Good Friday: By his stripes we are healed
Sermon by the Revd Dr Brutus Green
Based on readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12, John 18:1-19:42
What are you doing here in church again on Good Friday? It is not in all likelihood your first Good Friday. This service you have sat through before, perhaps dozens of time. You have sung the hymns. You know the story. You know how it will end. Unlike Oscar Wilde, who famously in his university entrance exam, was asked to translate St Mark’s Gospel from the Greek. After a chapter of fluent translation they told him he could stop; to which he replied, ‘but I want to see how it ends.’ But presuming you do know; what is it that brings you back here?
Madness, as they say, is doing the same thing again and expecting different results. You’ve doubtless seen the classic 1993 film, Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day again and again. No matter what he does, at 6am the radio comes on playing the same song and he’s back in the hotel waiting to report on this local event he has no belief in. If you’re like my mother and spend the whole of December watching Christmas movies you may also have seen the Twelve Dates of Christmas. A variation on a theme; probably not destined to be a classic.
But here we are on Good Friday telling again this old story. Like a broken record. Only it’s not exactly the same. This may be your first Holy Week at St Margaret’s. The clergy are somewhat new. But more importantly — to you — you are not the same.
There’s a line in Larkin’s most famous poem, where he’s talking in the vernacular about the faults of our parents and grandparents, and he says: ‘Man hands on misery to man/ it deepens like a coastal shelf’. potentially a good metaphor for original sin — but also a great metaphor for understanding the way human experience builds through time and repetition. ‘it deepens like a coastal shelf’. The experience is not simply repeated. But under the weight of time and repetition it deepens. And with this pressure can come great energy — like in the build up of layers of coal. And great beauty, as diamonds are formed from heavily, heavily condensed carbon.
So this year is another iteration of the Easter story. A story that you hear differently as a child than an adult. That you hear differently when you’re under a great deal of stress, that you hear differently when you’re ill, when you’re unemployed, when you’re grieving. That this year under false accusations at work you hear as Jesus, that this year struggling with guilt you hear as Judas, that this year as a new mother you hear as Mary;
When you first step into the story, the narrative is like a stream sweeping you along with its terse, fateful narrative. Through a lifetime this is a river, where the story is embellished with memories, with our own spiritual journey and the slings and arrows of our own outrageous fortune. But that river is only a tributary in the vast tide of Christian experience that has walked the world round in palm sunday procession, that has taken parts in centuries of passion plays, celebrated Communion in every context, kissed a million rugged crosses, and year after year found joy in the empty tomb and proclaimed the resurrection and the hope of the humanity.
Repetition can be slavery; it can be freedom. When people suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, it’s a form of repetition: the inability to stop repeating past events. It may manifest as nightmares, hallucinations, adrenaline and stress levels appropriate to a combat environment, now unable to be switched off. Again and again the sufferer is drawn back to the traumatic event. Again and again reliving the moment. A deep personal hell. And humans get caught in these mental traps quite frequently. Any neurosis, or even just those things you stress about which you end up turning over and over in your mind, conscious you can do nothing about it, but you can’t stop thinking it through; when you become trapped by the past.
But of course therapy is designed to do the same thing. To turn back to the traumatic events but by bringing them out wholly into the open, by facing them full on, to achieve healing. Which is to allow the past to resolve in the present.
Today the point is not to relive the tragic and traumatic events of Christ’s life. The Church is not stuck in that moment. But there is a therapeutic element. As the Old Bible translates Isaiah: By his stripes we are healed. And hopefully it may be that in these days when we take time to examine ourselves in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection that we may find some healing. Not to relive but to relieve.
But this won’t happen simply by our reading the Gospel. We need to allow the Gospel to read us. As C.S. Lewis said – Faith is less a subject to be studied, than a pair of spectacles with which to understand life and the world. What Christianity wants is for you to see the world through the lens of faith. So, not to read the crucifixion and say, what terrible suffering! But when you have that blinding headache, to see the cross; when you see a homeless person out in the snow, to see the cross. When someone forgives you, even if it’s for something silly, to feel something of the joy of resurrection. When you feel inspired to see the rush of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Which is not to say don’t take painkillers for that headache. But look and find the resonance of the Gospel in your life. And understand that every experience of human suffering is cruciform; that it matters; to God, to all of us. And until every human suffering is eradicated we still live in a world in the shadow of Good Friday.
What we have in the actions of Good Friday is the full disclosure of what it means to love someone as a Christian. And that is sacrifice. But what is most radical about the Christian concept of love is that it strains to be universal. Family and friends are good enough for almost every culture and religion. Christianity has never taught that we should treat everyone the same. But it challenges us to push further our boundaries of love. It’s great that you love your wife, your parents, your friends. But is there another person you could fit in there. Could you try and love some of your colleagues. Could you attempt to love a couple more people at church? Can you just open that circle a little wider? Perhaps dislike the people at the edge of your world a little less. Be a little less caustic about Donald Trump. Despite being called the passion, Jesus is entirely free of hatred in the narrative. What you do see is forgiveness, and the practical carrying out of the earnest desire to love even one’s enemies.
That is the challenge. Sacrificial love. That is our calling.
This is not our first holy week. But each year we are invited to enter a little more deeply into the river. To bring the experiences of this year, our lifetime, to connect with the Gospel story. To allow the Passion to read our lives. And find the strength to love. Remembering that much of the world stands with us at the foot of the cross today, from Christians persecuted across the Middle East, to those grieving at the Notre Dame, to the small faithful village churches of the shires, looking back through time from the pomp and power of the medieval church, to our humble origins in a quiet upper room.
Today we come to the cross once again. Not in a repetition that simply repeats the story again, trapped neurotically in a world of the past, but in taking the story into this present world, in all our mistakes, and crooked relationships. Seeking by his stripes to be healed, and to tell a new story of Easter hope.