Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
The title of my sermon is “A Terrible Beauty.”*
My friends, in the dark hour of Jesus’ burial in the tomb, we sit at the foot of these crosses and ponder the immense evil visited upon the Son of God—our Savior. This is not a safe or an easy place to be, even when we know the ending of the story. The end of the story is glorious, one full of hope and redemption. But tonight, we are not there yet. At least, not entirely.
One might ask, as I often have, why we gather on Good Friday and dwell on this Passion, this day of torture and execution and excruciating death. Why do we sit in the dark tomb of Good Friday once a year, when we proclaim the Resurrection in prayer every Sunday?
For some of us, this is an important commemoration of the foundational act of our faith: the death that leads to eternal life for all who embrace the love of Christ. But there is more than simply death in our commemoration tonight: there is betrayal and abandonment from his closest associates. There is the cruelty from religious officials, and the soldiers’ taunting and humiliating torture. There is the long, heavy walk of the cross, and the agonizing crucifixion. And it is drawn out for us in great detail—especially the cruelty and callousness of human beings.
I wonder why we focus in so much detail on these excruciating aspects. Why do we make the cross—an instrument of torture–the central symbol of our faith? Why not a lamb? Why not a loaf of bread or a sheaf of wheat?
Some will say that Jesus had to pay the price for our sins with this humiliating trial and death. As Isaiah writes, “Surely he has born our infirmities,” and “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” I have friends whose faith stands upon this ground: that God punished Jesus in our stead. They embrace the Cross in thanksgiving for the punishment that Jesus accepted on their behalf.
I won’t contradict the teaching that brings so many people to a deep love of Jesus Christ. But my own faith stands upon other ground. So I have often wondered why God would reveal God’s gracious redemption of humankind in such a tortuous way. Are the humiliation and torture of Jesus Christ really necessary?
There is no doubt that our reflection upon Jesus’ suffering can also bring us to repentance. If we take seriously our roles in the Passion, we can remember times when we, like Peter, have denied Jesus. We can remember times when we have been part of a mob that acted cruelly. We can remember times when we, like Pilate, caved in to a misguided majority for convenience’ sake. Or to save our own skins. Pilate knew that it was neither safe nor easy to follow Jesus, and many of us have discovered that in our Christian walk as well: sometimes it seems safer and easier to ignore Jesus. On Good Friday, we can feel regret for that sin at the foot of the Cross.
As important as repentance is, it is possible to feel penitent without meditating upon the physical suffering of Jesus Christ. We have a weekly, or even daily opportunity to confess our sins. And so, I seek other reasons for sitting here with you to reflect upon the suffering of Jesus.
And I find those reasons at the foot of these three crosses–the cross of Jesus and the crosses of the two outlaws crucified with him. For me, the best explanation for Jesus’ tortuous suffering on this day is that he wished to show great solidarity and sympathy with us in our suffering. He cast aside safety and the easy way from the moment he was born of Mary as a human being. And he cast aside safety and the easy way when he submitted to death on a cross.
Why did he do this? Because God wishes to show us that we are not alone in our trials. We are not abandoned, though we occasionally cry with the Psalmist that we feel abandoned by God. We have a God who has lived as we live. He did this not only to show us how we should be more like God, but also to show us how God is with us–in our best moments . . . and in our worst. The letter to the Hebrews affirms what we know in our hearts: that God sympathizes with us in our weaknesses, and that Jesus felt all the hard things about being a human being that we feel: the temptations, the difficulties, the pain.
Look upon these three crosses. How Jesus hangs with two condemned outlaws. This is a sign of so many things. It reminds of us of the lowliness that Jesus assumed for our sakes. It shows us how Jesus remains right beside us and cares for us in our most difficult moments, even moments of grief, regret, humiliation, and rejection. With the Psalmist, we may ask, “Why are you so far from the words of our distress?” But He isn’t. He’s right next to us.
