Hebrews 12:1-3 – Wednesday of Holy Week

As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses around us. So then, let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends, from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the cross! On the contrary, because of the joy that was waiting for him, he thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross, and he is now seated at the right side of God’s throne.

Think of what he went through; how he put up with so much hatred from sinners! So do not let yourselves become discouraged and give up. (Good News Translation)

“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”

Viktor E. Frankl

We are moving, step by step, inexorably to the cross of Christ. Along the way we will face opposition, ridicule, misunderstanding, and betrayal. We will be befuddled and feel confused. The path of discipleship is not easy.

And yet, on this Holy Wednesday, today’s New Testament lesson informs us that all the suffering of Christ was motivated and animated because of joy. 

The road to the cross, along with the cross itself, is painful, in every sense of the word. None of this tortuous suffering seems joyful, at all! There’s no definition, in any dictionary, of joy including severe spiritual anguish, bodily harm, and emotional shame. Joy isn’t remotely mentioned when talking about betrayal from someone close to you.

Jesus did not relish the pain. He was no masochist. Pain with no purpose is nothing but tragic despair. Rather, Jesus clearly understood what the end of his suffering would accomplish: the saving of many lives.

It is most necessary that we do not try to sanitize Christ’s death.

Although many beautiful crosses can be found in stores, the cross of Jesus was anything but lovely to look at. It was bloody. The cross was a harsh implement of torture and execution, meant to expose the condemned to public shame.

Trying to make sense of this great sacrifice on our behalf can be difficult. No earthly illustration or word-picture can begin to adequately capture the idea of vicarious suffering. Perhaps, then, we may understand the necessity of discipline, effort, endurance, and yes, pain, in order to accomplish a goal. We know from agonizing experience that the realization of our most important goals requires a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears. 

In a former life I was a cross country runner (back far enough for Sherman to set the way-back machine). Whenever I was running on a road or a golf course, I would sometimes get that very nasty and sharp pain in my side while running. It is called a side cramp, or side stitch. 

If you have never experienced such a cramp, the pain feels like an intense stabbing, as if someone were taking a knife and twisting it inside you. Runners know there’s only one thing to do when this occurs: Keep running through the pain, and then it will subside in a few minutes. To stop running only exacerbates and prolongs getting over the hurt, not to mention losing a race.

Jesus endured the cross knowing he was going to experience terrible excruciating pain. He also knew that avoiding the shame and agony would only make things worse; it wouldn’t take care of the problem of sin. 

Jesus persevered through the foulness and degradation of the cross for you and me. All of the wretched pain was worth it to him. Christ did not circumvent the cross; he embraced it so that the result would be people’s deliverance from guilt and shame, death and hell. 

The end game of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross was joy over deposing the ruler of this dark world and obliterating the obstacles to people’s faith.

Suffering often does not fit into our equation of the Christian life. However, it needs to. No suffering, no salvation. Since Jesus bled and died for us, it is our privilege to follow him and walk with him along the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering. 

Holy Week is a time to reflect and remember on such a great sacrifice, and to consider our Christian lives in the face of such great love. On this Wednesday, allow yourself to feel the bittersweet experience of simultaneous pain and joy – the very real bitterness of seeing the Lord crucified, along with the exultation of joy over being washed clean by the blood of the Lamb.

Gracious Lord Jesus, I give you eternal thanks for your mercy toward me through the cross. It is a small thing for me to follow you even it means great suffering on my part. My life is yours. Use it as you will, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Life by Death

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A lot of people don’t like change. That is likely an understatement. Change means adjusting to a different reality and adjusting is not something we prefer doing. Many folks would much rather keep things the way they are. Routine, consistency, predictable outcomes—these are things we rely on for a sense of safety and stability in our lives.

Even good change is difficult, if for no other reason than what it takes to get there. Becoming debt-free, getting in shape, or starting a new job are all good changes to make, but to making them can take a lot of determination and effort on our part. In many cases, to change something about ourselves, we must be willing to admit what we are doing is not working and try something different.

