Sermon for Good Friday
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
April 22, 2011
So often on this day of the Church Year we concentrate upon the Seven Words from the Cross that our Lord uttered during those three agonizing hours He spent upon the cross. They are familiar to us because we’ve probably read Good Friday meditations upon them, some probably quite good and edifying for the soul as we ponder the events of this day. There are many churches who have a 3-hour vigil from noon until 3:00 p.m. in which the faithful gather to hear these seven words again with meditations interspersed with other readings of Scripture or collects being prayed.
I was perusing a book I have had on my shelf but had not looked at carefully the other day and I came across a quite interesting observation by the late Abp. Fulton Sheen. I’m sure some of you remember him on the television teaching Catholic theology and doctrine in his black cassock with shoulder cape or long cape and that huge pectoral cross hanging about his neck. Many faithful Christians heard his messages, and he was one of the first televangelists before that title became tainted with the scandals that have bequeathed to that word the stigma that it continues to bear. Abp. Sheen wrote a book in 1958 entitled Life of Christ, and I came across a chapter in which he speaks of the seven words to the cross.
If we took the time we could probably recall to our mind the seven words from the cross, but we might forget one or two of the words to the cross. I realize the some of them are similar in nature and we might forget one because it is quite like another, but I wish for us ever so briefly to look at those seven words spoken to Jesus on the cross, and most particularly the one’s of a negative nature, as we are gathered in this darkened sanctuary with the aumbry standing open and the cross on the altar draped in black.
There are five sets of words spoken to Jesus on the cross by five different groups of people or individuals that convey a similar theme - that of Jesus saving himself or having someone save him. We have the passers-by who simply wag their heads, some of them I’m sure jeering at Jesus upon the cross, perhaps spitting upon him or hurling stones in his direction and say some words we’ve heard before “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Hold that thought for a minute as I will come right back to it.
You have the thief on the cross who questions Jesus’ divinity and implores him to let them all down from the cross.
There were the Scribes, Pharisees, and religious intelligentsia who rightly declare that he saved others, but yet here he is apparently unable to save himself. They then also tempt him by saying that if would just come down from the cross they will believe in him.
There are the gawkers who are simply there to witness another crucifixion and after God cries out in the words of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me,” they want to check things out to see if Elijah or someone else might come down and help rescue him from the cross.
Finally, the soldiers who most likely still have his blood on their hands from driving the nails into his hands and feet taunt him and tell him that if he is in fact the King of the Jews, as the superscription above his head read, then he surely should be able to save himself.
These are the five words directed at Jesus in a negative manner, and the remaining two are the one’s that we probably remember best. The repentant thief asks not to be saved from the punishment that he was justly receiving, but rather mercy in the life to come when he says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” If I’m not mistaken, it’s the only deathbed conversion recorded in the Bible. After Jesus had died, and the centurion who had probably witnessed numerous crucifixions in the past saw what happened when Jesus breathed his last and proclaimed the seventh set of words to the cross, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”
I told you to hold the thought about the words that we’ve heard before. Those who were the passers-by said the same words to Jesus at the end his life that Satan had said three years earlier in the wilderness at Jesus’ temptation – If thou be the Son of God. There it is, even at the very last, the words as recorded in St. Luke, “And the devil departed until an opportune time.” If there was ever a time when temptation would have been at its highest it would have been here, on the cross, to save himself the agony of dying this gruesome death, Satan returns again in the words of common folk, and question his divinity one more time – if thou be the Son of God.
Jesus’ temptation is right before his face yet again. The thief on the cross is looking only to have his dire needs met at that moment in time, when he rails at him and says to save himself and me too. Command these stones to be made into bread. There is a physical need here, and Jesus should help meet it. The materialist has come back to haunt our Lord again.
The second temptation where Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and tells him to hurl himself off because the Scripture said that the angles wouldn’t let him hurt himself lest he dash his foot against a stone is cast before his eyes again as well. The others who spoke to Jesus on the cross were simply looking for the proverbial genie in a bottle, a dispenser of tricks and gimmicks. They were looking for a utilitarian god who could simply dispense his power at their beckoned call and serve them at their whims.
God doesn’t work that way. Yes, God is always there to hear us when we call upon him in prayer, in thanksgiving, in supplication, in thanksgiving, but he manifests his grace to us through the sacraments of His Church, through the study of His Holy Word, through His personal relationship with each and every one of us. He’s not our “miracle worker” on display, but our Abba Father, who went to the pit of Hell to save us from ourselves.
The prophet Isaiah declared that the government shall be upon his shoulders, but that government took the form of a crossbeam and not a gavel.
There is always the temptation to leave this service with everything somewhat neat and tidy for tomorrow evening and Sunday morning. However, this service doesn’t really allow us to do so, does it? The cross is still draped in black, the tabernacle still stands open, the church is still dark. It’s left just the way it is supposed to. With a longing and a sense of expectation.
If just for this one day, let us ponder the magnitude of Good Friday. Let us ponder what brought us to this point. Let us ponder who we are that brought our Lord to this place. Let us ponder, and let us pray.