That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Behold the wood of the Cross, on which was hung the world’s salvation!

A Sermon Preached on Good Friday, April 18, 2014

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church Greenwich, CT

Texts: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; John 18:1-19:42

Behold the Servant of the Lord! Behold the Man of Sorrows! Behold the Lamb of God!

May I speak in the Name of Christ Crucified. Amen.

On this day, we gather at the foot of the Cross. On this day, we behold the Lord Jesus crucified. “To behold” means more than simply “to see.” Beholding begins with an invitation; an announcement; a revelation. We behold that which has been revealed to us—that which has been given us to behold. And more: when we behold something, we take it to ourselves, we participate in it, we share in it, we grasp it. So what is it that is revealed to us on this day? What do we take and claim and grasp as we go in heart and mind to Calvary? What do we behold when we behold Christ Crucified?

We behold, first, the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. The Nicene Creed tells us that “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Nowhere do we see his fleshly nature so clearly—nowhere do we see his identification with the human condition so completely—as on his Cross. But the bitter irony of this revelation is that the Cross was a tool designed and intended for the awful work of dehumanization. In the practice of crucifixion, we behold all the ingenuity, all the creativity, all the efficiency, and all the efficacy of the mighty, sophisticated, advanced Roman empire applied to the task of destroying a human being.

That was what crucifixion was intended to do. A crucified person ceased to be a person through the process of crucifixion. He was stripped naked and exposed, shamed and humiliated before the face of the world. The crowds that gathered to witness the proceedings gleefully added their taunts and mockeries, heaping scorn upon the hapless head of the pierced victim. The death was slow—agonizingly slow—and made the crucified man his own executioner: it was the hanging weight of the crucified body that would, over the course of many hours (and sometimes many days) constrict the rib-cage, making breathing increasingly difficult, and at last impossible.

And then, after death, the power of crucifixion continued. Ordinarily, crucified bodies would not be removed for burial. They would be left to rot in place, exposed to the elements and the animals—denied even the dignity of a grave. This was a punishment reserved for the very lowest of the low—a punishment for the most degraded and depraved of criminals; a punishment for slaves; a punishment for nobodies. It was a punishment that expunged the record of the crucified’s existence—a punishment that removed him from the rolls of the human race.

All of this, then, is what we behold in the Crucified Christ. We behold Jesus, who cared all his life for the lowly and the least, sharing fully and completely in the depths of their suffering. We behold Jesus, who restored the blind to sight, and raised the lame to walk, and cleansed the lepers, and raised the dead, and preached Good News to the poor, taking unto himself all the whips and scorns of human brokenness, sharing completely with the outcasts, the imperfect, the unacceptable, and the unclean. “He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Christ on the Cross enters into the deepest suffering of the human race. He reveals himself to be present with all those who are despised and rejected; all women and men of sorrows; all who are acquainted with grief.

The significance of this identification—of this complete union with the suffering of human beings—cannot be overlooked. For while the Romans invented and perfected that method of dehumanization called crucifixion, yet the deep drive to dehumanize did not begin or end with the servants of Caesar.

We behold that drive at work all through the long annals of our weary world. We behold the drive to dehumanize this year as we remember the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide: one hundred days of terror in 1994 when perhaps as many as a million Rwandans were slaughtered by their countrymen before the gaze of a largely indifferent world. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the senseless killing of innocents caught in the crossfire of the Syrian Civil War. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the murder of three people at a Jewish Center in Kansas. We behold the drive to dehumanize in our own degraded political discourse, in a system that makes those with opposing viewpoints into evil enemies, and that seeks power and profit over the public good. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the cruel taunts of schoolyard bullies and the careless words of workplace tyrants. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the abuse of spouses and the neglect of children. We behold it on the front page of the New York TImes and we behold it in the silent brokenness of our own hearts.

The forces of dehumanization continue their dark and demonic work, and no member of our race stands beyond their reach. By his crucifixion, Jesus enters into this darkness, this suffering. All of this pain, all of this sorrow, Jesus bear in his body on the Cross. Can we grasp how great a wonder this is? Do we dare behold the glory revealed here? As one hymn puts it, “O mysterious condescending! O abandonment sublime! Very God himself is bearing all the sufferings of time!”

