I preached four times this weekend, during the “Great Three Days” worship service that lasts from Thursday evening through Sunday morning. In current Evangelical Lutheran liturgical understanding, this is one long service that begins with Maundy Thursday and ends with the Vigil of Easter.
This is my Good Friday sermon.
Tonight, we are face to face with the cross. It’s always there, big and huge, towering over us every time we gather here. But it’s easy to ignore what it really signifies. But not tonight. Paul wrote that the cross was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. To hang on a tree was a shameful death in Jewish law. This became a stumbling block to many Jews. Jesus could not be the Messiah. And to Greek-influenced Gentiles, a god was by definition immortal; the very notion of a god who died was foolishness. Jesus could not be divine.
The cross is still a stumbling block and foolishness to people today, perhaps even to us. Who wants to focus on suffering? On the brutal and humiliating death Jesus endured?
Couldn’t God have forgiven us without the cross? Couldn’t God have shown love for us without the cross? Why did this have to happen? Well, there are quite a few answers to that question, and scripture is not clear on the specifics. But what is clear throughout scripture is that the cross was necessary. The cross was God’s plan for salvation. The cross is a source of healing and life for us. But how and why. That’s something we need to wrestle with. How do we make sense of it?
As I prepared for this sermon, I asked myself, “How do I make sense of the cross?” What follows is what I discovered as I wrestled with that question. I don’t have the one and only answer. But maybe by hearing about the way I wrestle with this question, you might be moved and equipped to wrestle more deeply with it yourself.
Here is one way to make sense of the cross. Scripture is clear that Christ needed to die on the cross for our salvation. But that doesn’t mean Jesus was a sacrifice made on our behalf to appease an angry God.
In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity tells us that Jesus is God. Jesus is not God’s son in the same way that I am Joe’s son. The Trinity tells us that Jesus is in fact God the Son. Jesus is as much God as the Father is God. When we look upon the cross of Christ, we see God there. The living God, the author of all creation, become truly human, experiencing not only life but death. And not only death but perhaps the most excruciating and humiliating form of death ever devised. The Romans were very good at a lot of things, and torture and misery were among them.
Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, suffered and died. The gospels are clear on that. But they are also clear that by doing so, Jesus won. We see that especially in John’s gospel, which we heard tonight. In John’s gospel, we see Jesus speaking with authority even when on trial before Caiaphas and Pilate. We see Jesus bringing his mother and his beloved disciple together, even while on the cross. We see Jesus end his life with the confident, serene words: “It is finished.” Jesus is in charge, from the beginning to the end. Jesus is in charge, even of death.
Death was supposed to defeat him. Instead, he crushed death underfoot, took all its power away forever. How that occurred is a mystery. But our faith tells us that it did. When we look upon the cross, our faith sees victory, victory over sin and death and suffering and all the forces of evil. Jesus defeated suffering and death by walking right into it. Now suffering and death are still around, as we know all too well. But through the cross, God has touched suffering and death. Through the cross, God has blessed suffering and death, and has made them holy. That doesn’t mean that suffering and death are good, but they are holy. God is now present in suffering and death. And God can handle them. God can redeem them. God can enable us to withstand them. And they will never have the last word.
The cross means that there is nothing beyond God’s grasp. There is nothing that God cannot save, nothing that God cannot redeem, nothing that God cannot bring hope and life to. Including me and you. Praise be to God.
What began at Christmas is made complete here. Christmas is the good news that God came to earth, that God is with us. Good Friday is the good news of why God came to earth, what God did with that life. God broke into our world, into a life of suffering, a life of death, and God transformed and redeemed them forever. And that means that God is indeed with us, and not just in the good times. God is with us always. All that we endure is holy. Praise be to God.
It’s still Good Friday. And while we praise God, we are not yet at Easter. We are not giddy with excitement. But we need not be sad or frightened. Here on Good Friday there is good news. Here on Good Friday is hope. Here on Good Friday is the very beginning of life. Life that will bloom in just a few days.