April 2, 2010
Commentary by Bruce G.Epperly
Let’s be honest. Many progressive and moderate pastors don’t like to preach Good Friday sermons. Good Friday is the low point in Holy Week, especially if you’re not a cross-centered evangelical or have problems with the violence inherent in many traditional atonement theories. There’s nothing to celebrate, the story is predictable (we’ve heard it so many times and seldom discover anything new in it), and we struggle to find alternatives to the popular belief that Jesus was predestined to physically die for our sins, stand in our place, and suffer on our behalf.
Good Friday is a tragic day, but what difference does the death of Jesus make in the practice of our faith or our hope for personal and social transformation? That’s a question that plagues many moderate and progressive pastors. If we don’t focus on the popular atonement theories, what shall we preach? How does the atonement change our lives or reveal God’s relationship with us?
While I don’t intend to solve the dilemmas of Good Friday, I hope to share a few insights for struggling preachers, who want to affirm the importance of Good Friday through the lens of progressive and moderate theology.
Before I reflect on the texts, I want to make a few Good Friday affirmations that may allow pastors to preach a life-changing and practical word:
Isaiah paints the picture of the “suffering servant” of Israel, later identified with Jesus’ suffering on the Cross. While many of us recognize the importance of redemptive suffering, we struggle with the notion that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.” Does this mean that God “crushed” the suffering servant and later Jesus of Nazareth? Is God really responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion? Does Jesus truly receive the whip lashes that we deserve? What kind of God would sacrifice his own son to achieve God’s goals, including our redemption?
These are hard questions, and they can’t be avoided if we choose to preach this text. Suffering can be redemptive, but this is the result of choice, not passivity. We can grow through pain and struggle, without attributing these to God’s will or direct activity. Bonhoeffer once asserted that “only a suffering God can save.” Wholeness or salvation in such circumstances results from God’s presence in our pain rather than God’s punishment of the righteous ones or infliction of pain on mortals for a greater good, despite the words of Isaiah’s text. God moves through our pain and struggles, experiencing them as God’s own, in order to give us new life. Perhaps, the insight that we can take away from the “suffering servant” is that healing, both divine and human, may come as a result of our willingness to share in the pain of the injured, oppressed, chronically ill, mentally ill, marginalized, and traumatized. This is the healing power of solidarity and sensitivity.
Psalm 22 also starkly reveals the pain of the world. The Psalmist’s words, later invoked by Jesus on the Cross, are repeated at hospital bedsides, refugee campus, and in the wake of natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis as well as human-made tragedies such as terrorist attacks and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Though the Psalm speaks of woe and injury, and alienation and loss, it also reveals an underlying hope that God will respond to our tears and agony. The cry of absence reflects the hope of presence. The Psalmist hopes against hope that he can hold on long enough to experience God’s eventual deliverance. “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help,” cries the Psalmist, hoping that God will “show up” to accompany him in his misery.
These words challenge those of us who affirm the omnipresence of a gracious and loving God. If, as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead suggests, the teleology of the universe aims toward beauty, why is there so much ugliness and pain? If God is always present, how can God appear to abandon us?
Feelings of divine abandonment and concrete ugliness are real and cannot be denied either to justify God’s goodness or to place (despite its importance in the healing process) our pain in a larger perspective. Pain needs to be accepted and acknowledged before we move on to healing. The shouts of physical pain, social injustice, and abuse can drown out God’s ever-present sighs too deep for words. Our personal and corporate choices lead to beauty but also suffering that God and the world must endure. Sometimes, as the Psalmist’s experience reveals, God’s voice is barely more than a whisper and the hope that life can be different, justice achieved, and pain reduced.
Whitehead’s image of “tragic beauty” in the last paragraphs of Adventures of Ideas cautions us against any world view that would deny or minimize the suffering of the world. Suffering is real, prolonged, and often destructive of mind, body, and spirit. We cannot blame those who lose faith in the face of what for them is unendurable suffering. Psalm 22 does not see God as an external force pulling the strings; nor does the Psalmist believe Rick Warren’s suggestion that every event, even tragedy and abuse, is “father filtered.” While the Psalmist believes that suffering may be redemptive; he also recognizes that suffering is an “enemy” of God’s vision for our lives. (For an alternative to Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, see Bruce Epperly Holy Adventure: Forty One Days of Audacious Living, Upper Room Books.)
Those whom the Psalmist identifies as disparaging his faith in God are motivated by their image of a God who 1) plays favorites (the Psalmist was once one of God’s favorites, but now is abandoned, they assume) and 2) determines the events of our lives, punishing us with disease and abandonment. They jeer at the Psalmist who has obviously been abandoned by God and whose suffering reflects, in their minds, either God’s will or God’s powerlessness. In contrast to the theology of those who disparage him, the author of Psalm 22 takes the path of universalism and suffering love. The Psalmists’ God is powerful enough to restore hope, but God does not bring calamity or determine in specific events of our lives. God endures, working patiently to heal us and our world.
The Epistle to the Hebrews asserts that the Cross calls those who claim to be followers of Jesus to love one another. The suffering love of the high priest Jesus invites us to love one another as we commit ourselves to building up our communities of faith. The suffering of Jesus is a call action. Receptivity, the acceptance of God’s love for us, leads to creativity in the transformation of the world. The Cross is a moral example and source of inspiration in our commitment to the well-being of the body of Christ.
Many congregations read the entire passion narrative either on Palm/Passion Sunday or Good Friday. A readers’ theatre with brief meditation might suffice for Good Friday’s homily. The episodic nature of the Good Friday reading from John’s Gospel reveals the many faces of faith and betrayal. Jesus is betrayed by Judas, abandoned by most of his male followers, denied by Peter, victimized by the political powers, and tortured by the military. Only a few women and his beloved disciple remain at the cross. Although we suspect that Jesus felt the abandonment described by Psalm 22, John’s passage suggests that he also maintained a sense of spiritual unity with God. Jesus is suffering, but he also reaches out in care for his mother and a beloved disciple. In the words of holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, Jesus seeks to be worthy of his suffering. His response to the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday are intended to inspire us toward creative transformation and healing action in the midst of conflict and suffering.
While Good Friday calls each of us individually and corporately to confession, repentance, and transformation, the point of Good Friday is not obsessive guilt or the exaltation of divine violence, but the admission of our own tendencies to turn away from God’s vision and God’s constant creative-responsive love which bears our pain, laments our injustice, feels the cost of abandonment and oppression, and seeks healing in the most chaotic and painful situations. While progressive and moderate Christians may not feel at home with the “Christus Victor” approach of Gustav Aulen, there is something victorious about God’s enduring, unstoppable, ever-resourceful suffering and celebrating love. God’s love outlasts Pilate, the religious leaders, and the disciples’ cowardice, and continues to transform us in our time and place. This amazing love inspires us to love in the example of Jesus, being open to God’s call even in the midst of chaos, conflict, and pain. We can “practice” Good Friday by choosing to become aware of the suffering of our world and responding in acts of solidarity, justice, and comfort. The Cross of Jesus models a love that faces suffering and seeks healing in the midst of pain.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education and co-pastor of Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure:41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy:The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry (with Katherine Epperly). He may be contacted for speaking engagements, retreats, and workshops.
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