And yet, there is more here to behold. There are greater wonders still to be revealed. For this complete identification with those who are made to suffer is not all we behold when we look upon the crucified Lord. The Cross reveals him to us in the fullness of his humanity, and that fullness goes beyond his identification with the victims of dehumanization. It reaches even to the victimizers.

Hear again these words from Chapter 53 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” What Isaiah is telling us is not simply that Christ on the Cross reveals to us God’s love and care for the lowly and the sorrowful—all the victims of sin. But Christ on the Cross also reveals to us God’s willing self-offering for the guilty and the guileful, the warped and the wicked, the erring and the evil, the delinquent and the damned—for all the perpetrators of sin.

But who are the guilty? Who are “the perpetrators of sin”? When you hear that phrase, does your mind immediately conjure up the image of a certain person or group? Mine does. I think of the people I’ve read about in the paper—the people who are obviously guilty, who deserve punishment, who have done wicked things. I think of people I know who can’t seem to get it together, who can’t seem to straighten their lives out, who can’t seem to pick themselves up. I think of folks who are different from me, folks I disagree with, folks who have hurt me or hindered me, folks I don’t like or don’t understand. When I hear that phrase “perpetrators of sin,” I immediately—immediately!—begin to label and to judge, to place some people within that guilty group, all the while numbering¬†myself and my friends among the ranks of the righteous.

And by that mental process, through that inner sense of judgment and self-righteousness, Behold! I recognize the drive to dehumanize at work in me. I see my own power to deny and degrade the image of God in others. I see my own cavernous capacity for cruelty. I see my own willingness to draw boundaries, to exclude, to despise, and to reject. “He was wounded for our transgressions.” And who were the perpetrators?¬†“Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.”

On the Cross, Christ bears the pain of the sinned against, and the penalty due the sinner. On the Cross, Christ embraces both our brokenness and our ability to break; our pain and our power to cause pain; our sorrow and our sin. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to see revealed—and to claim—the fullness of his humanity, and ours. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to see in one body all the pain and all the sin of the human race: both the sins that you and I have suffered, and the sins that you and I have committed.

And it is to behold one thing more. For the Cross does not reveal the humanity of Christ only: it reveals his divinity as well. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to glimpse and know, and receive, and claim the self-giving love of Almighty God. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to behold God’s love not for the righteous, but for sinners. Paul the Apostle said it in this way: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against him.” “He made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is the Lord’s doing, beloved, and it is marvelous in our eyes!

This instrument of torture, this mark of our misery, this banner of our brokenness, this sign of Sin’s power, this declaration of Death’s grip, has become an announcement of the Love of God! It has become the symbol of our triumph. For by this Cross, God has come to find his lost creation. By this Cross, the Good Shepherd has come to seek his straying and wandering sheep. By this Cross, the King of Glory has come to claim his power and reign. By this Cross, the Creator of the world has come to renew his dead and dying creation. By this Cross, “for our atonement, while we nothing heeded, God interceded.”

I said at the beginning of this sermon that beholding means more than seeing. As you gaze upon this Cross today, may you indeed behold the form of Christ Crucified. May you behold here the fullness of his humanity and yours: the brokenness of this world and the brokenness of your own heart. But even more, may you behold here the love of God that will not let you go. May you behold here the love that comes to seek you, even you, in the depths of your sorrow and in the darkness of your sins. On this Good Friday, may you behold and be held by those arms of love stretched out on the hard wood of the Cross, drawing all the world to himself.

AMEN.

“The Sacrifice” by George Herbert

Oh all ye, who pass by, whose eyes and mind
To worldly things are sharp, but to me blind;
To me, who took eyes that I might you find:
Was ever grief like mine?

The Princes of my people make a head
Against their Maker: they do wish me dead,
Who cannot wish, except I give them bread:
Was ever grief like mine?

Without me each one, who doth now me brave,
Had to this day been an Egyptian slave.
They use that power against me, which I gave:
Was ever grief like mine?

Mine own Apostle, who the bag did bear,
Though he had all I had, did not forebear
To sell me also, and to put me there:
Was ever grief like mine?

For thirty pence he did my death devise,
Who at three hundred did the ointment prize,
Not half so sweet as my sweet sacrifice:
Was ever grief like mine?

Therefore my soul melts, and my heart’s dear treasure
Drops blood (the only beads) my words to measure:
O let this cup pass, if it be thy pleasure:
Was ever grief like mine?

