Friday, April 22, 2011

Homily: Good Friday [April 22, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

Today, Good Friday we gather literally and figuratively at the cross. We have just taken part in a dramatic, liturgical reading of John’s account of the Passion story. We have been with Jesus through his betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and now death. Though prior experience tells us the story will have a good and surprising end, for now Jesus is simply dead. He has come up against the imperial systems of state and religion, and he has been crushed by them.

For those of us who live in the 21st century—especially in the time of so much unrest in various parts of the world—the spectacle of a person being obliterated by oppressive, powerful forces should feel familiar. Systems organized around power are essentially reactive: when they are threatened, they respond aggressively. Jesus’s offense seems not to have been anything overtly political or theological. He did not challenge established government or religious orthodoxy. His offense was more subtle, and therefore more dangerous. He taught people how to live under oppressive authority without giving themselves over to it. The system knows what to do to freedom fighters. It does not know what to do to people who simply choose to live freely. So it kills them.

When the earliest Christians reflected on the passion of Jesus, they turned to the Hebrew Bible and borrowed these words from Isaiah:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,

and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53.6]

The earliest Christians saw in the betrayal, arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus something that succeeding generations have understood as well: they saw that even though you and I were not literally present at the scene, we might as well have been. They saw that, like it or not, you and I are implicated in what went on there. If we see this as a story only about a good person being crushed by a bunch of bad guys, we will have missed the point. In the dramatic reading of the Passion Gospel, I have long thought that the congregation should read the parts of both the crowd and of Jesus. This is a story about us—about the ways we combine innocence and guilt within ourselves. In this story we are both Jesus and the ones who betray him. The reason it speaks to us so deeply and so powerfully is that it gets at the complex duality of our nature as human beings. All of us are a mixture of both sinner and saint. You and I are not only the crowd in this story. We are Jesus, too.

One of the hardest things about Good Friday is to hear again the details about how they treat Jesus physically, in that they desecrate his body:

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face.’ . . . So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew* is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. . . . After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. . . .But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. [John 19]

Good Friday always catches us up short because it enacts not just the rejection of a person’s ideas but the destruction of his body. We tend, as modern or post-modern rationalistic people to think of religion as a story of ideas. But the Bible comes to us from a pre-modern world, a place and a time when people saw that, to use Emerson’s words, “Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.” [Nature, Chapter IV, “Language”] The betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus are events acted out in a real, physical, human life. You and I are right to see ourselves figured not only in that One’s betrayers, but also in that One himself.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,

and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53.6]

Christianity proclaims the inseparable connection between God and human beings. With the Jews, we believe that God made human beings in God’s image. We take that one step further, though, in our assertion that God was uniquely present in the life and ministry of Jesus. In other words, we believe that God became one of us in Jesus. And if God became one of us in Jesus, that means that, in Jesus’s passion—in his betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death—God has experienced what you and I experience in the pains and struggles of life. After the events of Good Friday, God knows what it is like to be us. And if God knows what it is like to be us, then that knowledge changes the relationship between us and God dramatically. We can no longer picture God either as a divine monarch or a gaseous abstraction. We can only picture God now as someone embodied, someone who has lived and died as one of us.

This Lent I have been revisiting one of my favorite theological books, The Body of God, by Sallie McFague. It is a book in which she asserts, “The world is our meeting place with God . . .as the body of God, it is wondrously, awesomely, divinely mysterious.” [p. vii] If Jesus is God for us localized in a particular human being, then McFague wants us to see the world itself—physical material creation, the planet, matter, all of the world’s creatures—as the physical embodiment of God. Seen this way, we are all embodiments of mind and spirit. The world is the embodiment of God. Therefore: when we mistreat or desecrate others or ourselves, we mistreat and desecrate God. And when we mistreat and desecrate the world and its creatures, we desecrate God. Sallie McFague thinks, and I agree with her, that our confusion about our relationship to our own bodies leads to a similar confusion about the world. She says,

