A note from Jamie Howison: What follows here is the text and audio from my sermon for Good Friday. The sermon was offered in three movements, each punctuated with a song led by Steve Bell and Larry Campbell. The audio can also be downloaded as an iTunes podcast.
“A serious way of wondering”; that’s how the novelist Reynolds Price described the imaginative telling of stories built on the often spare details of the gospel accounts. While not claiming for them the stature of gospel, such stories do have the potential to offer fresh insight, and to help us to contend with the biblical accounts in new ways. The stories I have written for today are not nearly so speculative as those of Reynolds Price, but they are offered in that same spirit of an open and serious wondering.
- To listen to the audio, simply click the arrow:
Movement I – According to Peter
Trim the wick on that lamp; it’s burning too brightly; the soldiers will surely see it from the street. Though hardly past midday it’s dark as night out there. It’s as if the very skies are in agony over what they’re doing to him. And they’ll do the same to us, if they find us. The door. It’s still bolted? Good. But the lamp; it’s still burning too brightly. Put it out, and we’ll just bear the darkness. If we can only make it through tomorrow’s Sabbath we can slip out of this accursed city and begin the long walk home. Back to the dull sameness of my boat and my nets. It is all I’m good for now. I’m so tired. And so frightened. And so filled with shame.
He’d called me Cephas, said I was his rock. Some rock. I couldn’t even keep my eyes open while he was in the garden, though he’d all but begged us to. “Keep awake,” he’d told us, “and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” But I couldn’t do it.
When the soldiers first arrived I was bold. I stood up to defend him. Though I’m no soldier, I even swung my sword. And then suddenly we were all running like scared children, scattered into the night. I did find a bit of courage, though, so I turned back and hid myself in the trees. I managed to follow when they took him to the high priest, staying as close as I dared. Out in the courtyard I hung back in the shadows for a while, and then slowly made my way over to warm myself by the fire. Could I do anything more than just wait and watch? Probably not, but at least this time I wouldn’t fall asleep; this time I wouldn’t let him down. This time I’d see it through.
But then one after another they began to accuse me: you were with him… you’re one of them. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, the fear welling up inside of me. Certainly you’re one of them; you’re a Galilean. “I do not even know the man!”
Then in the distance I heard it; the crowing of a rooster. And I remembered. He’d said I would deny even knowing him. I wonder how he knew?
His rock. He never should have given me that name. He should have given it to one of the women; to Magdalene, or Salome, or to his own mother, for heaven’s sake. They’re the ones brave enough to risk being spotted by the soldiers. They trust that as women none of the soldiers will pay any attention to them; that they’ll be safe on that wretched hill, watching him die. John too. He’s so young, he looks more a boy than a man; may that keep him safe from notice this dark, dark day.
As for me, it is all over now. I’ve no strength, no stomach for this. I failed him. My heart is broken. The dream is over. And I am so very, very tired.
From the 22nd Psalm:My heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; and you have laid me in the dust of death.
We’ve been following this course for some time now
There have never been two moments the same
It’s not like we didn’t expect it
But something has changed
There’s an agony in all His expression
There’s an urgency and a dread in His wake
So what’s this density in my head
Somehow I can’t stay awake
There’s a part of me ready now
But mostly I just want to sleep one more hour
And it doesn’t make sense
I intend to defend this man
You all know how I want to help
And I’m trying to see
Is that blood on his brow
This chasm is steep
Yet I’m falling asleep somehow
What is this potion we’ve taken
What sinister magic is this
After all that we’ve seen and forsaken
And we lose by a kiss
All of us thought we were ready
All of us thought we were fit
Not one of us thought it would end
In a slumbering bliss
Trying to be ready
On my feet and steady
Jesus help me stay awake
Could somebody around me
Be poisoning my coffee
Come on give your head a shake
(Words and Music by Steve Bell)
Movement II – According to Judas
They’ll say that I did it for the money, but I swear that wasn’t the reason. I know they always talked about me, whispering that I’d been skimming coins from the common purse. But weren’t they the ones who’d said that I was good with money, and that I’d be the best one to keep track of what we’d been given? And did they ever go lacking in all that time we were following him all over the countryside? No, there was always enough; I made sure of it. From time to time when we passed by my father’s village I did take a few coins to give to him… but why not? Shouldn’t I have been at home taking care of my father as he grew old rather than out with Jesus chasing after this dream of a Kingdom that never seemed to come any closer? After walking away from my home, my livelihood, my responsibilities, who can fault me for giving a few meagre coins to a poor old man?
At first I’d justified leaving home by convincing myself that soon enough his Kingdom would come; soon enough the twelve of us would be like princes. It wasn’t hard to believe that, once you’d seen the way he moved people. Wherever Jesus went he drew crowds the way honey draws flies. He’d hold them for hours, as he told his odd stories and taught his strange lessons about loving enemies and not passing judgment on others. I saw him open the eyes of the blind; I saw cripples up on their feet, dancing with joy; I saw a few loaves and fishes feed thousands. If he could do that, surely the spirit of God rested on him. And when we sat with him late into the night and heard his words about the Kingdom, could any of us resist? If we only had faith the size of a mustard seed, he’d say…
But then it was nothing but blind beggars, cripples, and lepers, and it was hard to see how Rome could be toppled by the likes of them. That’s when the voice started; the questioning voice in the back of my head. He’s not what he says. He’s no better than a magician. This is all going nowhere. Judas, you’ve wasted the better part of three years of your life following a pretender. Cut your losses, and go home to your father.
