Rev. Yme Woensdregt
This year, Christians from different churches in Cranbrook will participate in our 12th annual Good Friday CrossWalk. We will walk through the city, stopping to pray for our city and all its citizens. I’ll have more to say about that next week.
This week, I want to think about why we mark the suffering and death of Jesus. Why bother with something which is so far removed from our everyday lives? What relevance does this story of Jesus’ crucifixion have for us? I can’t count the number of people who, from time to time, have said to me, “Why do you worship a God who dies?”
Let me suggest five elements to consider as part of the meaning of this Friday which we call Good.
First, physical suffering is part of life. Above all else, the cross tells us that suffering is real. As a fully human person, Jesus suffered. On Good Friday, he was beaten, tortured and then nailed to a cross.
In terms of the cross, the Roman authorities of the day used crucifixion as capital punishment. They made an example of enemies of the state. Crucifixion is one of the most agonizing ways human beings have ever devised to put someone to death. Victims of crucifixion usually died from asphyxiation as the weight of their bodies pulled on their wrists, compressed their lungs and made breathing impossible.
Suffering is part of our lives, and much too often, that suffering comes at the hands of other human beings. Christian faith is intensely realistic about the suffering that is so often a part of life. Life is marked by loss and pain, even if that’s not all there is.
Secondly, this suffering is not just physical, but also emotional. On the cross, Jesus felt a deep sense of abandonment. His friends left him. Peter, one of his closest friends, denied ever knowing him. He even cried out that God had abandoned him. He was all alone.
Thirdly, suffering is not the result of sin. Much too often, televangelists and preachers are far too happy to say that suffering comes because we are making immoral decisions. Pat Robertson, for example is happy to say that hurricanes and tsunamis are God’s punishment for human sin.
Not so. On the cross, Jesus is not being “punished for his sins.” Before his death, Jesus taught us that suffering is not punishment for sin. Too often, we react, “What did I ever do to deserve this?” The same attitude could be found among the ancients. In John 9, Jesus meets a man who was born blind. The first question from the disciples is, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered bluntly, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”
Suffering happens. It’s part of life. We see it in nature. We see it in human nature.
Fourthly, the cross shows us that Jesus is fully human. Too many people think that Jesus was really divine; therefore he knew that the cross wasn’t really the end. (By the way, if you think that this somehow lessens the suffering, think of being in a dentist’s chair: knowing it will soon be over does not remove the pain.)
Sometimes I call this the “Superman Phenomenon”: that is, people think that Jesus was mainly divine, aka Superman; Clark Kent is just a simple disguise. He’s not really in pain. He doesn’t really hurt.
But that’s not so. Jesus was fully human. And in the drama leading up to his crucifixion, we see Jesus’ humanity on full display. He prays that God might “take this cup away from me”—in other words, I don’t want to die. (The scene in Jesus Christ Superstar portrays this magnificently!)
Even so, Jesus chose to trust God even in the midst of this deep suffering. He is taken by the Romans, and even though he experiences the absence of God deeply and profoundly, at the end he commends himself to God’s care.
Fifthly, death is not the end. Suffering is not the last word. The church affirms that this story is not just the story of a man being brutally tortured, nailed to a cross, and executed as a political prisoner by the Romans. This is the story of a man who, even in the midst of such great suffering, was able to trust God completely. The story ends in resurrection, in God’s great gift of life made new and whole and abundant.
This is why we call this day of darkness “good”. What happened on the day isn’t good. Not at all. But Good Friday is not the final day. Good Friday is the penultimate day, and therefore it is made holy by what followed on the day of resurrection.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook