Jamie Howison’s sermon for Good Friday, with music by Steve Bell
To listen to the audio of the sermon, press play:
I. Here is your son; here is your mother
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)
It has long been the tradition—since the eighth century, in fact—to read the Passion according to John on Good Friday. Some years we’ve broken from that pattern and used the Passion accounts from the other gospels, but this year we’re going with the tradition. We’re reading John’s account, because I want to speak about two of the statements John alone records Jesus as speaking from the cross. John writes later than the other three gospel writers—perhaps as much as twenty-five or thirty years later—and he re-members differently; he remembers imaginatively, poetically.
As told in the fourth gospel, Jesus looked down from the cross and saw his mother standing with the young disciple John. You can almost imagine them holding one another up, desperate to not shield their eyes, or to turn their faces aside. Desperate to not run away, for they know he is dying, and they can’t bear to let him face that all alone.
Looking from one to the other, Jesus said, “here is your son [and] here is your mother.” “And from that hour,” John writes, “the disciple took her into his own home.” It is a poignant scene, isn’t it? That a man being slowly tortured to death would even have the presence of mind to entrust his mother and his friend to one another, to become from that point on a kind of family. Mary, of course, had other family—Jesus’ brothers and sisters, including James who would go on to lead the early Jerusalem church. I’ve wondered if John maybe didn’t, or if what family he did have had pushed him away because he’d insisted on following this Jesus? Or maybe it was simply what he had taught from the beginning of his ministry—“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”—and it was now to be lived out by two of the people closest to him.
Several years ago we published a little book for Lent with a series of meditations by my friend and colleague James Snyder, all reflecting on the words Jesus uttered from the cross. When he came to this text, Jim wrote of how his days working in an adolescent crisis facility had given this passage a very particular resonance. He’d be out with one of the kids from the facility, and from time to time someone—a store clerk, perhaps—would ask, “Is this your son?” Yes, he always wanted to say. Yes, because in Christ we are made a peculiar kind of family.
I know that experience from my own years of working at Marymound, a residential treatment centre for adolescent girls. Let me tell you a couple of stories.
Most school days at the lunch break, we had the opportunity to play intramural sports. The teams were open to both students and staff, and I always saw joining a team as a good way of practicing a little pastoral presence. On the day in question the game was indoor soccer. I had the ball at my feet, and looked up to see this little spitfire of a kid coming at me with all her might. All of 12 years old, she’d already seen more pain in her short life than you want to even imagine. But man, I’ll tell you, she was full of life, and in that gym she wasn’t going to let up for anything. As she wound up for her kick, I swept the ball to the side… meaning her foot landed squarely on my shin. It didn’t do me any damage, but it was pretty clear she’d broken something. Off to the hospital we went, accompanied by one of the women youth care workers.
When the young doctor saw us, her assessment was quick. “It looks like you’ve broken your big toe, but I’ll still want an x-ray.” Then turning to me and the youth care worker, the doctor said, “Mom and dad, you can come to the x-ray area if you want.”
“That’s not my mom and dad! That’s Jamie and Frances!” She began to laugh, and she laughed until the tears were rolling down her cheeks, the young doctor looking utterly confused. We quickly explained, and then as I pushed her wheelchair down the hall, she just kept laughing and repeating, “The doctor thought you were my mom and dad!”
When we finally got back to the centre, this girl now in a cast and walking on crutches, she could hardly wait to tell her story. Again and again she told it to anyone who would listen. “I broke my toe on Jamie’s leg, and the doctor thought him and Frances were my dad and mom.” And always the laughter.
Over the next year, she just kept telling the story, “Remember when I broke my toe on your leg, Jamie, and the doctor thought you were my dad?” She particularly loved to tell it whenever a new girl arrived on the residential unit. But you know, for all of that laughter, it was hard to miss the wistfulness that came with her story. For a split second in a hospital emergency room, she had the mom and dad that she’d never really had.
My own daughters were young when I worked there—preschoolers when I first started, and grades three and four by the time I left. I used to take them with me from time to time, because I thought it was good for them to see where I worked and I also thought it was good for the girls in residence to see me not just as “the priest,” but also as a dad. One evening I was visiting in one of the units with my daughters, and though it was probably time to get going they decided they wanted a snack. I got an apple from the fruit bowl, sat at one of the tables with them, and began to carefully cut it into slices. I carved out the core from each slice, peeled them, and put them into a little bowl, with another little bowl of peanut butter for dip. We’d been joined at our table by one of the girls, a tough fifteen year old who’d been involved with the gangs, the sex trade, and all manner of drugs and alcohol. She just sat very quietly while I prepared that apple, and when I was done she looked at me and said, “Would you do that for me?” Yes, yes, of course I would. She jumped up and grabbed another apple and a little bowl, and she sat almost transfixed as I slowly sliced, cored, and peeled it for her. When I was done she happily munched her apple, right along with my daughters, foregoing the peanut butter. She looked at me and smiled. “Thanks.”
“He said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’” And here are your daughters, Jamie. All of them. And here, he said to that street-involved kid who had never had a father who would cut up apple slices for her, here—even if just for this moment—here is a dad for you.
