Good Friday, April 14 2017
Today is a day for grief.
One of the great strengths of our tradition of living through Jesus’s story in prayer and worship by way of the Christians seasons is that it takes us through the full gamut of human experience: the miracle of birth, the ups and downs of everyday life with its struggles and joys, the reality of suffering, the grief of loss, the surprise of new life, and the ordinary time of growth. The Christian story and Christian faith acknowledge and affirm the full range of human experience because Jesus who we call the Christ, lived and died a full human life as God Incarnate, Emmanuel, God-with-us. In the flow of Jesus’ story – God’s story and our story mysteriously and inexplicably intermingled – today we come to the time of suffering, of betrayal, of loss, and of death. And as with any death, any loss, today is a day for grief.
Allowing ourselves to feel loss, to feel the pain of death, is one of the hardest things in the world. It is so tempting to retreat instead into our heads or into busyness or some other distraction. It is tempting to work to explain the how and the why of it all… why did Jesus die? How are we saved through this terrible story? Why do bad things happen to good people? How do we reconcile violence with grace and love? There is so much to think about – good and noble and important things to think about. And it can be a relief to escape into the abstract – into debates about what really happened, or theories of what it meant then and what it could mean today and for our eternal future. It is tempting, but today we can also choose to resist such temptation and allow it instead to be simply a day for grief.
If we stay for a few moments in the pain of today’s loss… if we gird our loins and behold the wood of the cross, and let grief have its way with us… we may be in for an emotional ride. Grief is unpredictable… like a cornered animal it might be dangerous in its anger… it might feel like unrelenting sadness that threatens to swallow us whole… it might rob us of all our energy and bring inescapable exhaustion… it might keep us up or wake us up in the night with worry or anxiety. Grief might find us mentally reviewing our loss over and over and over, trying desperately to re-write a terrible ending that steadfastly refuses to change. The intensity of feeling that comes with grief might be frightening in its power and strength… power and strength that we intuitively know could just as easily bring further destruction, rather than healing. Or grief might just bring numbness, like a second death.
Grief doesn’t come with a timeline such that we might wonder if it will ever end. We might try to hold it at bay because we wonder: if I start to cry, will I ever stop? If I admit that I’m angry, will it overwhelm and destroy me or those around me? If I confess that I’m scared, will there be any comfort and security? If I repent of making mistakes or doing wrong, will there be forgiveness? understanding? love? Entering grief seems like the most dangerous, the most risky, choice in the world, and yet not entering grief is impossible. Grief is not something we choose. Grief comes to us and refuses to be denied forever. Grief will find a way and so entering it, engaging it, feeling it… is, ironically, the safest, and healthiest option. The grace of this day for grief is that is provides for us a place and a time and a story by which we can enter our grief and take a moment to give it expression.
Today we hear a terrible story of betrayal, of suffering and of death. The betrayal begins overtly with Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ twelve closest friends, recognizing an opportunity and asking the religious leaders in his community: “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” And with a cash payment the stage is set. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins and money is one of the greatest tempters in the world – then as now. When he soon realizes the impact of his betrayal, Judas experiences the full weight of his action and his grief overtakes his life.
But the first betrayal for cash isn’t the only one in the story. When Jesus is arrested, his disciples desert him and flee for their own safety. The only one we hear more about is Peter, whose desire to see Jesus through has him follow, if at a distance. But when seen and confronted, even the most loyal and brave Peter succumbs to his fear and denies his friendship with Jesus: “I do not know the man!” he exclaims and as quickly as he remembers that Jesus knew what he would do, his grief finds expression in bitter tears.
Throughout the story, Jesus’s expression of grief is minimal and yet palpable. In his time of prayer before his arrest, Jesus pleads with God for relief… for a change in path. When leaders and soldiers come, instead of the relief he prayed for, Jesus mostly falls silent… perhaps in grief? perhaps in resignation? perhaps in faithfulness or love? In the end, on the cross, Jesus finally cries out in a most human and holy moment, asking why? “Why have you forsaken me?” Seeking meaning in pain and in suffering and in loss is a universal part of the human condition. In times of our deepest trouble, we often want to know why?!? Why did Jesus die? Why do we betray and hurt and flee when we mean to love? Why doesn’t God rescue Jesus? Why doesn’t God rescue us in our times of trouble and pain? The questions come and all we can do, as Jesus did, is to cry them out in faithfulness and trust that answers may one day be revealed.
But today is not a day of answers. Today is a day for grief. No matter our age and no matter our stage of life, we all carry some kind of grief because of loss: the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, the breakdown of beliefs you once held dear, the decline of health, the fulfillment of a dream or a goal, the pace of change, the reality of violence around the world, the destruction of a way of life… We all need to grieve one loss or another… or perhaps a whole array of loss. The gift of today, the grace of this moment is that here and now… before this cross… this is the place, and now is the time, to express the grief you carry. In just a moment, you are invited to bring it here to the cross of Christ. I encourage you to write it onto the small slips of paper you received with your bulletin, or on these extras… bring your grief with you to the cross… and leave it here at Jesus’ feet, where it will stay symbolically until sundown tomorrow, Saturday night, when we will burn it up, and when, like a phoenix, our grief will be transformed in the new fire it creates, to show us new life.
The good news of today is that the freedom to feel our grief will help us to let it go, so that we can fully embrace the new life Jesus promised would come. Whether or not you have been here before, our forebears in the Christian faith have been, and they tell us that the story Jesus’s death is not the end. Grief may be our reality for today, but it is not the end of the story. Even in the depth of our grief today, God promises healing and miraculous new life. And so whatever sadness or anger or fear or confusion or guilt – we feel today, we can enter it, express it, feel it – with the confidence that it won’t overwhelm us forever. A new day is coming, by the pure grace of God, when death will be conquered by everlasting life.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, as we kneel at the foot of your cross, help us to see and know your love for us, so that we may place at your feet all that we have and all that we are. Amen.