God acts for our salvation, because we cannot

Good Friday: April 10, 2020

Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Ps 22:1-11
Heb 4:14-16, 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

The Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister

Yesterday evening, I was deeply moved by the conclusion of our service. Jane read the words, “And all the disciples abandoned him and fled,” and we entered into a time of silence. Then, slowly, one by one, each of us had to disconnect ourselves from the link and from those words. I don’t know what that was like for you, but to me, it was a bit too much like being in the place of the disciples — seeing the danger Christ was in, and deciding to turn away.

Much of our experience these last few weeks chimes uncomfortably with the Passion. Trying to avoid defilement at a time when others suffer. The pain of entrusting our parents or elders into the care of others because we can no longer care for them. Each of us is in a kind of Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus used to gather with his disciples — now, as then, the very act of gathering in loving community has become a situation of acute peril. All over town, windows are decked with rainbows bearing the motto, Ca va bien aller, all will be well. They echo the words of the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich, who wrote, “All shall be well…and all manner of thing shall be well.” And yet, right now, all is not well.  Tout ne va pas bien. Our society is broken; our neighbors are dying; we are cut off from one another; and even when this time of seclusion has ended, our city and our world will bear the scars of loss — so many beloved faces we will not see again. All is not well.

Like Mary and John, we stand at the foot of the cross, helpless to save those we love. Our conversations break off into a pained silence — the silence of our conscience, all too aware of the suffering of those around us, and of our incapacity to help. They tell us: “Stay in; stay in your house; that will help” — and it will help, but, oh, it feels like doing nothing. This terrible pain is perhaps a true Good Friday, particularly for those of us who are accustomed to being able to act. Good Friday shows us a painful truth: God acts for our salvation, because we cannot.

That essential passivity is an easy thing to name, but a hard one to believe. Everything else in our world tells us that how we behave makes a difference. The child who studies gets the better grade. The musician who practices improves. The worker who exceeds expectations gets the promotion. Even love rarely seems unconditional: we spend our childhoods trying to earn it, and our adulthoods trying to deserve it. And yet, here we stand, in our appalling poverty, with nothing to do but open our hands and receive what is being done on our behalf.

The Cross reveals the depth of God’s love for us: a love so great that he refused to take refuge in sentimental lies. Instead, the cross takes our world seriously as “a place that deals death but cries out for life.”[1] Today, God chose to enter into our degradation and redeem it, not by a display of divine power, but through the brutal torture and abasement of Christ. On other days of the year, we can pretty it up: speak of bread and wine, sing of mercy and justice. Today, we are confronted with torn flesh, aching sinews, dust, sweat, malice, injustice, and death without reason or cause. It would be easier to look away. Nevertheless, that cross is a mirror for us: Christ was lifted up not only to save us, but so that we could see ourselves as we really are: in our frail, all-too-vulnerable flesh; in the faces and bodies of those we harm; and, yes, through the eyes of faith, as children so beloved that God was willing to suffer and to die so that we would not be parted from him forever.

This is difficult medicine. It annuls the differences between us. Christ did not die for the wicked (who do not include us, who are good). Christ died for us all (which must mean that we had need of it). In other seasons, we try to live in a way which returns that love, as we are, indeed, called to do. Always there is the temptation to believe that our faithfulness precedes God’s love, that our care for one another earns us forgiveness. Today, in our helplessness, we see that God’s action really does precede our own, that God’s forgiveness arrives before our sin and opens the space for our repentance. That our salvation comes to us always and only as a gift, like a breast held out to a child too small and weak to nurse without help.

When I was in seminary, I spent three Saturdays a month at the food pantry run by the church which I was serving as an intern. The second or third week I was there, a woman came in just before closing. She was beautiful, or had been, before the drugs took hold. That day, she was filthy and there were needle-tracks on her arms and she was wearing the clothes of a prostitute, but still, the bones in her face were a thing of wonder. She was dragging three children with her, two in one hand and the third, an infant, draped over her arm like a sack of potatoes. They were filthy, too, with dirty clothes and snot on their faces and no coats to wear against the cold. The second time she came, I asked the rector at what point we could call Child Protective Services. She explained that we did not do that: if our guests thought they could lose their children, they would not come. The next weekend, the woman did not appear, and I begged the site supervisor to keep the doors open just a little longer, in case she was running late. The supervisor refused, explaining that if we did it for this woman, we’d have to do it for everyone. And so all that year, I found myself waiting by the doors each Saturday as we approached noon, looking down the street, hoping to see the woman, because if she came, she and those children would have food.

That was long ago, and I do not know what happened to her or to those children. But this I do know. If I, who am a mess, can learn to wait in hope to see a junkie who will not give me her name, then surely our God, who made us, can come to us with hope, not because we have done something wonderful, not because we have moved mountains or built the perfect society or spent nine hundred hours in prayer, but just because God wants to know we are OK, that we are going to be all right.

The Cross reveals to us the deepest truth about ourselves, our world, and our God — and that truth is grounded not in human brokenness, but in the unbreakable love of God. The monk and mystic Thomas Merton wrote, “at the center of our being is a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lies, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship.” Merton called this place where God abides within us the point vierge, the virgin point, the place from which God rescues us from all our false self-understandings and restores to us the joy of being the sons and daughters of God.

The Cross, my friends, is the point vierge of the world. It is the place of radical acceptance, where in the absolute naked poverty of his fading existence, Jesus refused to turn away from us, refused to reject us, refused to withhold his love. On the cross, we tried to cast out Jesus, to condemn him, to exile him beyond the city walls, to surround him with criminals and riffraff, with the dregs of the human world. But what we cast out, Christ redeemed. He took it all into his own body — the malice, the violence, the indifference, the degradation, all of it — and rather than casting it out, he held it closer than his own breath and subsumed it in the transcendent mercy of God.

Beloved, the means of our salvation cannot be divorced from their effect. If God chose to save us, not by rejecting what was evil in us but by showing it mercy, then we, too, must allow the compassion of Christ to teach us compassion for one another, and even for ourselves. I do not mean that holiness is nothing, just that it is nothing like what we often envision it to be. It is messy and difficult and reeks with the iron tang of blood. We want it to be something we can tame. We want it to be something we can do. Sometimes, all we can do is to bear witness to a suffering we cannot heal: to embrace the cross where Christ saves us from all the things we cannot mend, or will not mend — our failures, our brokenness, all the ways we set ourselves apart from one another, calling one another good and evil, clean and unclean, when all God ever calls us is “beloved.”

That is the word Christ spoke from the Cross: beloved, beloved, beloved. Affection, after all, is merciless[2]; God’s own love became his Cross. Those were the wounds he bore: not the rending of his flesh by lash and thorn, but the deeper rending of his sacred heart that would not let Heaven be Heaven unless we were there to share it. Three days later, when he rose from the tomb and showed himself to his disciples, he bore those scars, which had been transformed from marks of shame to signs of love. And so, even as we bear witness to his death, “we know that our Redeemer lives, and that in our own flesh we shall see God” (Job 19:25). Not in our perfected flesh, but in our weakness have we seen Christ crucified, so that no part of our weakness shall be alien to him. For in the redemption of God, not even “the least thing shall…be forgotten…He [has made] well all that is not well’[3]

[1] Sobrino, The Principle of Mercy, 83.
[2] Ann Lauterbach, “Clamor”
[3] Julian of Norwich, Showings, Short Form, 32.

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