We long for those connections, don’t we? For someone with whom we can be family. For someone with whom we can make a home. For someone we can laugh ourselves to tears with. For someone who will cut apple slices for us.
It is why he entrusted John and Mary, one to another. Even in the teeth of his own death, he could see their deep, aching, human longing. He still sees it, in us. And he calls us to not abandon one another.
Music: O sacred Head, now wounded
II. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me
At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34)
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—in Mark’s account these are the only words spoken by Jesus from the cross. Matthew also records them, and in both of those accounts, they are Jesus’ final, dying words. It is an agonizing statement, one which the Black culture critic and writer Stanley Crouch called, “perhaps the greatest blues line of all time.” Jesus is clearly citing the opening line of the 22nd Psalm, not as a meaning-making biblical quote, but because as he experienced something unspeakably awful, that psalm gave him a few words. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Lost, abandoned, beyond hope, forsaken. And then, Mark tells us, “Jesus gave a loud cry”—a final agonized and wordless cry—“and he breathed his last.”
The chapel at Marymound was a big, light-filled space, and along the sides and across the back was a set of carved wooden Stations of the Cross. The fourteen traditional stations mark the story of Christ’s Passion, from his condemnation by Pilate through to his burial in the tomb. In the Marymound chapel, there was also a large wooden crucifix at the end of the stations. The Christ figure was close to life-size—probably five feet tall—and rendered in a highly realistic way, with nails through his bloodied hands and feet. For the most part, the girls didn’t pay it much attention; it was just part of the chapel furnishings. One Good Friday, though, one of those young women saw it with a stunning kind of clarity.
My pattern on Good Friday was to take small groups of seven or eight kids and staff members through the stations. We would just make our way from one station to the next, and I’d just tell the story as it unfolded in those carvings. At the end we’d go and sit in my large office, where I’d have hot cross buns and pretzels for them; both being foods associated with Lent and Good Friday. I’d try to give a quick explanation of the meaning behind both—the cross and the spices of the buns representing Jesus’ death and burial, and the knot shape of the pretzel representing hands in prayer, while their being made without eggs, dairy or sugar signifying a Lenten fast—but mostly the girls just feigned attention while they happily munched their snack. But you know, in that ministry context it was a good way to approach the day, and it did set the stage for our Easter service.
Attendance was always voluntary for chapel services and programs, so I just never knew who might decide to opt in, or why. One of the things you learn quickly in that kind of work is that you need to expect the unexpected, but I also came to learn that sometimes those unexpected and uncomfortable moments could be deeply revelatory.
I was trying to pace this particular little group as slowly as I possibly could, but they were a restless bunch, perhaps more interested in the snack session in my office than in this story I was telling them. “Who’s that?” “What are they doing?” “Can we hurry up?” “I forgot I was supposed to phone my auntie…” Finally—finally—we were at the Station, “Jesus dies on the cross”, which in that chapel was close to the large crucifix. “Do you know what Jesus said when he died?” I asked them. “He said ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, which meant he felt like God had given up on him and left him alone…” I was about to say something about how we can also feel abandoned and left alone, and that Jesus knows exactly how that feels, when one of those girls just stopped me in my tracks. She pointed at the large crucifix, looked me square in the eyes, and with a sneer of absolute disdain she said, “I could never believe in a God who would do that to his own kid. Never.” And then she turned, and walked out of the chapel.
My restless little group was speechless, and for a few moments no one moved. A couple of them looked at me with real concern, almost as if they were worried that her words had really hurt me. I swallowed deeply, and quickly turned to the final station where Jesus is laid in the tomb. I’m sure I mumbled something about that not really being the end of the story… and then into my office we went, for a hurried and rather awkward snack and visiting time. Those girls didn’t want to linger that day. Not at all.
When they’d all left, I sat for a bit in the chapel, wondering at those fierce words that girl had uttered; wondering, too, as to what I’d be able to say to the next group I was to bring through. You see, what that girl had said was not without theological sophistication and insight. I remember hearing the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann say in a lecture at New York’s Trinity Institute that without Jesus, he could not believe in God. He wasn’t saying that he needed a gentle New Testament Jesus to offset some imagined judgmental God of the Old; not at all. Rather he believed that Christian Trinitarian theology is forged at the cross, where we see God crucified. The Incarnation can never be divided from the Passion and Cross of Jesus; that “God became flesh and dwelt among us” means that God—God—lived with us as one of us… and died with and for and among us. To locate God the Father in some remote other place, dispassionately looking to satisfy justice by having Jesus killed on the cross? That is not enough. It doesn’t take the Incarnation seriously enough, nor does it acknowledge the depths of God’s love for us. But to understand that the man who hung on the cross was also God? That in his humanness he did in fact feel abandoned, yet God was never absent. As the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, “As soon as you say incarnation, you say cross.” Not, mind you, because of some overly simplistic view of a transactional atoning sacrifice, but rather because as soon as God is incarnate, there is bound to be a truthfulness so disturbing to human structures and politics—to the principalities and powers to which humanity so easily bows—that we will attempt to kill God. Yet death will not—cannot—have the final word.
