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.