Good Friday 2013
by Rev. Kate Ekrem
This happens every day. On some level this is a very ordinary story. Someone who’s been preaching about human rights and dignity gets arrested and tortured and killed by an oppressive regime. Really it’s not so different from so many other arrests, so many other people who've been made to disappear by those in power. We can name Oscar Romero, Janani Luwum, DietrichBonheoffer, but also so many whose names we don’t know, those in Argentina in the 1970’s, Germany of the 1930’s, or in our own country in the lynch mobs of the 1960’s, and those in Syria or Tibet even today, this very day, right now. This story is not so different from all those stories. But this is the one we know by heart.
This is the one whose facets and contours are so familiar to us, the high priest’s slave’s ear, the rooster crowing, the seamless garment, the sour wine. We know every detail of the story of Jesus’ suffering and death; it’s compelling as well as horrifying.
In our Lenten series that Bill Fortier led these past 5 weeks, talked about suffering from every conceivable angle. We unpacked it from every direction. But the one thing we couldn't do was explain it away. We suffer, others suffer, there is suffering. Jesus suffered, too. Jesus was perfect, he lived a perfect life, and yet still he suffered.
In our series we tried to wrap our minds around the philosophical, logical problem of suffering:
if God is really all powerful and all good, why does God allow suffering and evil in the world? This problem asks a crucial question, what kind of God do we believe in? Can we believe in a God who’s not all powerful or all good – is God still God then? And if not, then can we believe in a God who allows suffering? It seemed clear from our Lenten discussions that the God we believe in, the God we can give our worship too, cannot, cannot, be indifferent to suffering. We can’t believe in a God that would be. Maybe that’s why this story, the story of the cross, is so important to us. In Jesus, we see that God has come right into the midst of our suffering. Jesus’ story is one we know, one we see played out again and again in our world, and it’s not a story God stands apart from, it’s a story God is right in.
And the cross is the symbol of all that. This cross we put front and center in our church every day, but especially on this day, is a symbol of Jesus’ suffering, the suffering of so many others, and the fact that God is right in there, in all those stories and especially in this story. It’s a symbol of the fact that the God we believe in is not indifferent to suffering but is with us in the midst of our suffering. And God is somehow using that suffering, Jesus’s suffering, our suffering, for God’s own purposes of salvation and grace and transformation.
There are so many ways to understand the cross. Over the centuries, countless explanations and rationalizations, academic and popular understandings have been put forth. As Bill reminded us last night, that’s the adaptive strength of our Christian story. But no matter what the books or scholars say, what matters most is what it means to us in our lives, how we make sense of it, or don’t make sense of it, but just know that we stand in relationship to it somehow. * That somehow, in ways we can try to explain but never really pin down, it’s transformative, it changes suffering into something else, into something useful and good and salvific. All of these explanations share one core thing: the story of the cross is the story of how God transforms suffering into grace.
In my own Lenten journey of trying to understand all this better, I read a book by Serene Jones, she’s a theologian and was one of Danielle’s professors, and is president of Union Seminary right now. But she does her theologizing in the real world. She writes about the women she has met through a self-defense class she took at an inner-city church, women who had all had a difficult experience that lead them to want to take self-defense, many of them tragic or traumatic. Perhaps it was an incident in their lives where they were assaulted or attacked, in some cases it was a relationship that was violent or abusive. They all had a story to tell. And, to Jones’ surprise, they all loved the story of the cross, despite their own traumas they found healing and comfort and meaning in the story of Jesus’s trauma. But they all understood it differently, For one it made her feel that Jesus took the weight of the blows of her attacker that were aimed at her. For another it meant a strong and powerful Jesus who stood up to Pilate would make short work of her ex-spouse. Each one interpreted the cross in the light of her own history, her own life, her own story.
What’s your story? Where is the suffering or brokenness in your life? Where are you in pain? Hold it up, put it up against the cross. See how the stories are the same, and see how they are also different, and also the same. God knows your story, because it’s God’s story, too.
Serene Jones writes, “In our personal lives we go back to it [the cross] time and again, sometimes seeking solace, sometimes righteous justification, sometimes just simple comprehension, yet each time hoping that in it we will find sense to our living. Clearly, it matters enormously to us that we understand. And yet, at the end of the day, we confess that the truth to which this horrific, fascinating event bears witness remains true even if we never hear it or believe it or find any meaning at all in its mysterious disclosure.” She concludes that truth is merely this: “grace is grace. It comes.” *
Today, that “truth” stands in front of us in the figure of Jesus on the cross, Jesus suffering, Jesus forgiving, Jesus uncompromising, Jesus loving, Jesus crucified. Right in front of us is the truth about a God who loves us to a depth we cannot begin to fathom. In the cross God says to us there’s nothing you can do to make me leave you, nothing you can do to make me stop loving you.
The way in which God approaches us most closely is not a way of judgment. God doesn’t stand on a pedestal, doesn’t stand as righteous against unrighteous, but, as Karl Barth put it, enters right into us, “enters deeper into life than any of us… there is no depth to which we may not descend, no struggle we may endure, no failure we may encounter, where we may not say: at that point, Chris groaned and struggles with God in shame and loneliness and humiliation… but… he carried life into the midst of death,” into the midst of our death.
Through this fathomless love of God, the cross offers transformation – a way of transforming death and suffering into life and resurrection. That’s why we tell the stories of these martyrs over and over again: of Romero and King and so many others. That’s why we tell this story over and over again. The truth is, the cross is also the tree of life through which we are reborn. “Grace is grace. It comes.”
** Serene Jones : “no matter what theologians decide about its metaphysical significance, indeed no matter how they analytically solve the riddle of the cross’s relation to grace, the meaning that counts most on a day-to-day basis is the one nestled deeply within the beholder’s heart…. The cross makes sense in ways that don’t make sense.” These quotes and much of this sermon was inspired by Trauma and Grace:Theology in a Ruptured World by Serene Jones, an accessible and wonderful book that I highly recommend.