These drops being temper’d with a sinner’s tears,
A Balsam are for both the Hemispheres:
Curing all wounds but mine; all, but my fears,
Was ever grief like mine?

Yet my Disciples sleep: I cannot gain
One hour of watching; but their drowsy brain
Comforts not me, and doth my doctrine stain:
Was ever grief like mine?

Arise, arise, they come. Look how they run.
Alas! what haste they make to be undone!
How with their lanterns do they seek the sun!
Was ever grief like mine?

With clubs and staves they seek me, as a thief,
Who am the way of truth, the true relief;
Most true to those, who are my greatest grief:
Was ever grief like mine?

Judas, dost thou betray me with a kiss?
Canst thou find hell about my lips? and miss
Of life, just at the gates of life and bliss?
Was ever grief like mine?

See, they lay hold on me, not with the hands
Of faith, but fury: yet at their commands
I suffer binding, who have loos’d their bands:
Was ever grief like mine?

All my Disciples fly; fear puts a bar
Betwixt my friends and me. They leave the star
That brought the wise men of the East from far.
Was ever grief like mine?

Then from one ruler to another bound
They lead me; urging, that it was not sound
What I taught: Comments would the text confound.
Was ever grief like mine?

The Priest and rulers all false witness seek
‘Gainst him, who seeks not life, but is the meek
And ready Paschal Lamb of this great week:
Was ever grief like mine?

Then they accuse me of great blasphemy,
That I did thrust into the Deity,
Who never thought that any robbery:
Was ever grief like mine?

Some said, that I the Temple to the floor
In three days raz’d, and raised as before.
Why, he that built the world can do much more:
Was ever grief like mine?

Then they condemn me all with that same breath,
Which I do give them daily, unto death.
Thus Adam my first breathing rendereth:
Was ever grief like mine?

They bind, and lead me unto Herod: he
Sends me to Pilate. This makes them agree;
But yet their friendship is my enmity:
Was ever grief like mine?

Herod and all his bands do set me light,
Who teach all hands to war, fingers to fight,
And only am the Lord of hosts and might:
Was ever grief like mine?

Herod in judgement sits while I do stand;
Examines me with a censorious hand:
I him obey, who all things else command:
Was ever grief like mine?

The Jews accuse me with despitefulness;
And vying malice with my gentleness,
Pick quarrels with their only happiness:
Was ever grief like mine?

I answer nothing, but with patience prove
If stony hearts will melt with gentle love.
But who does hawk at eagles with a dove?
Was ever grief like mine?

My silence rather doth augment their cry;
My dove doth back into my bosom fly;
Because the raging waters still are high:
Was ever grief like mine?

Hark how they cry aloud still, ‘Crucify:
It is not fit he live a day, ‘ they cry,
Who cannot live less than eternally:
Was ever grief like mine?

Pilate a stranger holdeth off; but they,
Mine own dear people, cry, ‘Away, away, ‘
With noises confused frighting the day:
Was ever grief like mine?

Yet still they shout, and cry, and stop their ears,
Putting my life among their sins and fears,
And therefore wish my blood on them and theirs:
Was ever grief like mine?

See how spite cankers things. These words aright
Used, and wished, are the whole world’s light:
But honey is their gall, brightness their night:
Was ever grief like mine?

They choose a murderer, and all agree
In him to do themselves a courtesy:
For it was their own cause who killed me:
Was ever grief like mine?

And a seditious murderer he was:
But I the Prince of peace; peace that doth pass
All understanding, more than heav’n doth glass:
Was ever grief like mine?

Why, Caesar is their only King, not I:
He clave the stony rock, when they were dry;
But surely not their hearts, as I well try:
Was ever grief like mine?

Ah! how they scourge me! yet my tenderness
Doubles each lash: and yet their bitterness
Winds up my grief to a mysteriousness.
Was ever grief like mine?

They buffet me, and box me as they list,
Who grasp the earth and heaven with my fist,
And never yet, whom I would punish, miss’d:
Was ever grief like mine?

Behold, they spit on me in scornful wise,
Who by my spittle gave the blind man eyes,
Leaving his blindness to mine enemies:
Was ever grief like mine?

