16th APRIL, 2017 – EASTER DAY
One of my earliest memories of attending church was being at a good Friday service in the early 1980’s. This service stands out in my memory because it was the first time I had ever walked the stations of the cross, a service we recreated here only 48 hours ago. I think the reason I remember this service so clearly is because at each station we were asked to imagine being in the story as it unfolded. There are many parts of the story, from being in the crowd that turned on Jesus, to the Jewish authorities that wanted rid of this would be revolutionary, the Roman Governor and his wife, Soldiers, weeping women, terrified disciples. With each station came a different opportunity to place ourselves into the good Friday story.
Imagining where we would place ourselves within a biblical story, or any story for that matter is an ancient spiritual practice. It is a way of reflecting on the kind of people we really are, and on Good Friday that certainly includes looking at our own capacity for evil. Good Friday is a day for looking in the mirror and accepting that we are all capable of betrayal, injustice and causing harm to others.
In July of last year I finally ticked off a bucket list item by walking the traditional route that commemorates the Good Friday story. The Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow, is found in the Old City in Jerusalem. I walked that path with a large group of pilgrims in the early hours of a Friday morning. Despite the early start, many of the roads were already busy, shops were opening, people were coming and going, and at one point a large number of armed Israeli military made their way past us. This gave me a nice insight into the story that I hadn’t had before. Often when we walk the stations here in New Zealand, we do so as a solemn type of activity. But that morning, we had to get on with our pilgrimage in the midst of the ordinary life going on in Jerusalem. Which may well have been what it was like on the day Jesus was actually crucified. Yes there were those directly involved in all that happened, but there must have been many more who witnessed the sceptical who were simply going about their ordinary business.
On the fifth station of the cross, we remember a man named Simon of Cyrene. We know very little about this person who was pulled from the crowd and made to carry the cross for Jesus. Scripture tells us that Simon was coming into the city from the country, when soldiers compelled him to carry the cross for the man so beaten and exhausted that it appeared he may not live to be executed. What this suggests is that Simon was essentially an accidental witness to these events. An ordinary person, going about his everyday activity who simply ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As I stood at the fifth station in Jerusalem, I realised that having imagined myself as different characters within this story many times, that I had never imagined myself as Simon of Cyrene. In fact as the story continued as we walked from station to station, slowly making our way to the church of the Holy Sepulchre, I realised that there were many characters in the story that never really drew my attention. The woman who wipes the sweat and blood from Jesus’ face, the disciple who takes his mother into his home, the women who had supported Jesus throughout his ministry, and those who took down Jesus’ body and laid it to rest. The story of Good Friday is actually full of people who did no harm to Jesus, but were powerless to stop what was taking place.
The cross is a significant moment in the Christian tradition. Two thousand years of thinking about the cross and its meaning has created some very unhelpful theology. For many Christians the cross is what the Christian story is all about, an act of atonement to a wrathful God. Others suggest that the cross was always what God intended, a concept that relies upon a notion of predestination that suggests that Jesus possessed no free will whatsoever. The fact that Jesus died a brutal death, and that some Christians have found a particular meaning in that death, does not mean that the crucifixion had to happen. While this theology is known and endorsed by many, it is deeply problematic, and I believe draws our attention away from the real meaning of the life of Jesus.
To fixate upon the events of Good Friday can lead us to devalue the life that was lived up until that moment. The followers of Jesus became part of his movement, because in him they encountered something extraordinary. Time and again, Jesus pushed his followers into uncomfortable situations, violating the rules of polite society in order to demonstrate a deeper truth. The deep truth of Jesus was to show us that we are all capable of loving other people to a far greater degree than we often choose to. Time and again Jesus entered difficult situations, situations in which no one would have thought twice if he had simply turned his back on others in need. And yet every time and in every situation Jesus responded with love. By doing this over and over again, his followers came to realise that Jesus was expressing love in such a compelling way, that he was actually showing us that we are capable of loving each other and fully as God loves us.
To understand Jesus in this way gives us a different perspective on the cross. If Jesus expressed the all-encompassing love of God, that sought to uphold the worth and dignity of all people, the cross can be understood as a rejection of that love. Not by all people throughout all time, but certainly by some people at that time. We are all capable of falling short of loving others as fully as God loves us, and yes there are times when we deliberately choose not to love others.
Today is not Good Friday. It is Easter Day, the day of new life. It is a day for remembering that despite our ability to withhold love, or even to do harm, God never holds such moments against us. God’s response to us is always compassionate, forgiving love. It is the love that reminds us that with each day comes new opportunities to love others. If Good Friday is a day for remembering a decisive moment in rejecting God’s message of inclusive love, Easter is the day when God reminds us that no matter what we do in opposition to love, love is always born anew.
I began this morning by reflecting on where we might place ourselves in the Good Friday story. Now I ask if you can imagine yourself as part of the Easter story? This requires a different kind of creativity, because the Easter story, the story of love being born again, is not a story that lies behind us, but actually moves before us. The first Easter day was not the conclusion of a story, but rather a new chapter, that begins with the question, now that you know the extent of God’s love for all of creation, now that you know that God would have you love others as wastefully as God loves us, what are you going to do about it?