April 19, 2019
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|Isaiah 52:13-53:12||Psalm 22||Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9||John 18:1 -- 19:42|
by Bruce Epperly
“God is the fellow sufferer who understands,” so writes Alfred North Whitehead. The “divine relativity” of process panentheism enables us to understand and embrace a God who suffers and sacrifices for our well-being. God is relational and empathetic. Gone is the apathetic, impassible, distant deity; present is the companion who feels our pain, bears our burdens, and shows us a path toward healing in challenge and tragedy. God is moving in all things, providing healing possibilities, and all things find a home in God’s ever-evolving and transforming experience.
In the abstract, there is nothing “good” about this day, nor is there is anything “good” about the abandonment, abuse, and absence found in Psalm 22, Isaiah 52-53, and John 18-19. There is almost more suffering than the reader or preacher can take, and we easily experience psychic numbing as we hear the pain of a the Psalmist’s forlorn believer, Isaiah’s suffering servant, and Jesus on the Cross. Yet, we must recognize that our numbing out is partly due to our social, political, economic, and, possibly, health privileges.
Most of us have little experience with the trauma described in today’s passages. Yet, we know that the cross is a pervasive reality in human experience, whether we see this in terms of the victims of terrorist acts, malnutrition and famine, political violence and upheaval, and oppression and persecution. Moreover, we know that few of us will escape facing our own diminishment and mortality, and we need a divine companion to give us hope and courage when we walk through the valley of the shadow.
Isaiah describes a great soul who suffers for our well-being and the well-being of the nation. While many disparage the traditional doctrine of substitutionary atonement, sacrifice – chosen (and not compelled or foreordained) by those who love others – is at the heart of reality. If humans bear one another’s burdens, it is reasonable to assume that the One to Whom All Hearts are Open also bears our burdens and seeks to find healing through lovingly and creatively responding to suffering. This sacrifice is not-preordained or some sort of divine child abuse, but Jesus the Christ’s willingness to sacrifice for a good greater than his own self-interest. Christ’s willingness to suffer for the cause of God’s realm is a model for our own sacrificial living. The Cross at the Heart of Life inspires us, as is appropriate and chosen, to let go of our own self-interest in light of our commitment to the justice and planetary well-being. Our sacrifices are a type of “taking up of our cross,” as companions in solidarity with God and those who suffer.
Psalm 22 describes the experience of abandonment, even from God. “Why have you forsaken me?” asks the sufferer. As a pastor, I have heard these words at the bedside of people living with intense pain. At such times, we may feel bereft of any support including God’s. We may feel desperate and alone and without resource. Yet, at other bedsides, I have heard confessions of God’s nearness and a deep sense of presence and support in our infirmity. We are not called to deny the felt reality of abandonment and despair. Indeed, the death of certain God-images, especially those of the distant, apathetic, or overpowering God, may be the pathway to birthing new visions of God as source of strength and consolation. Surely, God can live with our doubt, anger, and sense of abandonment, and God can find subtle ways to heal our woundedness and despair. The words of Isaiah and the Psalmist call us from apathy to empathy, knowing that our willingness to share in the suffering of others is sharing in God’s own suffering at the pain of the world.
Hebrews describes the Savior as a high priest, as one whose sacrificial love heals our alienation from God and each other. Once more, we need not see this as advocating preordained vicarious, substitutionary suffering on Jesus’ part, but the recognition that Jesus the Christ – and God – shares our condition. As in the case of Palm/Passion Sunday and Maundy Thursday, these passages can be interpreted through the lens of divine kenotic love, described in Philippians 2:5-11. God’s Beloved is not destined to die but chooses to become one of us, living our lives, sharing our pain, and celebrating our joy. Jesus’ road to the Cross is a matter of choice on his part. Jesus had other options, and yet he chose the possibility of death to further God’s vision of Shalom and salvation.
The spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Factually, the answer is “no.” We live in the 21st and not the 1st century. But, looking deeper: we are betrayers and deniers, and we are sunshine followers, who flee when conflict comes. We might even shout “crucify,” mirroring the current incivility of our body politic. There are few innocent bystanders, among prosperous North Americans, in today’s interdependent world. Most of us are, in fact, what Thomas Merton described in speaking of himself, guilty bystanders in terms of the evil of our time. Crosses abound, not just the crosses of religious hate, but the crosses of nationalism, white supremacy, racism, sexism, and violence, and we cannot entirely get off the grid, disentangling ourselves from the pain and violence of the world.
The Passion of Christ as recorded in John is not an invitation to passivity – “let Jesus do it for us” – but a challenge to agency, to creative and loving confrontation with the evils of our time. The Passion of Christ awakens us to our own complicity as well as our own suffering and the suffering of others. We don’t need any more crosses in our world. We need healing of the wounded, marginalized, abused, and forgotten.
The goodness of Good Friday is not in the Cross, but in God’s joyful-creative-suffering love for our own world. We are not alone, God is with us, feeling our joy and pain, and inspiring us to take our place as God’s companions in healing the world.
Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., serves as Senior Pastor at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, Massachusetts. Prior to moving to Cape Cod, he served on the faculties and of Georgetown University, Claremont School of Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He also served for nearly twenty years as Protestant University Chaplain at Georgetown University and for seven years as Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Bruce is currently a professor of spirituality, ministry, and theology in the doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington D.C. He is the author of fifty books in the areas of process theology, spirituality, ministerial excellence and spiritual formation, scripture, and healing and wholeness, including The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World; Tending to the Holy: Practicing the Presence of God in Ministry; Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; and Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims.