A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on April 14, 2006.
Based on John19:1-37 (Good Friday, Year B).
It’s rare to see a crucifix in an Episcopal Church. Perhaps we’re turned off by the image of the broken body. The nails, the blood, the agony; it’s all a bit too grisly for our sensibilities. We prefer a simple cross, allowing us to reflect instead upon the resurrected Christ. But if ever there was a day in the liturgical year that we cannot ignore the reality of the crucifixion, it is Good Friday. Because there’s nothing metaphorical about our Lord’s being nailed to the hard wood of the cross. The grim reality of human pain cannot be pushed aside or explained away. The torture is real. There is finality in death.
Over the past 12 months we have been bombarded with images of torture. Rendering images of Christ’s passion harder than ever to abide. Images of the Abu Graib Prison abuse remain seared into our collective consciousness. Pictures of half-naked prisoners remind us of the lots cast for Jesus’ own clothing. The taunting of shackled men reminds us of Jesus’ own treatment at the hands of the Roman soldiers. And it’s not just Abu Graib. Sadaam Hussein’s ongoing war crimes trial has brought out images of his regime’s torture and tactics of intimidation. As has the recent arrest of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia responsible for the brutality in Sierra Leone. It goes on and on. Torture, the slaughter of the innocent, is not something new. It’s not something that we have evolved beyond. It still happens. To us and by us.
On Good Friday we remember that we, as human beings, are complicit in this abuse. It is not “them” or “over there” or anything else. It is us, right here, right now. As difficult as this is to admit, it is part of the answer to Pilate’s question, “What is truth.” The truth is, we are not innocent bystanders, but active participant in Christ’s death. Whether through our sinfulness or our apathy we have helped drive in the nails. Yes, we “were there” when they crucified our Lord. We “were there” when they nailed him to the tree and pierced his side and laid him in the tomb. We were there. This doesn’t make us evil, just human. And on this day the weakness of humanity is exposed for all the world to see.
But the good news of Good Friday is that Jesus’ death was not in vain. It wasn’t a senseless killing. Because the crucifixion is ultimately an act of love. Jesus laying down his life for his friends expresses the love of God for all of humanity. Even in our sinfulness; even in our weakness. Which is why we refer to it as the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. God’s love for us is a passionate love. God is passionate about God’s own creation. And we are loved not because we are blameless, not because we are sinless. We are loved simply because we exist as part of God’s creation.
The trial scene we read from John’s gospel each Good Friday is high courtroom drama. It cuts rapidly back and forth between all the players: Pilate, the crowd, Jesus, the chief priests. But in the end, it is all a mock trial. Despite outward appearances, Pilate is not in control; his verdict is irrelevant and there is no truth in it. The coming resurrection will show just how absurd it all is. For there is a deeper truth at work here. A truth that cannot be contained by condemnation, a cross, a tomb, or even death itself.
The real tragedy here is not in the pronouncement of guilt upon an innocent man. These proceedings are all part of the working out of God’s plan. The real tragedy is that Pilate and the chief priests have rejected God. Their words and actions in this trial ultimately condemn not Jesus but themselves. The real truth here, the underlying truth, is that Jesus’ kingship is just beginning, not ending. The truth is being revealed, not silenced.
What is truth, what is power, what is kingship? The answers cannot be found in this world. Which is why Pilate’s verdict is not binding. Which is why a cross doesn’t lead to death. Which is why an implement of death can become the instrument of salvation.
And yet none of this minimizes the fact of Jesus’ cruel death. We, as human beings, have participated in this. We have cried “crucify him.” For the next three days we must live with this before we can participate in his resurrection. But today we stand at the foot of the cross. We acknowledge its horror even as we anticipate the joy that is to come. “It is finished,” yes. But we have yet to hear the final word.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2006