The ambivalence and at times abhorrence that we see . . . in regard to the body—in all its manifestations—indicates a deep sickness in our culture: self-hatred. To the extent we do not like bodies, we do not like ourselves. Whatever more or other we may be, we are bodies, made up of the same stuff as all other life-forms on our planet . . .[p. 16]

Jesus got into trouble with the authorities not because he preached rebellion but because he questioned the fundamental self-hatred on which all oppressive systems are built. In his day, this self-hatred was manifested in appeals to various kinds of religious, political, or ethnic exclusivity: Roman is better than Jew, Jew is better than Samaritan, Pharisee is better than Sadducee, and so on. In our day, this self-hatred is manifested in appeals to ethnic and racial superiority and also in all forms of commercialism. Don’t like yourself? At least you’re better than those other people from that strange place who believe and behave differently than you do. And you’ll be better still if you buy Brand X. Self-hatred is attitude exploited by all oppressive systems, political and economic. It holds out a false vision of what an acceptable person looks, sounds, dresses, and acts like. It always holds out the false hope that you can be acceptable only by becoming someone other than who you actually are.

So what would happen, if like Jesus, we actually didn’t hate ourselves? What if, like Jesus, we actually loved and accepted ourselves? What if we saw the totality of who we are—our gifts, abilities, weird habits, personal tics, shortcomings—what if we saw ourselves as worthy of love and blessing and acceptance? If we did that, we’d probably stop stigmatizing or blaming other people for our problems. If we did that, we would treat others and ourselves more respectfully. If we did that, we would not be sitting ducks for every new gadget, cosmetic, or deodorant that comes along. If we lived as Jesus did we would be happy, peaceful, and fulfilled. And we’d also be a threat to all the world’s systems that continue to operate by appealing to self-hatred in all its devious disguises.

Gathering with Jesus at the cross today can be a meaningless exercise in self-flagellation, or it can be a call into new life. Jesus goes to the cross not so you will feel bad about what happened there. This is, after all, called GOOD Friday. Jesus goes to the cross because he was perhaps the first person in human history—perhaps the only person in human history—who fully accepted himself as he was, who was not willing to sign on to a bad program or idea simply to assuage his sense of personal inferiority. Jesus lived robustly, fully, authentically. The human political and religious systems in which we are all enmeshed responded reactively. But they were not able to make him become someone other than who he was.

In a coincidence of the calendar, today, Good Friday, April 22, is also Earth Day. Christianity dares to proclaim two radical, powerful truths. God is embodied in us. God is embodied in the world. As those who bring Jesus to the cross, we know ourselves to be capable of all kinds of aggression, sin, enmity, and hatred. As those who are brought to the cross, we also know ourselves to be capable of compassion, nobility, and grace. That is the mixed bag of who we are. Our life does not go on only in our heads. It goes on in our bodies. Just as our minds and spirits are embodied in our physical beings, so God is embodied in us. And just as God is embodied in us, so God is embodied in the world.

Our task, therefore, as those who gather at the cross with Jesus, is to live as he did, as those who know and love and accept ourselves and God’s world, as those who refuse to give in to the world’s siren song of self-hatred. The oppressive forces of the life—imperial, political, commercial—beckon to you to escape yourself by trying to become someone you’re not. The love and compassion of God in Christ beckon you to a different song: a song of love for yourself as you are, acceptance of yourself as you are, a song of empathy with and compassion for all God’s lovable and blessed creatures. If you respond to that song, you will become secure in that knowledge and begin to commit yourself to loving and blessing God as God is made manifest in the world and all its bodies—the planet itself, other people, all the non-human creatures with whom we share creation, and that most particular and wonderful body of them all, your own.

Today, Good Friday, we and people like us defiled and desecrated Jesus in his person and his body. Today, Good Friday, we too were defiled and desecrated as Jesus stood for us. As we take in and mourn how we did this to Jesus, let us also take in and mourn how we did this to ourselves. Jesus gave his body and his life that you might love and respect yours. And loving yourself now as he loves you, you are free to love and embrace your brother and sister human beings, our plant and animal siblings, and God’s world.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,

and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53.6]

Amen.