Saturday, March 26, 2016

We are the Nails: A Good Friday Sermon

A Sermon Preached at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Delaplane, Virginia
Good Friday, March 25, 2016
Gospel reading - John 18:1-19:42

In the name of one God, the Father who created us, the Son who sacrificed for us, and the Holy Spirit that strengthens and sustains us. Amen.

The lectionary from which we take our Lessons and Gospel readings throughout the church year provides preachers with some outstanding material. We get to experience anew the beauty and wonder of the creation of this Earth and the universe in which we find ourselves. We can rejoice with the Israelites as they at long last, after 40 years of wandering and struggling in the wilderness, reach the Promised Land.

There are the spectacular moments such as when Jesus taps 12 ordinary men – fisherman and tax collectors – to leave their nets and counting tables and follow him to do extraordinary things. And we can see through the eyes of those whom Jesus fed and healed and freed from the possession of demons and the dark hopelessness of their lives.

Without question, the Bible is filled with stories of wonder, beauty and magnificence. But it is also full of moments of hardship and tragedy and obstacles that seemingly cannot be overcome. And that is where we find ourselves this evening, at the close of the day on which we recall and reflect on the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made for each of us: the sacrifice of himself.

The passion narrative that we just heard is powerful and dark and – for many – extremely emotional. And for me, that’s a great challenge as I stand in the pulpit: how does one preach on good news when faced with such a painful moment?

Throughout his ministry, and especially the week between Palm Sunday and today, Jesus was followed by large crowds. An untold number of people crowded around him as he rode on the back of a donkey through the gates of Jerusalem.

They undoubtedly hung on his every word as he spent his final days preaching and speaking against the corruption of the authorities of the Temple and the Roman occupiers. And as we know from his trial, a large crowd gathered to cry for the release of Barabbas and the condemnation of Jesus to death.

Despite the near-constant presence of crowds, however, the Gospel reading for today only identifies a few people gathered at the foot of the cross: three women, including Jesus’ mother; the anonymous beloved disciple; and some soldiers – far fewer than were at the arrest in Gethsemane, for I think in the mind of the authorities it would have been much easier to try and escape a garden than to escape the cross.

But I think that the same crowds that had rejoiced at his arrival and then condemned him to death were also there on this day. And I think they were standing off to the side, watching the nails being driven into Jesus’ wrists and feet, listening as he cried out to his Father, and looking on silently as he drew his last breath.

Yes, I think the crowd was at the cross – but I think they were feeling shame, and embarrassment, and fear. After following his ministry and sharing in his journey, they were now uncomfortable and quiet and afraid. They had to have been wondering, “What have we done?”

In these last hours, they had discovered for themselves the limits of just how far they were willing to follow Jesus. They followed him to the cross, but they were not at the cross.

And somewhere deep inside, I think that as they listened to the sound of the hammer, they may have even thought to themselves, “We are the nails.”

How often in our own lives might we ourselves have been nails, being driven into others through our words and actions? Perhaps there have been words spoken in haste and anger, without consideration for the feelings of those receiving them. Maybe we allowed ourselves to forget someone else who might need a bit of love or attention at a particular moment in their own life, sacrificing our work as disciples for something we thought was more important.

There may have even been a time when we have felt the nails being driven into us as the priorities and distractions of our lives step in and separate us a bit from the God who loves us. The stress of making sure there’s enough in the bank to pay the bills. Wondering if a damaged relationship with a treasured friend can be mended. A health issue that, despite doctors’ visits and constant treatment, won’t seem to go away. Times when everyday life brings sadness and fear rather than joy and hopeful expectation.

In our own journeys, there are individual moments when we may find ourselves standing a distance away from the cross. And these are the times when we see glimpses of the good news. For it is in these moments that we have the opportunity to take Jesus down from that cross.

In opposition to that crowd 2,000 years ago that clamored for the crucifixion of Jesus and then stood by as the nails were driven in, we have a chance to un-nail Christ – and in so doing, to free ourselves to be un-nailed and redeemed by Jesus.

Sometimes when I am working on sermons, I will take time to look at various icons on the Gospel readings and see how different artists portrayed these events. While working on this one, I ran across a photograph of an icon from an Orthodox Church in Town and Country, Missouri. In this instance, the artist had depicted the moment when Jesus was taken down from the cross. This rendering shows the women and the beloved disciple had been joined by others – several other people, in fact, who were carefully and lovingly taking him down.

In the artist’s mind, where did these people come from? There’s no way of knowing. We just heard that, with Pilate’s permission, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took the body – but I don’t think they did it alone. There’s no proof for this, but I can’t help but wonder if some from the crowd – perhaps two or three men and women – experienced something that brought them from standing near the cross over to the foot of the cross, to bring down the body of the one sacrificed for their sins. Two or three more joined with a small group that removed the nails, embraced the body, and wrapped it for burial.

We are this small group. On this Good Friday, and throughout the year, we can take out the nails and bring Jesus down from the cross – and in so doing, open ourselves to the healing that we can and do receive from him.

I often think of Henri Nouwen, who himself struggled with his own understanding of what this day means. As he wrote, "Jesus was broken on the cross. He lived his suffering and death not as an evil to avoid at all costs, but as a mission to embrace. We too are broken. We live with broken bodies, broken hearts, broken minds or broken spirits. We suffer from broken relationships. How can we live our brokenness? Jesus invites us to embrace our brokenness as he embraced the cross and live it as part of our mission. He asks us not to reject our brokenness as a curse from God that reminds us of our sinfulness but to accept it and put it under God's blessing for our purification and sanctification. Thus our brokenness can become a gateway to new life."

Let us remove the nails from ourselves and others. Let us be the ones who takes Jesus down off the cross. And let us allow our brokenness to be healed, so that we ourselves may be agents of healing.