Clearly that girl who sneered at me and said, “I could never believe in a God who would do that to his own kid” had never read Moltmann or von Balthasar, and I suspect she’d never thought much about the cross. Yet as a child she’d experienced a kind of abandonment by her parents, and though not nailed to a cross, she had been badly hurt by her father. Very badly. I could never believe in a God that would be anything like my father, she was saying. Or like my mother, for that matter. But I wonder, might she believe in a God who breathed the same air as her, who cut his feet on sharp stones, who had friends who wouldn’t back him up, and who—in the end—was prepared to die for her?
I attended her funeral a few years later. She’d had one lonely, broken, abandoned night too many, and she finally called it quits. It was an awful funeral, really. It was in the community hall out on the reserve, and someone had found a retired evangelist to take the service. We heard a lot about not making the mistakes she had made, and about avoiding the damnation she was now facing. Seriously. People sat around tables in the hall, smoking an endless chain of cigarettes and getting up and down to refill Styrofoam cups with bad coffee. No one much cared about what the evangelist said; they were just doing their duty, “paying their respects” as the saying goes. When it was over, we drove to the local cemetery to bury the body. The casket was lowered to the bottom, but before the evangelist could say his final words, the girl’s mother—a broken woman if I’d ever seen one—jumped down into the grave and howled for us to bury her too.
“I could never believe in a God who would do that to his own kid.” I believe in a God who would do that for us; for me, for all of you, and for that angry, broken girl as well. And for her mother; God knows what ever happened to her mother.
“I could never believe in a God who would do that to his own kid.” You were right, Michelle. Though both Mark and Matthew end their accounts with those hard words—blues words, that I have found oddly comforting—there are other words. Though you’ve been dead some thirty years now, my girl, I owe you a great debt. You won’t let me ignore those other words.
Music: Go to dark Gethsemane
III. It is Finished
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)
So yes, in Mark and Matthew’s telling, Jesus’ dying words are “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” In Luke’s account, Jesus cries out with a loud voice, saying “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,’” while in John the final words are “It is finished.” Sometimes people are tempted to ask, “So who got it right? Which is the most accurate?” That is very much a modern question, and one which would have left the gospel writers and the great theologians of the ancient church quite puzzled. It is not a question of accuracy, or correctness. All four of them are right, because each offered what they heard or saw or received or simply knew to be true. They felt no need to produce anything like a “harmony of the gospels,” so very popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. No, for the most part the ancient church was simply prepared to have the three different versions of Jesus’ dying words sound together like three notes in a single chord. To lose any one of them was to lose the sounding chord altogether. It is also, as that disdainful, sneering, and oh-so-hurting girl at Marymound taught me, to risk losing the truth.
“When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30) There is an extraordinary force to those words, ‘It is finished.’ More than just indicating that his painful crucifixion had come to its end, the Greek word is tetelestai; literally “it has been accomplished.” As John Marsh writes in his commentary on this Gospel, “In one sense these words can be taken as the very centre and heart of John’s gospel, for they state the triumphant story he has to tell in one Greek word. [As John understands things], the cross is the instrument and point of victory, not the point of defeat which has to be reversed on Easter morning. Here, as the Lord dies, he conquers. Here, submitting to death, he vanquishes it.” For John—the most poetic, theologically speculative, and mystical of all the gospel writers—“it has been accomplished.”
Which means that every thing and every person; every horror and every wonder; every achievement and every failure; every loving gesture and every sin; all of it must now be seen in a different light. It is all relativized, because “It is finished,” “it has been accomplished.” All of the things we think so important—both the good and the bad—become, strangely, a trifling in that moment. There are still real decisions to be made and significant things to be lived out… but in the end? It has been accomplished.
When you think about it, what a burden that frees us from, right? We don’t have to solve everything, fix everything, or in the context of a place like a youth treatment centre, have some statistically-verifiable, stellar “success rate”… whatever that might be. Instead we are freed to simply do the work of our lives in response to the one clear mandate Jesus lays out in John’s account of things: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13.34) It is a love to be expressed as both mutual servanthood and a deep befriending one of the other, neither of which are things that show up in flow charts, bank balances, success rates, or statistics. And isn’t that a kind of a liberation?
We are freed, too, to dare to try and to risk failing; freed to dream and imagine; to spend a whole afternoon looking up at the clouds or reading that old novel you love or trying to write a poem or paint a picture; because “It has been accomplished.”
And when we have reason to worry ourselves half to death because one of our kids is in real trouble or our relationship is going off the rails or somebody we love is facing some pain or sorrow or is even dying? Yes, they can be hard, hard things; I’m not denying that. Yet even those things must now be seen in this new light of those extraordinary words, because “It has been accomplished.” Our lives and even our deaths—our very deaths—are kept safe in the death of Jesus.
Of course that day none of those who bore witness to this death knew anything of that. Even John who would write those words in his account, what did he truly know? They thought it was simply over now, and they wondered what they were going to do with what was left of their tattered lives. For now, that is where we must leave the story.
“A Better Resurrection” – offered by Steve Bell and Larry Campbell
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)