God’s love in Jesus Christ changes everything. The kind of change Jesus talked about and died for was not making a few alterations to our lives or re-arranging some of our schedule. For Jesus, change is neither about exerting more effort nor adding things to an already full to-do list.

The change Jesus embraces is a complete transformation from the inside-out. For that to happen, to have a new life, the old life must die. What’s more, Jesus does not want us half dead because then we are only spiritual zombies, not really living the life God intended for us. No, if there is to be a resurrection and new life, there must be a death (John 12:20-33). There are three ways people need to die to live the life that God desires….

1.We need to die to our plans.

Jesus had a crowd of people following him wherever he went. He was interesting and compelling, even magnetic. Christ taught like no other person before him and healed all kinds of people. In the first century, Jesus became the latest fad.  With his fame, there were people who looked to Jesus to further their own agenda and their plans about how things should go.

Earlier in chapter twelve of John’s Gospel, the Apostle recorded a contrast between two people: Mary and Judas. Mary is a picture of dying to her own plans of how things should go. Mary took some expensive perfume, the kind that could have set her up for some needed financial security and poured it all on Jesus’ feet. Then, she humbly wiped it on him with her hair. It is a picture of giving herself completely and wholly to Jesus, no matter the cost, with no strings attached and no other agenda other than total devotion.

Judas, on the other hand, piously objected to Mary’s act of worship. We might hear him rationally pushback on what Mary was doing, saying to his fellow disciple, “My friends, this is a lot of money – money that could be used for the poor instead of needlessly wasting it. A little perfume is fine, but to use the whole bottle is over the top – it isn’t fiscally responsible!” Judas had a secret agenda. He was not thinking of giving himself completely to Jesus, but of how he could use the cash for himself and his own purposes. 

Judas is the picture of a spiritual zombie – half dead, walking around saying all kinds of spiritual things, but only devoted to Jesus and God’s kingdom when it agreed with him. Judas had his own ideas of how the kingdom operation ought to go. When he became convinced Jesus was not going to operate according to his agenda and plans, Judas betrayed him.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

galatians 2:20, niv

In John 12:20-22, we have some Greeks (Gentiles) who want to see Jesus. They are interested in him. Unlike Judas and Mary, we are not told why they wanted to meet with him. But the fact that Jesus does not jump on the chance to interact with them probably says something about their motives. 

It is the nature of many people to want to observe whatever big thing is going on. They want to be in the know and talk about the latest happenings. Whenever we see “the crowd” in the Gospels, it is typically a negative connotation, a statement of by-standers, just looking on. 

Much of Christ’s ministry was to teach, heal, cajole, and do whatever he could to press the crowd, the by-standers, into not just following him as a novelty. Jesus wanted them to really follow him by dying to themselves and adopting a new life in the kingdom of God.

When I was a senior in high school the Pope came to Iowa, of all places! Never had that happened. 350,000 people came to see him. It was on a Friday, and we got two days off from school, mainly because trying to get around those two days was nearly impossible. Literally, everything shut down for the event. There were so many people that John Paul II got dropped in on one of Jimmy Carter’s presidential helicopters. 

I lived exactly thirteen miles from where the Pope spoke and had mass with the Catholic faithful. Protestants and Jews flocked to see him, as well. No car was allowed within a five-mile radius of the Pope. People had to park miles away and get shuttled-in. I knew several people from my small town that walked the thirteen miles one way just to see John Paul II. It was exciting and incredible, and is still talked about today in Iowa, forty years later.

Not everyone there that day in Iowa was a faithful Christ follower. Most people do not remember much about what John Paul II said, other than affirming the work of farmers as a needed vocation. Jesus was not at all interested in being a king in the conventional sense. He did not seek popularity or work to consolidate power through sheer force of will or personality. Instead, he died. And he calls us to die, as well – to die to our plans and to our perceived need to be in the know and hob-nob with a celebrity.

