A Good Friday Homily preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 10 April 2020
Good Friday. The darkest, most dreadful day of the Christian year. Every instinctual fiber in our bodies tempts us to push away from paying much more than lip service to the crucifixion and death of Jesus. As a fairly hard and fast emotional rule, we are content to give a nod to this day’s events and keep our distance: Perhaps this is the primal example of “social distancing”. After all, death is … so gloomy. And besides which, we all know how this Good Friday story ends up. So it is easy to leap over all the hard stuff and land in the wonder and loveliness of resurrection’s new life. But to do so creates a false Easter, a cheap Easter, a deadly lie, which makes this day anything but “good”.
In all this, I am reminded of a story that a friend told me years and years ago and swore that it was a true story. It is a story about a man who was looking to purchase a Confirmation gift for his grown Godchild. He went to the local jewelry shop to seek some help in finding what he had in mind as a gift. He wanted to buy a cross on a chain so that his Godchild might wear it around her neck as an ongoing reminder of her confirmed life in Christ.
Upon entering the store, a chipper young salesclerk welcomed him and asked if she could be of some help. The Godfather explained his situation and what he was looking for, to which the salesclerk confidently replied that the man had come to the right place. The store did indeed have crosses and various chains that made them suitable for wearing around the neck. In fact, they had crosses in silver, gold, pewter, wood, and ceramic versions. But with a tone of competence, she carefully pointed out that before choosing the material the cross was made of, there was a more basic decision that had to be made.
Impressed by her willingness to be so helpful, the Godfather nodded, as if to ask her to proceed with this fundamental issue. Whereupon the salesclerk moved-in slightly toward her customer, as if to convey a great and necessary insight and said: “Well sir, there are two kinds of crosses. There are plain ones and ones with little men on them.”
Those of us who are in the know about such things can chuckle at the clueless distinction between the plain crosses and the ones with “little men on them”; but the fact too often is that those of us who claim to follow Jesus often leave the symbolism and meaning of the cross of Christ just this theological side of jewelry and not much more. Yes, we can offer language about the cross that sounds meaningful and carries tidbits of truth. We can, for instance, talk a bit about Jesus “dying for our sins”, but our insights stop pretty much at that verbal point. In terms of what happened on Calvary, there is in my mind much too much talk about the “economy of the cross” (that is, who paid what price to whom and for what reason) and not nearly enough recognition of what Jesus’ cross says about the nature of our God and what life with God is like.
For the last year or so, a posture of sorts has hung in our parish hall, near the front doorway. On it are four printed questions that are offered as orienting compass points for living our life of faith. I am not sure how much attention has been given to the questions. Certainly, in this experience of pandemic and social separation, (where our lives and our stabilizing routines have been up-ended and even the faith that we do hold can wobble in the face of mounting uncertainty and fear), these four questions can provide an anchoring perspective in the storm. Moreover, I think these questions can also help us recognize what this Good Friday is about, especially in terms of those “little men”.
Let me remind you of the four orienting questions. They are: 1) What is the nature of your God? 2) What is the content of your faith? 3) What is the purpose of your prayer? 4). What is the function of your church? And I am raising these questions under the heading of what they tell us about Christ’s cross and what makes this Friday “Good.
As all helpful questions do, these questions point us to who and what God is and life with God is like. They call us to remember that God is love and that the God-life (that is, the will of God) the is Communion, which is perfect love in action. As St. Paul writes in his great proclamation to the Romans (8:39b), “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing. The entire point of Jesus’ life is to bear God’s Communion fully in himself and to reveal, to demonstrate the love and life of the Creator of heaven and earth. While there are many dimensions to the cross’ meaning, the essential aspect is to reveal the reality of God’s love and that God’s will for Communion prevails – always and everywhere.
Christ’s cross challenges and upends life as we conceive of it, life as we order it, life as we cling fearfully to it. And such a challenge is so threatening that it causes “the world” to do what the world always does when its agenda is crossed. And so, we killed God’s Christ, as if this ultimate expression of worldly power could eliminate and control whatever contests our centrality and importance.
So it is that out of love, God’s Incarnate Son submitted to the power of fear and death. Out of love’s demand for presence, for Communion – no matter what, Jesus did not dodge the reality and pain you and I fear and often worship. The cross was the vehicle to apply fear and administer death; and it worked. Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. His followers – then and now – scatter in numbing terror.
But the cross and is pandemic of fear and death was also the agent where God’s abiding nature, God’s love, God’s willed Communion could truly emerge. Yes, death is real, but so is God’s love and will for Communion. And in all this, God has the last and redeeming word: It is a lasting, comprehensive statement of life on God’s terms, not death’s.
The nature of our God is love, put into action as enduring Communion, not only bringing us back to the One we love yet have insistently strayed from, but also God’s love and life are given to us so that we, in turn, may be agents of this new and lasting life, sharing with others what we have received.
As I say, there are many aspects to the cross, such as how hard it can be for us to receive God’s gift of new life, how easy it is for us to be stubbornly stuck in the life of “separation” (“sin” is separation from God and there are consequences to this separation). Yet, at its heart the cross of Christ is God’s timeless decree of what is really real: namely, that the God-life revealed in Jesus is God’s Communion life, from which nothing can steal us away, not this pandemic and all it portends, not even our sins.
And that Godly fact is the reason that such a day as this can be called “Good”. Thanks be to God. Amen.