A sermon given at the Liturgy of Good Friday on Friday 15 April at 10am, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor
In the 12th Chapter of the Gospel according to St John, the gospel from which our Passion reading is taken, after Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a donkey to the cries of Hosannas from the crowd, some Greeks come to Jesus’ disciple Philip and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. Jesus says in response, “The hour has come …”
It is on this day, Good Friday, that the hour has come, that we see who Jesus is. On Good Friday, in our cathedral, we sit at the foot of Jesus’ cross. Accompanying one another as we keep watch in his dying, surrounded by the singing of the choir from the gallery, listening to words of the Passion, gazing at the wood of this cross towering over us draped in red silk, his life poured out for us.
As we sit at the foot of Jesus’ cross, the stories of suffering in our world echo in our minds. The stories of pandemic, of a planet groaning in pain, the horrifying stories of Ukraine.
The pandemic wrought by Coronavirus ID number 19 has plagued our world for over two years now. We hear that some children struggle to recognise facial expressions because so much of their formative years have been with people in masks. We know that thanks to the fierce skill and determination of scientists, vaccines have been developed with the result that many more don’t die when the virus strikes, but those vaccines have not been shared equally across the world, and the damage wrought by the virus is those parts of the world are still dire. We know that across the world, many of the elderly in nursing homes have had their dementia accelerated and their mobility stifled as they are locked in their rooms sheltering from the spread of the virus, but unable to see those who love them and remind them who they are.
The signs of the changing of our planet’s climate are more and more evident on our own shores but did we hear Simon Kofe, the foreign minister of Tuvalu speak at the time of the COP26 summit, a summit committed to working to stem the fierce tide of climate change? He was standing in the sea. The shore of his island behind him. His lectern – the lectern on which sat the words of his speech to those gathered in Glasgow at the COP26 summit – also stood in the sea. His nation’s flag was fluttering in the breeze. “Climate change and sea level rise are deadly existential threats to Tuvalu and low lying Atol countries.” The foreign minister of Tuvalu, Simon Kofe, said. “We are sinking but so is everyone else. In Tuvalu we are living the realities of climate change and sea level rise.” In a radio interview on our own RN Breakfast program, though, Simon Kofe posed a question for experts in international law: “If a country is submerged, does it still have nation status?”Do we still exist in the eyes of international law, he was asking. Do we still exist in God’s eyes, are we still seen, he might ask the dying Jesus.
And then there is Ukraine. It might seem difficult to believe that in a world created by one who loves us this much, we need to have international laws to govern human behaviour at time of war. Laws that have been brutally violated in Ukraine.
The world saw the atrocities in Larysa Savenko’s suburban Ukrainian neighbourhood days before she did.
The 72-year-old was still hiding in her house in the town of Bucha, near the capital Kyiv, just days ago when apocalyptic scenes of burnt-out military vehicles, ruined homes and muddy chaos on Vokzal’na Street became the latest defining images of the war.
Ms Savenko was holed up in her shed for five weeks in the freezing cold, with her son and a homeless lodger, as Russian forces occupied the street on the road to Kyiv.
“We couldn’t go out, everything around was on fire,” Ms Savenko said.
“There was shooting everywhere, so we got out through the kitchen window and hid in a cellar.” Many residents were trapped without access to power, water or food. Every few days, Ms Savenko scurried through her yard to next door to feed her neighbour, who was unable to walk.
Retreating Russian soldiers had left the corpses of civilians strewn across the streets near Ms Savenko’s home.
These are the stories of the suffering of our world that we place at the foot of Jesus’ cross. He hears, he sees and as he dies, he speaks. Seven Last Words, we find in the gospel accounts, words that he speaks to those before him. And in his words we find the love of God addressing suffering humanity in all its times and all its places.
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus says to the soldiers who stand before him, the ones who have robbed him of his life. Jesus looks at the ones who nailed him to his cross and, in all the physical and spiritual pain that surrounds him, he utters these words of forgiveness.
