the scum of the earth… a sermon for Good Friday

a sermon preached at saint benedict’s table by Chris Holmes

I

saiah is the fifth Gospel, so says the Christian tradition. One of the principal reasons for this is the presence of the four servant songs. A few minutes ago we read one of them—arguably the most famous and poignant. The servant, the suffering servant, was, for Isaiah’s hearers, the exiled nation of Israel. Two and a half millennia later, we read this passage and identify the servant described with Jesus. Jesus’ own sense of identity and mission is shaped by this figure.

“So marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals.” Good Friday is the most difficult day of the Christian year; Christian faith struggles to make it through this day. The King of the Jews and of the Gentiles, too, is pushed out of the world. His life is revealed to be a failure, a humiliation.

“Hail, King of the Jews!” We want a King, to be sure; but not this kind of lonely King. We want a triumphant, successful, and joyous King—certainly not a suffering King. We would like a King who stands up for himself, for his people, for the rule of his Father in the world. No, King Jesus isn’t really a King. He is, rather, some sick joke of a King. Kings get their way. They come revealed in glory and majesty. A King is certainly not a 1st century Palestinian Jew who is persecuted all his life, a stranger in his own family and in his nation, a stranger in the spheres of State and Church and civilization. A true King would not capitulate to his own people’s madness. By no means: a true King would effect his rule in the world the way Kings always have—that is, with a sword.

The church is tempted, as are Christians, to seek God in all kinds of places, mostly nice and pleasant places. But these places are not where God wills to be recognized. There is indeed something good about Good Friday. What is good is that we learn that the God of the Bible chooses to be recognized in One whose appearance is marred, One beyond human semblance, One whose form is beyond that of mortals. Brother Martin Luther, in May 1518, put it this way: “Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross… For this reason true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ.” (Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, May 1518)

“Crucify him! Crucify him!” That is the verdict that Jews and Gentiles pronounce upon so-called King Jesus. Here humanity’s rebellion against God is unveiled. To God’s grace, humanity has but a hate-filled ‘No’ to utter. The astonishing thing is that the Son of God lets our protest, our hate, touch him. Israel delivers up its Saviour to the Gentiles. The Gentiles accept this handing over and thereby participate in Israel’s rebellion against God. The temple leadership, the police, the Roman imperial administration each, in their own way, says enough. And so they fulfill Is 53:3. “He was despised, and we held him of no account.” Crucifixion is torture. It is for those of no account. The crucified are the scum and refuse of society, hung at eye level on crosses placed on major thoroughfares as a not so subtle reminded that to get in Rome’s way is to invite death.

In a letter written to Eberhard Bethge on 16 July 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us…. Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” (16 July 1944) The horror of Good Friday is that we do push God out of the world. What we have done to Jesus, we have done to God. Our rebellion against God is fully revealed. So too is God’s judgement of our rebellion. In the crucified Jesus, we see ourselves as those who deserve this judgement. Jesus’ total suffering is the suffering which corresponds to total sin. And yet, God himself in the man Jesus takes the place of sinful humanity. The man Jesus, perfect God and perfect man, bears the suffering of rebellious humanity and the guilt that is humanity’s. So the cross that meets Jesus is really our own cross. Karl Barth put it this way: “It belongs to us, that end on the gallows.”

“He is crushed for our iniquities.” Crushed. Crucified. Pushed out. Weak and powerless. Indeed. [Pause] But there is, once again, good in Good Friday. The good is that “by his bruises we are healed.” By his suffering we are helped. God in Christ becomes guilty here and reconciles. Over and against insurgent humanity, God is the One who makes our rebellion his own business. The good news of today is that our rebellion and consequent failure is no longer our own business. This is the inestimable mercy of God which follows God’s judgement of our sin and death in Christ’s cross. The first and last thing is always God’s kindness. God’s Kingdom comes by weakness and powerlessness, and thereby in an act of infinite kindness. We are those who benefit by crucifying Jesus. We push him out; and in so doing God helps us. In the man Jesus, God uses our madness—our shouts of crucify him—for our good. That is a love divine.

We cannot read John’s passion, and hear Isaiah’s song, without being profoundly implicated. There is a lamb. His name is King Jesus. He is led to the slaughter. We send him there. And yet, that we do so is his Father’s will. There are, I believe, no more haunting words in all of Holy Scripture than Jesus’ words to Pilate. “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” The Father of Jesus sends his Son, true God and true man, to be the man smitten by God. The man Jesus must suffer, must be rejected, must endure “a perversion of justice.” He does so in order to destroy injustice. By a “perversion of justice,” injustice is evicted. For, as Isaiah tells us, “he was cut off from the land of the living.” Pushed out. Destroyed. But in being cut off, he bears the iniquities of those who cut him off.

Terry Eagleton, Britain’s most famous and learned literary critic, who by no means claims to be a Christian, writes of Jesus’ passion and death with frightening insight. He echoes in his own way both Luther, Barth, and Bonhoeffer. Eagleton writes, “The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal, who dies in an act of solidarity with what the Bible calls the anawim, meaning the destitute and dispossessed. Crucifixion was reserved by the Romans for political offenses alone. The anawim, in Pauline phrase, are the shit of the earth—the scum and refuse of society who constitute the cornerstone of the new form of human life known as the kingdom of God. Jesus himself is consistently presented as their representative. His death and descent into hell is a voyage into madness, terror, absurdity, and self-dispossession, since only a revolution that cuts that deep can answer our dismal condition.” (Faith, Reason, and Revolution, 23)

Good Friday is the beginning of the end. It is the revolution to end all revolutions. A thirty something year old 1st century Palestinian Jew enters our dismal condition, submits to the blasphemies of his own people, the callous indifference of the Gentile elite, and in so doing reconciles all people to himself. This is love divine; this is good. But the goodness is concealed in horror. For today is the day in which Jews and Gentiles finally do what they have always wanted to do: push God out of the world. And we succeed, for a time. However, our deliverance of God’s Son to death becomes, in God’s merciful hands, God’s surprising way of restoring us.

Hear St. Peter in I Peter 2:22-25: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”

On Good Friday we need to linger. We cannot rush to Easter Sunday. We need to look on the One whom we have pierced. We need to look at this slaughtered Jew as the total help of God—total help over against total guilt. Here there was suffering. Everything else that we know as suffering is unreal suffering compared with what happened here. Let us linger, once again. For what we have done to this man, we have done to God. And God in kindness unending suffers our foolish business, so that it need no longer be our business.

Amen.

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