2. We must die to self.

This was the message of Jesus. There is no wiggle room to it. There are no walking dead zombies. Jesus responded to the request of the Greeks to see him by not even dealing with it but going on about what people really need to do: die to self.

To make his message clear and understandable, Jesus used the illustration of a seed that must die before it bears fruit.  Seeds wait to germinate until three needs are met: proper amounts of water, warm temperature, and good soil. During its early stages of growth, the seedling relies upon the food supplies stored within the seed until it is large enough for its own leaves to begin making food through photosynthesis. The seedling’s roots push down into the soil to anchor the new plant and to absorb water and minerals from the soil. And its stem with new leaves pushes up toward the light.

This is exactly the kind of process Jesus said needs to happen with people in the kingdom of God. People must never settle for remaining as seeds because that is not what we are designed for. Jesus wants us to be transformed, to experience new life, and to bear righteous fruit. To follow Jesus means to die being a seed and growing into a fruit bearing plant with more seeds to have the whole process occur again.

Jesus said that the person who “hates” their life will gain eternal life. That is, the person who is willing to give up everything to follow Jesus will find true life in Christ. The one who serves Jesus will follow him. Hate is simply a biblical term that means we make the choice to avoid one path in favor of another.

When living in West Michigan, my family enjoyed summers on the beaches of Lake Michigan. My girls loved being there on hot summer days. The beaches are actual sand, not with any gravel or dirt. I would tell my girls to follow me and walk in my footprints. I told them that not only because it would be easier for them to walk, but so they would not stray from me.

Lent is a season designed for us to remember Jesus, to remember we belong to God, and to repent of anything that keeps us away from the Lord.  This brings us to the third way we need to die….

3. We are to die to the world.

Now is the time for judgment on the world. The prince of this world is driven out. The death of Jesus means we can now die to the world. “World” is not the people of this world, in the sense of John 3:16 that God loves the world. This is “world” as the unjust systems that operate within it. Christ achieved victory over this world. He died so that we no longer need to be locked into the oppressive ways of bondage and evil.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever.

1 John 2:15-17, NLT

Jesus lived in a vastly different manner than people expected. He was quite counter-cultural. Christ rarely submitted to the usual way of doing things. Jesus did not operate like a worldly king. He did not teach like a worldly instructor. He died not only to redeem individuals but also to redeem entire systems and transform them into instruments of godliness. 

God cares about systemic evil, about ways of operating which keep people in bondage. Jesus cares about politics, economics, and social structures. He cares about governments and municipalities. The Lord cares about school systems and family systems and, yes, even church systems. Jesus died so that we can die to the world’s broken systems. God desires all our institutional ways of operation come under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

It will not do to only focus on private spirituality because Jesus wants to redeem the entire planet, systems included. Jesus is the Judge, and he is currently about the business by means of the Holy Spirit of making all things new. Eventually, the new creation will completely take over when Jesus returns. Now, in the present time, we have this crazy mixture of good and evil everywhere we go. Christians are to follow Jesus personally and privately, as well as corporately and publicly.

For example, the “factory system” is an actual phrase. The factory system is designed to mass produce products with the greatest efficiency possible. And it works. However, in the process, people become extensions of the machines they operate. With efficiency and production as the highest priorities, people can be replaced like cogs in the machine. 

Walk into many American factories and you will see sagging morale and deep animosities between workers and management because the system itself is inherently flawed. Simply implementing some safety protocols and giving a few raises are merely zombie tactics. The system still needs redemption.

When we take seriously the call to follow Christ, we see that the world and its systems are fundamentally broken and in need of redemption. Jesus has deposed the ruler of this world, Satan, through crucifixion and resurrection. We need to die to this world and to systemic evil.

Conclusion

We all become frustrated and discouraged at times, either with ourselves and/or with the world’s evil that exists around us, making our lives hard and even unbearable. Jesus knows how you feel. His soul was troubled with all the sin of the world. And he faced agony beyond anything we will ever know by allowing himself to die. The kind of death Jesus died was awful. It was that way because that is how horrible sin and sinful systems are.