There is a story sometimes told about God’s forgiveness, about God needing a sacrifice. But I do not believe that Jesus is placating an angry Father God who needs a death to take away the world’s sin. This is not what is meant when we say Jesus died to take away the sins of the world. Jesus died forgiving. This was, of course an event in time and space. A dying man speaking words at a particular time, in a particular place, forgiving particular people. But it was more than that. As the veil of the temple is torn in two at the death of Jesus, his words send shock waves through all creation, waves of forgiveness for all time and in every place. Can we imagine this? Forgiveness for all the sins of our world? The awful sins of our time and place. When we struggle to contemplate God’s forgiveness of the soldiers of our time and place, we might wonder …can imagine God’s forgiveness of our own sin?
Jesus speaks to his mother, a mother who is to lose her son and so her home. “Woman here is your son,” he says as she stands with the disciple he loves, “here is your mother.” As we contemplate the people of Ukraine and so many others made homeless through war and suffering, we hear Jesus making a home for his mother. Homes are made in the most difficult of circumstances, made in Jesus’ spirit poured out on the cross, like Larysa Savenko’s home for five weeks in the freezing cold in a shed, with her son and a homeless lodger, as Russian forces occupied the street on the road to Kyiv. A home that extended to her neighbour, unable to walk, who Larysa risked her life to feed. Homes made for those the millions who have fled Ukraine, Syria, Afganistan, victims of human violence as Jesus’ mother was, a victim of the violence meted out on her son.
And then there are the stories of our beloved ones, the beloved of our community who have died … not from the virus that plagues us, not from fire or flood, not from the violence of war, but from the illnesses that strike us and the frailty of age … the stories of our beloved ones and our struggle to learn to live without their nearness, without their voices speaking with us, with memory and the fierceness of our love for them leading us on. He sees us ache in it.
Jesus sees and he speaks. “I thirst,” Jesus says. The Word made flesh, Jesus incarnate, knows the struggle of humanity, knows hunger and thirst, knows the suffering our physical need brings. And knows our longing for meaning in it. Jesus speaks the truth of it, inhabits the reality of it. Knows death in it. And knows that sometimes there is despair.
And dying on his cross, he sees and he speaks. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
He was so close to his Father, the one he called Abba. All his love and healing, all his teaching and delighting in the company of sinners, all of it, flowed from his closeness to God. But in his dying, that closeness was gone, and we can only wonder at the terror of it, that at the very moment he needed his Father’s closeness most, he felt abandoned. There was only suffering in the Father. The theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote the most helpful words I have read on this:
“The Father delivers up his Son on the cross in order to be the Father of those who are delivered up. In the forsakenness of the Son the Father also forsakes himself. In the surrender of the Son the Father also surrenders himself …The Father who abandons him and delivers him up suffers the death of the Son in the infinite grief of love. …The Son suffers dying, the Father suffers the death of the Son.” “The deep community of will between Jesus and his God and Father is now expressed precisely at the point of their deepest separation in the godforsaken and accursed death of Jesus on the cross.”
In his dying, Jesus prays. Prays the words he had prayed throughout his life, the words of his faith. The psalms. Prays his despair in Psalm 22. Prays the night prayer, Psalm 31, with his last breath. Helping us know that in our suffering and in our hour, our hour of death, that praying never ceases. That the dying Jesus is there praying with us. Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. He prays.
We come looking for Jesus, this Good Friday. Tentatively, almost in fear we come. Somehow, though, it seems that in him, as we gaze at the cross, we are found. It is he who finds us. In all the echoes of the stories of suffering in our world, Jesus sees us, hears us, addresses us, names us. It is us and all God’s beloved creation who are found, who are seen.
The hour has come.
Behold Jesus dying on the cross. Behold love dying on the cross, behold God.
 Moltmann J., The Crucified God p. 251.
 Moltmann J., p.252.