And these three crosses remind us of God’s incredible mercy toward us. The Gospel of Luke tells us that the first person to enter heaven with Jesus . . . was the convict hanging next to him. And all the convict did was ask Jesus to remember him. There was no presumption in his request. He just wanted to be loved at the worst moment of his life.
I have been reflecting upon the Cross recently, and Jesus’ nearness to us at this moment, due to recent events in the news about a murder in a neighboring community. I was the hospital chaplain on duty at Yale-New Haven Hospital on a night when a young man in a nearby community was murdered. He was walking the two blocks home from his job at a restaurant when he was jumped and stabbed repeatedly. He was transported to Yale-New Haven Hospital late that night, and I watched and prayed in the emergency room as doctors tried to revive him. I saw the multiple wounds. I watched the doctors run behind the gurney as they raced to the operating room.
Family and friends arrived just after the ambulance, and I did what chaplains do on nights like this: I sat with them through the early morning hours, bringing them blankets and beverages, attempting to console them as they waited for news, addressing their questions. And then came the dreaded moment: the doctors arriving to say that they had done everything they could, but the young man did not make it. And then, the next dreaded moment: taking those who were gathered to see his body, which nurses had gently and lovingly bathed and wrapped.
The media has reported that six teenagers, only 17 years old, are accused of the crime. Two of them now stand trial for murder, and the other four for accessories to murder. The prosecutors allege that the 17-year-olds were bored after a night of video games, and one boy responded to another boy’s dare to kill some random person. We have seen on TV the grief of those who loved the murder victim. I can only imagine the grief of the families of those six boys who stand accused. Like Mary, the mother of God, they watch their sons go on trial for their lives. They watch their sons being reviled by some. For the boys are African-American, and the crowd is not always kind.
When I minister to families at the hospital, I tell them I believe that God walks right beside them in their grief. If I could speak to these six boys, I would tell them that God walks right beside them in their agony as well. That God loves them, whether they are innocent or guilty. And if they are guilty, that God forgives them. I would tell these boys’ families that God knows firsthand their fear and sense of rejection right now, and that God stands right beside them, too.
This is the terrible beauty of this Cross. The terrible beauty of these three crosses.
The other terrible beauty of these three crosses is that these two convicts go unnamed and, for the most part, unremembered. This is another terrible truth that I have seen in the emergency room at Yale-New Haven Hospital. The terrible truth is that there is no media coverage or public mourning when a black citizen of New Haven dies from knife or gunshot wounds. There is no public interfaith march for peace through the city, as there was after this young man died in the nearby community. No candlelight vigil. These victims often go unremembered, unnamed by the media and the public.
But I assure you that their families and friends grieve, for I have sat with them throughout the night in the hospital waiting room. I have sat with the mothers of Bill, and Kevin, and Shawn, and William and handed them blankets and tissues, too, as we wait for doctors to come in with the news.
It is terrible that so often, black victims go to their deaths unnamed and unremembered. This is a sin that our society rarely wishes to acknowledge. But even as I feel deep regret for this terrible lack of love, I feel tremendous comfort that Jesus is right next to us. With the victims. With the perpetrators. With those of us who fail to respond to others’ suffering due to the color of their skin.
As the song says, sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. In a moment, we will sing the terribly beautiful African-American spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Tonight, we can say, Yes, we are here. It is not a safe or an easy place to be. It takes spiritual courage to sit here and remember the terrible violence done to God and one another and our need for redemption. But we can also affirm that Jesus is right beside us—no matter who we are, no matter what we have done.
We are known, and we are remembered, and we are loved by Jesus. And we are here tonight to affirm that we know, and we remember, and we love Jesus. His Cross reveals to us, as the letter to the Hebrews says, “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” It is terrible that we need God’s mercy and grace, but it is beautiful—oh, so beautiful—that God is so generous toward us. Thanks be to God for the Cross.
*The phrase “a terrible beauty” comes from the hauntingly beautiful poem by W.B. Yeats titled, “Easter 1916.”