Sermon for Good Friday - Philip Plyming

Friday 29 March 2024

Isaiah 52:53-end; Psalm 22:1-21; John 19:1-37

The cross was about showing where power lay.

When in 71BC the Roman general Crassus crucified 6000 prisoners of war over 120 miles of the Appian Way leading to Rome, it became the stuff of legends. Here was proof not only of Roman logistical mastery but also absolute power over their enemies. Caesar was Lord. Crucifixion was still being used 100 years later, not just in Rome but across the Empire, a public and painful execution that was an exercise in humiliation as well as punishment.

On a hill outside the city of Jerusalem the crucifixion of Jesus conformed to these expectations. The account from John’s gospel shows a man being done to by Romans in charge: flogged, mocked, struck, paraded, condemned, handed over, stripped, crucified and finally pierced. The suffering narrated in Psalm 22 is embodied in the dying Jesus, as his mouth, dried up like a potsherd, cries ‘I thirst.’

We are forced to ask: why is this cross before us today? Does it not witness to power lying in all the wrong places? The pictures and stories from Sudan, from Ukraine, from Gaza might leave us thinking exactly that.

Yet the two other cries of Jesus recorded by St John point us to a deeper reality, and an alternative understanding of where lasting power is to be seen.

The final cry ‘It is finished’ speaks of a task completed and a promise fulfilled. Isaiah chapter 53, seen since the church’s earliest days as a key to understanding the death of Jesus, narrates the suffering servant bearing the sins of others. ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’

It is finished. The Romans think they are in control of events, but in fact Jesus is writing the story. For this is why Jesus came into the world, why he didn’t remain up in Galilee, why he set his face to Jerusalem, why he gave himself up for arrest, why he yielded to Roman punishment when he could have snapped the cross in two. His death was not a failure. It was the place of glory, for he died to save. As the Prayer Book so beautifully it of the cross, Jesus, ‘made there…a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.’

It is finished. This is not Jesus being done to. This is Jesus doing what only Jesus could do. This is love poured out, greater love than the world has ever seen.

And then in those earlier words ‘Women, here is your son…Here is your mother’ Jesus addresses Mary and the beloved disciple, entrusting his mother into the disciple’s care. Yet this is less about the pastoral care of his mother (who had family to care for her) and more about something much deeper, the creation of a new community, a community centred not simply on familial ties but rather on the love and lordship of Jesus Christ.

This act of Jesus is in a sense a commissioning of all that his death made possible. With sins forgiven, the opportunity opens up not simply being for human beings to be at peace with God, but also one another. The tribal loyalties that fed the violence of the Roman Empire and every empire since are set against a deeper affiliation to the one who bore the sins of all. This is the beginning of the community of the beloved, whose power was seen as in a few short years Roman soldiers broke bread with Jewish teachers, slaves shared a cup with their masters, and poor sat at the table with the rich.

Why does the cross stand before us today? Because in the cross of Jesus Christ it was not the power of the Romans that was seen. Yes, Jesus appeared before them humiliated but a deeper power was at work, a task of sin-bearing being completed and a community of reconciliation being birthed.

And so we call this Friday good. And we do not recoil from the cross but rather we come close. We are all invited today to draw near to the cross of Christ, to kneel, to touch, to kiss, because we believe that here is not Roman power but the powerful, profound, permanent love of God.

We come to the cross as individuals, making our own response to the one who loved us and gave himself for us. We come as sheep that have gone astray, finding in the dying, sin-bearing Christ the one who brought us back. And here, yes here, we are invited to see afresh, or perhaps this Good Friday for the very first time, the cross-shaped love of God.

See from his head, his hands, his feet / Sorrow and love flow mingled down / Did e’er such love and sorrow meet / Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine / That were an offering far too small / Love so amazing, so divine / Demands my soul, my life, my all.

But we also come to the cross as a community, a community of the beloved, standing on level ground as equally forgiven and equally loved. We may not know each other’s names, but the cross of Christ has brought us together and called us be a community where differences are reconciled, where enmities are put aside, and where a new way of living is set forth. As we come forward today, pray for those you come forward with, your brothers and sisters in Christ, your siblings in the community of the beloved. And pray for the church’s mission to bring this message of reconciliation to a world still torn apart.

The cross shows where the power lies. It lies not in the Roman Empire whose visited ruins witness to power long gone. It lies not in any empire or authority today, however dominant, violent or permanent they might appear. The power lies with God, who chose a place of humiliation and weakness to show his love for the world, a love which forgives and reconciles, a love which the world – and you and I – need today as much as ever. Caesar is not Lord. This Good Friday, Jesus is Lord. Christ crucified, the power of God and the love of God. Amen.

The Very Revd Dr Philip Plyming