Today Jesus is calling us to die – die to our plans of how we think things should go; die to ourselves by following in his footsteps; and die to participating in the sinful structures and systems of this evil world. We are to live differently. We are to live new lives – which means not simply tweaking some things but completely re-orienting our lives to serve the Lord.

Jesus is drawing us to himself. He is making himself known. Let us not treat Jesus as a novelty, but as the rightful Ruler of the universe by dying to our plans, ourselves, and the world.

The Need for Sacrifice

Man of Suffering by Georges Rouault, 1942
Ecce Homo by French artist Georges Rouault, 1942

Christ’s Church is not so much made up of saints or sinners as it is made up of saintly sinners and sinning saints.  The Church is at the same time both beautiful and ugly, holy, and wicked, full of faith and full of fear.  The Body of Christ is the place of spiritual sensitivity as well as a den of depravity.  So, anyone searching for a squeaky-clean church on a nice upward path of success with everything done to perfection and where no one ever gets hurt or unhappy… it does not exist; and, it never did.

Jesus stands alongside his imperfect people, despite their faults and egotism.  Jesus intimately knows our damaged emotions and our open putrid spiritual abscesses.  Yet, he treats us with mercy because he never tires of rehabilitating and reforming his Church.

Christ’s disciple, Peter, is the poster child for all the mixed motives and imperfect following of God we experience. For example, Peter stepped out of the boat in great faith and walked on the water, only to begin sinking because of his great fear. It was Peter who made a bold and right confession of faith, and then turned around here in our story for today and bought into Satan’s agenda. And Jesus was right there next to Peter all the way. Christ both rebukes and loves, all the while never abandoning us, but always working in and through us to accomplish his kingdom purposes.

Here is what we need to know or be reminded of today: Following Jesus involves pain and sacrifice because we live in a broken mixed-up world, and, on top of it, Christ’s Church is still imperfect and in the process of becoming holy.  If we will admit it, we are all like Peter – a little devil who needs to get in line behind Jesus. (Matthew 16:21-28)

Peter Admonishes Jesus
Peter Admonishes Jesus by Unknown artist

We all, at times, get frustrated and/or disgusted with the whole church thing.  We can whine and complain and even avoid it.  Or, we can commit to taking up our cross, and give our lives for Jesus Christ.  We can choose to put love into the church where love is not, even when we do not feel loved. Priest and professor, Ron Rollheiser, once gave the following analogy about staying together around Jesus:

Imagine that the family is home for Christmas, but your spouse is sulking, you are fighting being tired and angry, your seventeen year old son is restless and doesn’t want to be there, your aging mother isn’t well and you are anxious about her, your uncle Charlie is batty as an owl… and everyone is too lazy or selfish to help you prepare the dinner.  You are ready to celebrate but your family is anything but a Hallmark card.  All their hurts and hang-ups are not far from the surface, but you are celebrating Christmas and, underneath it all, there is joy present.  A human version of the messianic banquet is taking place and a human family is meeting around Christ’s birth….

In the same way, here we are, the community of the redeemed. We gather in our imperfect way, a crazy mix of sinner and saint.  But we gather in and around Jesus – and that makes all the difference.  There is a reason we are here on this earth, a reason much bigger than all our dysfunctional ways and dyspeptic attitudes. Jesus Christ is building-up the people of God and he will keep doing it until the end of the age. In other words, Jesus is not quite finished with us yet; we still have some things to learn about the need for sacrifice.

The need for sacrifice by Jesus. (Matthew 16:21-23)

Jesus stated openly and in detail what must happen.  It was necessary for Christ to suffer deeply and die a cruel death; it was God’s will and plan. Yet, good ol’ Peter was not down for this plan, at all.  He took Jesus aside and rebuked him, believing him to be off his rocker for even suggesting such a terrible scenario.  Jesus, however, turned the tables on Peter and rebuked him right back.  Essentially, what Jesus said is that being Christ-centered without being cross-centered is satanic.

