have encountered again the inescapable limitations of our lives. We have experienced the pain and grief of loss and isolation. We have endured our own inability to solve the most pressing problems of our day. We have discovered again our need for a savior.
Every Lent, we are invited into a period of personal and communal discernment. As the church and as individuals within it, we choose a season of sacrifice in order that we might remember the deepest truths of our humanity and of God’s love for us. This year, the most profound elements of sacrifice we have endured have not been our choice, but they are no less an opportunity to recall how completely we depend upon God’s love.
The passion narrative presents us with the stark reality that, as much as we want the world to be divided up into neatly defined groups of good people and bad people, the truth is that we use labels like “good” and “bad” to suit ourselves. A better way—a more accurate and spiritually productive way—of thinking about how the world sorts itself out is according to power. When we hear the haunting story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, torture, and death, we know what side we’re supposed to be on. We know that we are supposed to stand with the crucified one, the powerless one. But, in the story, no such person exists. Instead, a close look at the text reveals our tendency to protect ourselves by reimagining the story in ways that always shift the responsibility for Jesus’ execution and our own failure to stand with him onto someone else.
Within decades of the crucifixion, Christians had invented the lazy and cheap anti-Semitic trope that it was the Jews who killed Jesus, and for centuries Christians have perpetuated that idea. Every year around Easter, there is a rise in hate crimes perpetrated against Jewish people, and it is up to Christians like us to make it stop. More recently, scholars have helped us recover the truth that crucifixion was an exclusively Roman method of punishment and that the charge nailed to the cross signifies that Jesus was executed by the Empire for crimes against the state. But, again, we tend to use that distinction to ignore the fact that it was people in positions of power and who wanted to maintain their power that killed Jesus. In other words, it was people like us.
What about the disciples? What about the people who were closest to Jesus? What does their part in the passion story tell us about ourselves? Their desertion tells us everything. Judas betrays Jesus. Peter denies Jesus. None of them can stay awake with Jesus. None of them will stand with Jesus, except to use a sword in a momentary display of violence that is antithetical to the way of Jesus. When it is time to take their place beside the powerless prisoner, they all disappear. None was willing to stand with Christ in defeat. Days earlier, everyone wanted to be seen with the one who rode into the holy city as the presumptive heir to David’s throne, but now their shouts of “Hosanna!” have gone silent, supplanted by the call to crucify him.
We, too, when given the chance to align ourselves with power or weakness, with triumph or failure, always choose the side of power—the side of victory. That instinct for self-preservation is so ingrained in us that we repeatedly use the power we have to recast the world into “good” and “bad,” always sure to draw the lines where they suit us. Isn’t that also what the pandemic has exposed within our community—within each one of us? Aren’t we quick to judge others, making them the scapegoat for what has affected everyone in the community, always assuring ourselves the privilege of self-righteousness?
And, still, the story of Good Friday reveals to us not only our failure to accept the way of Jesus but also our confidence in God’s saving love to rescue us despite that failure. That we could discern in the death of Jesus our own greatest defeat is also how we find within it the story of God’s greatest victory. We turn not away from the tragedy of the cross but toward it because that part of us that belongs to God knows that there it will find salvation. We see in Christ’s last gasp for air our own first breath of new life. We receive from his wounded side the nourishment of a mother who holds her infant to her breast. We have nailed Jesus to the cross, yet there we find our own forgiveness—our own salvation.
For us, this time of sacrifice and self-denial is almost over. Our journey through it need not be empty or worthless. Whether or not we have chosen it for ourselves, this time in the wilderness has been given to us as an opportunity to confront our need for salvation and to find at the center of that need the saving life of God. When we can see within ourselves that tendency to crucify the love of God rather than embrace its powerlessness—to shift the blame away from ourselves rather than accept our own vulnerabilities—we will find not only our failure but the triumph God has accomplished in its place. To see the cross as both a symbol of our sin and a sign of God’s triumphant love is to know the way of salvation.