21 March 2008
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Storm K. Swain
It has been a long night. We have retreated from this place, to the Altar of Repose, to our beds, to watch and pray or to sink into the blessed oblivion of sleep, and we have woken to this new day, to this hour, lifted our heads to this moment, when all of a sudden Jesus has been tried, convicted and executed in the slow torture and terror of crucifixion. And we have come to this place... to listen… to hear… to see… to feel…
How do we, who know the story so well, hear it again, see it again, feel it again, breathe it again as in the dying breaths of the 30-something Jewish rabbi Jesus, God gives up God’s spirit for us. How do we allow the story to speak to us as we are there and God is here? How do we capture the numinousness and the offensiveness of the crucified God? How do we let the Cross capture us?
We have made this offensive symbol of Roman torture, so sacred, sanitized and sweet; we have so lost the terror of the cross and our ability to talk about it, that a young boy going into a Protestant Church with his parents, asked “what is that ‘t’ on the wall for?” Hanging around our necks and on our walls is not a trinket but the Roman equivalent of the electric chair, or the American equivalent of the lethal injection, though less humane.
Perhaps we can only get close to it, by recognizing how close it is to us.
As I stand here and I cannot see the Crucifix on the Rood Screen immediately above my head. Sitting in the pews you have a better view, although the closer you are the more you have to crane your neck to see it. As we come each Eucharistic liturgy, to celebrate the resurrection reality kneeling below the Rood Screen, even as the broken body and blood of Christ is passed out, it is almost easy to forget that above us hangs the Crucified Christ, flanked by his Mother, whose heart is breaking with grief and the Beloved disciple, those that formed him and those that followed him even to the foot of the Cross. Even though we are flanked by the Stations of the Cross, and see it above the High Altar, in the brightness of Sunday Vestments and High Holy Days, it’s easy to forget that the Crucifixion is part of the resurrection reality. The Cross is always hanging above us.
It’s as close as the Cross found in the broken steel arising from the rubble at Ground Zero, the soldiers as close as the absence of ten less than four thousand of US and Coalition soldiers who have died in Iraq since the war began five years ago Wednesday, as close as the grief of mothers whose children have been sacrificed for the greater good or lead away for execution, as close as those whose beloved has succumbed to the slow torture of a disease that many would prefer not to talk about, as close as our own encounters with death, as close as the broken crane and steel and rubble that entombed seven bodies on the East side last week.
If we let it, after the solemn collects we can come as close to the cross as we let ourselves, as we venerate the Cross we can take our own private trauma and grief that God only knows, and touch and be touched by the one who loves us even unto death.
And so here today, now, in the Passion, we are left at the tomb. Jesus tells us “it is finished” but we are left hanging, by the one hung on a cross, not exactly sure of what the “it” is. All of a sudden, in the space of a few short hours, the one we love, we hoped for, we believed in, is dead, gone, and we are left like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, to pick up the pieces. We are left like the Marys, immersed in grief. We are left like Peter and the other disciples with our own sense of denial and distancing, without even righteous violence as recourse. Some of us were even left like Judas, without thinking life has any meaning beyond our own self-hatred.
Jesus is dead. It is finished.
For centuries theologians have sought to figure out what the ‘it’ is that is finished. It is quite clearly the life of Jesus but it is more. If we believe in the incarnation, not simply that Jesus was the ideal human sacrificing himself, then we believe that not only Jesus is dead, but God is dead. This is the real offence of the Christian gospel. God has been taken into death, and death has been taken into God.
Many theologians want to somehow split the Trinity up on Good Friday. It makes the confusion less confusing, the ‘whys?’ more easily answerable.
The penal view of atonement requires that sin is an offence against God, for which God desires a punishment, a price, a sacrifice. God the Son then takes on our sins as a substitute and in his death is punished and sacrificed to God the Father, paying for our sins. Earlier doctrines saw the payment to Satan who somehow got rights to humanity after the fall. These views are tidy, neat and understandable – sacrifice, punishment, payment. Yet if we see it in this one sided way , we lose the real gift of God to us. The one dying on the cross, is no less than Godself, who gives Godself to the worst we can do, that we might know the best of God what God can do. As the letter to the Hebrews says ‘It is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.’ Here is a sacrifice in the midst of a culture of sacrifice to say that sacrifice is not needed by God. Here Christ is dying once for all. This is no exclusive club. “Once for all.” All. As the saying goes “If you are not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” In this Jesus does not substitute for us to God, but represents us to God, and God is re-presented to us in Christ. Here is not simply the sacrifice to God, but of God, to us, where the outrageous unconditional love of God transforms not only us, but the world, and even Godself, as the Hebrews says, provoking us all to love one another. The mystery of the Crucifixion cannot be simply seen as a one way transaction, but a relationship of God and humanity, in this moment, where time and eternity clasp hands.
And in this moment Jesus dies. God the Son is dead. For those of us that may think death is the end, then we have to think again. However, nor do we negate death. Christ’s death was as real as yours and mine will be. Death is no stranger to most of us. This death is no different, and a lot quicker than most. This execution is no different, but as brutal as many, and as offensive as any other execution in the name of God. The difference is that in the dying Jesus, the Christ, the mystery of God is fully present.
Shortly, from a night of reservation in the altar of repose, the sacrament, the mystery of God, the body of Christ will be taken out and placed on the altar, and it will all be consumed in communion or shortly thereafter. Today, every bit of consecrated bread and wine will be consumed. Today, nothing is left and the door of the tabernacle will be left open, the perpetual candles blown out. Christ is dead and gone.The tomb is full. It is finished.
The house is empty.
©2008 Storm Kirsten Swain