The error of Peter was that he presumed to know what was best for Jesus. He believed the suffering of the cross would “never” happen. Peter’s perceptions were dim and limited; he did not clearly see how broken the world really is and how much it would take to heal it. Jesus needed to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the entire planet.

Crucifixion of Christ by Georges Rouault, 1936
Crucifixion of Christ by Georges Rouault, 1936

Sometimes, like Peter, we might think that the way I see and the way I perceive is the way things really are, or, at least, how they should be. Peter had been walking with Jesus for a few years, watching and enjoying his ministry of teaching, healing, and extending compassion.  It was all good for Peter, and, therefore in his mind, it should not change. Peter wanted to hold this moment forever. After all, why try and fix something that is not broken? Oh, but broken the world is – so much so that it required the ultimate sacrifice.

Just because it was good for Peter did not mean it was good for everybody or should always be this way.  If Peter were to have his way, we would all be in hell right now; it would not have been good for us.  We, like Peter, are finite humans with limited understanding and perceptions.  We can easily slip into a satanic mode of believing that because something is going fine for me that everyone else is doing okay, too.  I like it, I want it, so what is the problem?

The problem is that we too easily look at life through narrowly selfish lenses, and then cannot see other people’s needs; cannot perceive the lost world around us with any sense of reality; cannot see that Jesus has an agenda very different from our own.  Our limited perceptions come out in saying things like, “Oh, she is just depressed because she is avoiding responsibility.”  “People on government welfare are lazy.”  “He’s addicted because he doesn’t want to help himself.”  “They’re demonstrating on the streets because they are a bunch of malcontents.” These, and a legion of statements like it, betray a satanic worldview devoid of grace and a compulsive need to find blame, believing that if there is personal suffering there must be personal sin.

In truth, we are all part of one human family, and we are all in this together; one person’s joys are our joys; one person’s struggles are our struggles. We really are our brother’s keeper. The detachment we can have toward other human beings is completely foreign to the words of Jesus.  The Christian life involves suffering, and Jesus invites us to follow him in his way of sacrifice.

The need for sacrifice by the followers of Jesus. (Matthew 16:24-28)

There is a way to reverse demonic thinking.  Jesus issues an invitation to practice self-denial, to fall in line behind him, and walk with him in his suffering.  Self-denial is not so much doing something like giving up sweets for Lent as it is giving up on ourselves as our own masters.  It is the decision to make the words and ways of Jesus the guiding direction for our lives.  It is the choice to quit holding onto the way I think things ought to be, and to take the time to listen to Jesus.

The logic of Jesus is relentless.  Life comes through death, so, we must give up our lives to find them.  It does us no good to adulterate our lives by serving the gods of success and perfectionism.  Jesus invites us to quit our moonlighting job with the world and go all in with him.  Only in this way will we truly find life.

Jesus was saying more than just submitting to suffering – we are to embrace it. In doing so, we will find reward and joy.  For those familiar with this path, they can tell you that suffering is a blessing because they have found the true purpose and meaning of life.

Crucifixion with Lamp by Colin McCahon 1947
Crucifixion with Lamp by New Zealand artist Colin McCahon, 1947

Few people have suffered as much as the nineteenth-century missionary medical doctor to Africa, David Livingstone.  He was a pioneer explorer who opened the interior of Africa to the outside world.  He had two reasons for doing so: To be able to take the good news of Christ’s suffering to the African people; and, to open Africa to legitimate trade so that the illicit slave trade would end.

Dr. Livingstone’s hand was once bitten and maimed by a lion; his wife died while on the mission field; he was most often alone on his travels; the one house he built was destroyed in a fire; he was typically wracked with dysentery and fever, or some other illness in the jungle.  Someone once commented to him that he had sacrificed a lot for going in the way of Jesus. Livingstone’s response was, “Sacrifice? The only sacrifice is to live outside the will of God.”  When asked what helped him get through so much hardship, he said that the words of Jesus to take up his cross were always ringing in his ears.

