Good Friday 2018
If ever there was a day to experience the story of Jesus “by heart,” today is it. Today we remember the death of Christ… the death of God. We remember Jesus’ crucifixion by the powers of the world. And so today is the day we most intensely know God, believe in God, by heart, because today God’s own self knows the violence and the sorrow we too witness and experience all too often.
The day of Jesus’ crucifixion was not the first time the people of God knew violence, trauma, devastation. Way back “in the day,” the people of Israel were broken by the power of Babylon. Military forces laid siege to Jerusalem until the walls of the city were breached, the Temple destroyed and the people killed or exiled. The streets ran with the blood of the innocent. It seemed all was lost… that God had abandoned them.
But the prophet Jeremiah saw beyond the loss and grief of the moment to glimpse the hope that lay beyond. Jeremiah proclaimed hope to the broken people… hope that God was still God. God was still *their* God. Jeremiah proclaimed God’s promise of a new covenant: “I will put my law within them,” Jeremiah wrote on God’s behalf, “and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:33-4) The new covenant God promises is that all people, all of us, will know God “by heart.” This is the heart of our solemn remembrance today… that we will know God by heart because we witness the heart of God.
Centuries after Jeremiah’s prophecy… after God’s people had returned to Jerusalem and figured out how to live faithfully in the new circumstances… after new troubles had come with the tyranny of Roman occupation… after the events of the story we honour today… the writer of the Book of Hebrews remembers Jeremiah’s prophecy of old. The writer of Hebrews takes this ancient prophecy as the basis upon which to understand the story of Jesus. He engages with the ancient, sacred text, and re-interprets it in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as God’s own Son and great high priest. This new expression of the old promise is not a call to return to some former state but “to accept a new covenantal relationship with God, a relationship characterized as God-centered, relational, inward, and with forgiveness that frees persons to move forward.” (NIB, 117)
Today we hear the summary of this one faithful Christian’s expression of the meaning of Christ’s death in light of Jeremiah’s prophecy. He highlights first its inwardness, as one commentator describes: “The inwardness of which Jeremiah speaks is characterized by the words ‘mind’ and ‘heart’; a favourite term for the writer of Hebrews is ‘conscience’ (10:22)… in Hebrews it refers at least to the centre of our being, doing, and valuing, the ‘place’ in us where the self-giving of Christ meets us and perfects or completes us, and the seat of all conduct and relationships.” (NIB, 117) No longer something external to us, God’s will and God’s instruction is written in our most inward beings where feeling and thinking and doing come together as one. When we are thus fully and completely engaged with our thoughts, our action, and our feelings… that is when we know God “by heart.”
Years ago on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I had the privilege of meeting a man who knew God by heart. In a presentation to our group, he described his life growing up as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. Like all young people, after high school, he was required to serve in the Israeli army but coming from a religious family, he was assigned a non-combat role. His job was to retrieve bodies and return them to their families. It was in the days when bus bombings were still common and people lived with fear and hatred for their neighbours. What he noticed, however, was the unity of grief. He observed that it didn’t matter if a child had been killed in a bus bombing by Palestinian malcontents or by an Israeli military strike… the grief of the parents was the same. The “how” didn’t really matter. The right-ness or wrong-ness of the killing wasn’t the point. An innocent and beloved child was dead… and that was all that mattered.
He took the referred trauma he experienced in his job and turned it into hope through action for peace. He started an organization to bring together Christian, Muslim and Jewish children from the Holy Land – Israelis and Palestinians – to get to know each other and build a sense of common humanity as a pathway to peace. This man witnessed the worst kind of grief, felt equally by people on opposing sides, and let himself feel it too. He came to know God “by heart” by seeing the broken hearts of others and letting his own heart break too. But he didn’t stay there, wallowing in the tragedy and injustice of it all. Instead, he turned to relationship and forgiveness as the path to freedom and hope for a different world. And he took action to make it so.
In our passage today, the writer of Hebrews highlights forgiveness in God’s remembering of sin no more. Like its interiority, the heart of the new covenant is forgiveness. Forgiveness is the heart of God, for God knows how easily we become enslaved by evil, paralyzed by guilt, or trapped by bad habits… and that more than anything, we need freedom. We need freedom from sin so that we can turn to hope and act for renewal and healing, for justice and peace in the world. And more, where there is forgiveness, there is no longer need for sacrifice, like the sacrifice of children caught in the crossfire, or the sacrifice of any innocent lives. In the faithfulness of Christ as high priest, God’s own heart has broken and died, and so Christ accompanies us into the forgiving heart of God.
From this conclusion, our faithful writer friend then turns to admonish us to respond. Knowing God by heart is not the end… and even forgiveness is not enough. True relationship includes response and the response to which we are encouraged today is three-fold: “Let us approach God; let us hold fast; and let us help one another.” One commentator summarizes these calls as centering first on faith, then on hope and finally on love. (NIB, 120) We are called to faith: to approach God; to move forward towards God, rather than staying put or withdrawing; to move towards God in faith that God’s promises of forgiveness and new life are true. We are called to hope: to hold fast; to be tenacious in our belief that better days lie ahead; that problems can be fixed; that death is not the end of the story. We are called to love: to “provoke” one another to good deeds; to disturb the apathetic or fearful into activity; to encourage one another through loving action.
Faith. Hope. Love. Such are the responses to which God calls us. Faith. Hope. Love. These are the active qualities that come with knowing God “by heart.” As we enter into the heart of the Christian story today, may our hearts be broken by the broken heart of God in Christ. May our hearts break alongside God’s own heart for every tragedy, every injustice, every loss, every grief we experience and witness in the world – ancient and current alike. And as we thus know God “by heart,” may we respond with the faith, hope and love that can change the world.