I started to believe again the day he rode into Jerusalem. There we all were, waving branches and singing our lungs out—hosanna, hosanna, hosanna… save us! Not just us and the ones from Galilee who’d followed us to the city, either. There were real Jerusalem Jews in that crowd, and they sang almost as loudly as any of us. It is really happening, I thought. I believed. With a faith bigger than a mustard seed, I believed. I did.
Next day we were at the temple, and for a brief moment my faith in him grew even bigger. To see him so passionate about what we’d found there; to see him tipping over tables and chasing out the animals, all the while shouting at the priests that they’d turned his Father’s house into a den of thieves. Right then and there I was sure that I’d been right to believe his Kingdom talk.
But after we left they all just set up their tables and led the animals back in. Day after day we’d go back and just sit outside the temple, listening to him debate with all comers. From time to time I’d see hints of that passion again, but then nothing; nothing but talk. Some of his talk was the strangest we’d yet heard: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,” he’d said, “and the stars will be falling from heaven.” And there was that voice in the back of my head again, telling me he’s nothing but a pretender.
That’s when it came to me. If he is what he says he is, I can make it all begin. If I make an arrangement with the chief priests and the elders of the council, telling them of his radical kingdom talk and letting them know where he can be found, it will all be set in motion. Or at least that’s what I thought would happen.
I swear. That’s what I was doing; I swear it. It was never about the money. Oh my God, tell me it was never about the money…
From the 27th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew:
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? See to it yourself.’ Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, Judas departed; and he went out and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:3-5)
Go to dark Gethsemane,
ye that feel the tempter’s power;
your Redeemer’s conflict see,
watch with him one bitter hour.
Turn not from his griefs away;
learn of Jesus Christ to pray.
See him at the judgment hall,
beaten, bound, reviled, arraigned;
O the wormwood and the gall!
O the pangs his soul sustained!
Shun not suffering, shame, or loss;
learn of Christ to bear the cross.
Calvary’s mournful mountain climb;
there, adoring at his feet,
mark that miracle of time,
God’s own sacrifice complete.
“It is finished!” hear him cry;
learn of Jesus Christ to die.
Movement III – According to Mary
I have feared this day from the moment the old man took him from my arms and spoke his strange blessing. Just a baby, forty days old, but Simeon called him Israel’s glory and a light to the gentiles. “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.” A sign to be opposed. I was so very young then, but what mother wouldn’t be filled with fear at such words? And then he looked at me with those sad, ancient eyes, and told me that a sword would pierce my soul too. Today it has.
I often wished his life might have been different. When he was at the age to start a family, he politely declined any attempts to match him with a wife. After Joseph died and the days of mourning had ended, he stayed to care for me, settling into the trade he’d learned from his father. He expressed no interest in marrying, no need to have children. His life was simple, though he so often seemed lost in his deep and private thoughts.
When he heard news that his cousin John had gone into the desert and was preaching like one of the prophets of old, he told me he needed to go out to hear him. He was gone a good many days, and when I tried to get some word of him I was told that he’d been baptized by John, but after that no one seemed to know where he’d gone. When he finally returned, he was different. There was a new look in his eyes, new authority in his speech. He even walked differently, as if for the first time in his life he knew where each step was taking him.
Early on I tried to stop him. They were all talking about how he had such power in his words, and that whenever he touched someone who was sick they were healed. How was that even possible? I feared he had lost his mind, and so I took his brothers with me to try to convince him to come home. He wouldn’t even talk to us. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he’d said to those gathered around him. “Those who do the will of God are my brothers, my sisters, my mother.” Strangely, that’s when I knew he’d not lost his mind. That’s when I knew why he looked so different.
They flocked to him like hungry lambs, and every so often he’d look at one of them and say, “Follow me.” And they would. And I did.
There was a moment when Magdalene first came around that I wondered if she might be the one for him, and I secretly hoped that if she was then she could bring him back home, and save him from all that was unfolding. There was so much gossip about her in her village, but I believed none of it. He’d freed her from such torment, and she was so grateful. You could see how much they cared for one another—can you blame a mother for wishing happiness for her son?—but soon I saw it was not in that way. They befriended one another in a manner I thought not even possible between a man and a woman.
My heart sank when he said he was going to go to Jerusalem, and I’m sure Magdalene’s did too. That’s why we were so sure we needed to go with him. On that last mile before we reached the gates, there were Simon Peter and the rest of the men, singing out their hosannas and waving palm branches as if they were Maccabean rebels set on conquering the city. I don’t know that any of the women sang out so loudly; I know I didn’t. I couldn’t. And then I saw the way the soldiers were watching us.
It all unfolded so quickly from there; just a matter of days. A late night arrest, and by morning he’d been sentenced to death by crucifixion. No mother should see her child die like that, but no son should die alone. And so we stood and kept a ghastly vigil; my sister, Clopas’ wife Mary, Magdalene, and John. Of all the men, only John. He looked down at us from that cross, fighting to focus his eyes first on me, and then on John. “Woman,” he said to me. “Woman, here is your son.” Then to John, “Here is your mother.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he’d asked back at the beginning. “Those who do the will of God.”
Was today the will of God? I saw none of the light or glory of which old Simeon had spoken those thirty-three years ago; only death and loss and darkness. I saw a son who had lived with such truth and love and authority and mercy that they just couldn’t stand it; they either had to kill him, or admit how meager were their own lives; their own versions of truth and mercy. I saw none rising in Israel today; only a falling. Misplaced hopes. Lost dreams. And so much blood.
Of one thing, though, Simeon surely spoke truly. Today a sword has pieced my soul.
From the 19th Chapter of the Gospel according to John:
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19:26-27)
“A Better Resurrection”
I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.
O Jesus, quicken me.
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
O Jesus, rise in me
My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish’d thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.
O Jesus, drink of me.
(Steve Bell, from a poem by Christina Rossetti)