We may believe we must watch out for ourselves; that we need to push for our personal preferences; that if I accept this invitation to follow Jesus in the way of self-denial I will be miserable and people will walk all over me. Such thoughts are demonic whispers in our ears.

There are two ways of thinking and approaching the Christian life: There is the way which believes success, perfection, and a pain-free life is the evidence of God’s working; while the other way believes that suffering is right and necessary to connect with God and to be in solidarity with those who suffer.

Suffering, rejection, and execution did not fit into Peter’s church growth plan or factor into his view of Messiah. So, I will say it plainly: We do not exist only for ourselves. We do not exist to be a spiritual country club.  We do exist to follow Jesus in his path of sacrifice and suffering for a world of people who desperately need to know the grace of forgiveness and the mercy of Christ. Jesus died.  We are to die to ourselves. Christ lives; so, we are to live a new life.  In God’s upside-down kingdom, joy comes through suffering. We are to follow Jesus as the mix of sinners and saints that we are.

Peter eventually learned his lesson from Jesus. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, Peter caught fire with courage and boldness – which landed him in hot water with the Jewish ruling council. As a result, he was severely whipped and flogged and told to keep in line. Peter’s response demonstrates how far he had come. He left the experience rejoicing that he had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 5:41)

May dear old Peter’s spiritual tribe increase.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 – Good Friday

CrossChrist
Depiction of Christ on the Cross at Holy Hill in Hubertus, Wisconsin

The Lord says, “See, my servant will act wisely.
People will greatly honor and respect him.
Many people were shocked when they saw him.
His appearance was so damaged he did not look like a man;
his form was so changed they could barely tell he was human.
But now he will surprise many nations.
Kings will be amazed and shut their mouths.
They will see things they had not been told about him,
and they will understand things they had not heard.”

Who would have believed what we heard?
Who saw the Lord’s power in this?
He grew up like a small plant before the Lord,
like a root growing in a dry land.
He had no special beauty or form to make us notice him;
there was nothing in his appearance to make us desire him.
He was hated and rejected by people.
He had much pain and suffering.
People would not even look at him.
He was hated, and we didn’t even notice him.

But he took our suffering on him
and felt our pain for us.
We saw his suffering
and thought God was punishing him.
But he was wounded for the wrong we did;
he was crushed for the evil we did.
The punishment, which made us well, was given to him,
and we are healed because of his wounds.
We all have wandered away like sheep;
each of us has gone his own way.
But the Lord has put on him the punishment
for all the evil we have done.

He was beaten down and punished,
but he didn’t say a word.
He was like a lamb being led to be killed.
He was quiet, as a sheep is quiet while its wool is being cut;
he never opened his mouth.
Men took him away roughly and unfairly.
He died without children to continue his family.
He was put to death;
he was punished for the sins of my people.
He was buried with wicked men,
and he died with the rich.
He had done nothing wrong,
and he had never lied.

But it was the Lord who decided
to crush him and make him suffer.
The Lord made his life a penalty offering,
but he will still see his descendants and live a long life.
He will complete the things the Lord wants him to do.
“After his soul suffers many things,
he will see life and be satisfied.
My good servant will make many people right with God;
he will carry away their sins.
For this reason I will make him a great man among people,
and he will share in all things with those who are strong.
He willingly gave his life
and was treated like a criminal.
But he carried away the sins of many people
and asked forgiveness for those who sinned.” (NCV)

We all suffer.  In some way, whether a chronic physical condition, emotional or moral distress, mental illness, or spiritual oppression, everyone faces living in a fallen world with its pain and heartache.  Presently, the entire world is suffering the scourge of the COVID-19 virus.  Every person in my neighborhood, city, state, and nation is impacted and affected.  Not only do many suffer because of disease and death itself, all are enduring either lost wages, limitations, loneliness or more.  Suffering that seems to have no reason, the senseless kind, the type where nothing good appears to be going on at all can be very troubling to our souls.

