Sermon for Good Friday 2014
Last night we stripped the altar bare, removed all the fine linens and cloths and fancy fabrics, and washed and cleaned the altar. Of course, it’s really just a symbolic act. This altar never really gets dirty, most altars don’t. So it would be easy for us to overlook, or to forget, just how messy and dirty sacrifice can actually be.
Many years ago, when I was a seminarian at Christ Church in New Haven, the church produced a poster to advertise our Holy Week services. And on the poster was a painting of a lamb tied up and lying upon an altar. You may have seen it, the poster is in my office. We got a number of complaints about the poster from people that were horrified that a Christian church would depict a lamb being prepared to be slaughtered, and right at Easter. Our response was “well what did you think that the Jews were doing to the lambs?” They weren’t playing with them. The Passover lambs were slaughtered on the altar and it was bloody and brutal.
We have for too long allowed people to sanitize and sterilize our religion to the point where it is in danger of becoming nothing more than a philosophy of being nice: a bland milk-toast way of feeling good about ourselves and perhaps a little self-righteous. It makes us too uncomfortable if we have to confront what sacrifice is really about. We, like Pilate, don’t want any blood on our hands. We want to be good people without getting messy. We want to show up looking clean and pretty on Easter Sunday, without having to deal with the blood and gore of Good Friday. There are plenty of people who would love to sell you that religion. The stores see nothing inherently offensive or insulting about selling chocolate crosses and I assure you that if you go to the Holy Land theme park in Orlando, you will not see any lambs being slaughtered. We want the glory without the pain, but the truth is you can’t have one without the other. There is no Easter without Good Friday. There is no life, without death.
Perhaps we have been too insulated against death in our modern world. We buy our meat in nice little packages, all cut up so that it bears no resemblance to the animal it came from, so that we won’t have to think about the fact that this very food which gives us life, is there for us because of the death of another living creature. There aren’t many of us here that have had to kill our own dinner, and if we have, it was mostly likely for sport and not out of necessity.
We don’t want to think of death as a necessary part of life, it makes us uncomfortable. It causes our kids to ask us questions that we would rather not answer. So instead of dealing with reality, we whitewash it. But to do so only cripples our faith and prevents it from being very useful when we encounter pain, suffering, blood and death in the real world. Furthermore I am convinced that turning our faces away from the painful reality of sacrifice is not only an insult to our intelligence (because deep down we know better), but it is also an insult to our Lord.
It insults our Lord because it diminishes the significance of his suffering. If we want to act like death isn’t a big deal, or that sacrifice is a relatively easy thing, then what was the point of the cross? What was the point of God suffering and dying for us if it scarcely gets our attention? The point of the incarnation is that his wounds are real wounds, and the crucifixion hurt him as much as it would have hurt any of us.
The idea that God would be willing to suffer for us is one of the core ideas of Christianity. It is critically important, because suffering and death are a necessary part of life. We cannot avoid them. If we want our life to have meaning, even in the midst of suffering, even on the brink of death, then we need to be able to look to a God who understands that suffering. We need to be able to look to a God who knows our pain because he has walked that way himself. That is the power of our faith. It’s that it can take the worst pain, the worst suffering, the worst evil and transform it into something that has been redeemed by God.
Turning our heads away from the pain of sacrifice may alleviate our internal discomfort momentarily, but in the end it makes our suffering so much worse, because it strips our life and our faith of any real meaning and power.
One thing I like about old hymns, is that people a couple generations ago were not quite as squeamish as we are now, so the imagery that was used is often more graphic and blunt. Consider these hymn titles:
There is power in the blood
Are you washed in the blood?
Covered by the blood
Nothing but the blood
There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins
The list goes on. The point is that if we want our faith to have real power to save us and comfort us when life gets ugly, then we had better get over our squeamishness now and start looking at the blood of Jesus. We need to realize that the life that we often take for granted is given to us by the sacrifice of others. Our spiritual life, our eternal life is given to us by the sacrifice of Christ, and although our altar never gets any blood on it, we need to know that the sacrifice that Christ made, which we benefit from, was indeed a bloody one. Just like the altar before the temple in Jerusalem would have been covered with blood, so too was the cross of Christ, the altar on which our Passover lamb was sacrificed.
Today we are called to observe Jesus’s suffering and pain. We are called to draw near to the cross, to venerate it and to recognize the sacrifice that was made there.
My question to you is this:
Can you get close enough to the cross to actually get blood on you? Can you stand there with John and Mary and not look away? Can you not look away from his nakedness and his wounds?
The power of the cross is that if we can resist the temptation to look away from our Lord in the midst of his pain and suffering, we just may find that he is right there with us, when we are in the midst of ours.