My face they cover, though it be divine.
As Moses’ face was veiled, so is mine,
Lest on their double-dark souls either shine:
Was ever grief like mine?

Servants and abjects flout me; they are witty:
‘Now prophesy who strikes thee, ‘ is their ditty.
So they in me deny themselves all pity:
Was ever grief like mine?

And now I am deliver’d unto death,
Which each one calls for so with utmost breath,
That he before me well nigh suffereth:
Was ever grief like mine?

Weep not, dear friends, since I for both have wept
When all my tears were blood, the while you slept:
Your tears for your own fortunes should be kept:
Was ever grief like mine?

The soldiers lead me to the common hall;
There they deride me, they abuse me all:
Yet for twelve heavn’ly legions I could call:
Was ever grief like mine?

Then with a scarlet robe they me array;
Which shows my blood to be the only way.
And cordial left to repair man’s decay:
Was ever grief like mine?

Then on my head a crown of thorns I wear:
For these are all the grapes SIon doth bear,
Though I my vine planted and watred there:
Was ever grief like mine?

So sits the earth’s great curse in Adam’s fall
Upon my head: so I remove it all
From th’ earth unto my brows, and bear the thrall:
Was ever grief like mine?

Then with the reed they gave to me before,
They strike my head, the rock from whence all store
Of heavn’ly blessings issue evermore:
Was ever grief like mine?

They bow their knees to me, and cry, ‘Hail king’:
What ever scoffs or scornfulness can bring,
I am the floor, the sink, where they it fling:
Was ever grief like mine?

Yet since man’s sceptres are as frail as reeds,
And thorny all their crowns, bloody their weeds;
I, who am Truth, turn into truth their deeds:
Was ever grief like mine?

The soldiers also spit upon that face,
Which Angels did desire to have the grace,
And Prophets once to see, but found no place:
Was ever grief like mine?

Thus trimmed forth they bring me to the rout,
Who ‘Crucify him, ‘ cry with one strong shout.
God holds his peace at man, and man cries out.
Was ever grief like mine?

They lead me in once more, and putting then
Mine own clothes on, they lead me out again.
Whom devils fly, thus is he toss’d of men:
Was ever grief like mine?

And now weary of sport, glad to engross
All spite in one, counting my life their loss,
They carry me to my most bitter cross:
Was ever grief like mine?

My cross I bear my self, until I faint:
Then Simon bears it for me by constraint,
The decreed burden of each mortal Saint:
Was ever grief like mine?

O all ye who pass by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;
The tree of life to all, but only me:
Was ever grief like mine?

Lo, here I hang, charg’d with a world of sin,
The greater world o’ th’ two; for that came in
By words, but this by sorrow I must win:
Was ever grief like mine?

Such sorrow, as if sinful man could feel,
Or feel his part, he would not cease to kneel,
Till all were melted, though he were all steel:
Was ever grief like mine?

But, O my God, my God! why leav’st thou me,
The son, in whom thou dost delight to be?
My God, my God —-
Never was grief like mine.

Shame tears my soul, my body many a wound;
Sharp nails pierce this, but sharper that confound;
Reproaches, which are free, while I am bound.
Was ever grief like mine?

Now heal thy self, Physician; now come down.
Alas! I did so, when I left my crown
And father’s smile for you, to feel his frown:
Was ever grief like mine?

In healing not my self, there doth consist
All that salvation, which ye now resist;
Your safety in my sickness doth subsist:
Was ever grief like mine?

Betwixt two thieves I spend my utmost breath,
As he that for some robbery suffereth.
Alas! what have I stolen from you? death:
Was ever grief like mine?

A king my title is, prefixt on high;
Yet by my subjects am condemn’d to die
A servile death in servile company;
Was ever grief like mine?

They gave me vinegar mingled with gall,
But more with malice: yet, when they did call,
With Manna, Angels’ food, I fed them all:
Was ever grief like mine?

They part my garments, and by lot dispose
My coat, the type of love, which once cur’d those
Who sought for help, never malicious foes:
Was ever grief like mine?

Nay, after death their spite shall further go;
For they will pierce my side, I full well know;
That as sin came, so Sacraments might flow:
Was ever grief like mine?

But now I die; now all is finished.
My woe, man’s weal: and now I bow my head.
Only let others say, when I am dead,
Never was grief like mine.