Perhaps it seems ironic, maybe even cruel, that Christians would observe a day called “Good” Friday.  Considering the hard circumstances of so many people, to call today “good” appears awkward, as if Christ’s followers have their heads in the sand.  Even for Christians, at first glance, “Good Friday” might seem a oxymoronic for a day observing the torture and death of an innocent man.  Some would argue that Christ is no longer on the cross and we need to give all our focus on the resurrected Jesus and the victory he achieved.  No need for all this suffering stuff.  Yet, the Resurrection only has meaning because of this very day, Good Friday.  Without the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, there is no King Jesus.  For Christians everywhere, this day is very good in the sense that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ means the redemption of the world.  On this day we remember and commemorate the events that led up to the cross; unpack those events and interpret them with profound meaning and significance; and, worship Jesus with heartfelt gratitude because of his redeeming work of the cross.

16th St Baptist Church Crucifixion Stained Glass Window
This stained-glass window was donated to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama by the people of Wales after the church was bombed in 1963.

The bulk of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are given over to the final week of Christ’s life, especially leading to the cross.  Good Friday observances often take a somber form due to the brevity of Christ’s experience on the cross.  Christians remember the last words of Christ, and recognize the significant impact his death had on the immediate persons around him.  Believers also contemplate the lasting results of that singular death as an atoning sacrifice; perfect love; reconciliation between God and humanity; victory over evil; and, redeeming all creation.

Sadness, then, is far from the only emotive expression on this day.  It is appropriate to feel wonder, gratitude, and deep satisfaction for the accomplishment of deliverance from the power of sin.  There is the recognition that something profound and meaningful has truly happened in the egregious suffering of Jesus.  Thus, we not only remember the anguish of Christ, but what that horrible torment accomplished.  In fact, the cross of Jesus is so significant that an eternity of considering its import and impact could never plumb the depths of its far-reaching effects.

With all that has been said, one would think that Good Friday is a hugely observed day on the Christian Calendar.  Yet, for a chunk of churches and Christians, it’s not.  The bottom line is that the cross is not popular.  Maybe it’s because neither Christian nor non-Christian wants to ponder something that appears so icky and bloody.

Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge has adroitly put her finger on the issue: “Religious people want visionary experiences and spiritual uplift; secular people want proofs, arguments, demonstrations, philosophy, and science.  The striking fact is that neither one of these groups wants to hear about the cross.”  Indeed, as the Apostle Paul has said, the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

A personalized religion which leaves the cross out of the picture (too much blood and violence) might seem appealing yet will only leave us bereft of the communion of the saints both past and present.  Consider the ancient witness of the Church:

“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord… he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell.” –Apostles’ Creed

“For our sake he [Christ] was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” –Nicene Creed

Christ suffered “in both body and soul – in such a way that when he sensed the horrible punishment required by our sins ‘his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.’  He cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  And he endured all this for the forgiveness of our sins.  Therefore, we rightly say with the Apostle Paul that we know nothing ‘except Jesus Christ, and him crucified;’ we ‘regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.’ We find all comforts in his wounds and have no need to seek or invent any other means than this one and only sacrifice, once made, which renders believers perfect forever.” –Belgic Confession, Article 21

And let us consider further the New Testament witness:

“Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.  Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured.” (Hebrews 13:12-13, NIV)

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14, NRSV)

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The extent of Good Friday goes far beyond just a day on the calendar; it is the fulcrum upon which all of Christianity hinges.  Because Christ suffered, our suffering has meaning.  Each situation of trauma; every case of disease; all adversity and wholesale hard circumstances make sense, in the Christian tradition, when they are viewed in solidarity with Jesus Christ crucified. So, today, let Christians everywhere contemplate the cross, observe the salvation accomplished through Christ’s death, and offer prayers and petitions for those who need deliverance from the power of evil.  In short, let us worship God in Jesus Christ because of the suffering on the cross.

Along with all believers everywhere we pray:

Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.

Jesus, Bearer of our sins, have mercy on us.

Jesus, Redeemer of the world, grant us your peace.  Amen.

Click Were You There performed by The Vigil Project as we station ourselves near the cross.