Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Friday 10th April 2020 (Good Friday)
Isaish 52.13–53.end; Psalm 22.1–11; Hebrews 10.16–25; John 18.1–19.end
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matt. 27.46)
Where is God? Where is God when I’m feeling lonely or depressed? Where is God when I pray, and all I hear is silence? Where is God in my troubles and my need?
Where is God in the face of evil? Human evil, like war and oppression, or natural evil, like this virus. Where is God? What is he doing about it?
Where is God at the cross? Where is he when Jesus cries out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’? Where is he when Jesus dies, his mother and the beloved disciple watching, and is taken down, wrapped, and buried? Where is he?
In these sermons I’m looking at how the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter show us the sort of love that we need in order to live up to our baptism into Christ. Yesterday I spoke about that love in terms of service, and tomorrow I’ll talk about it in terms of salvation, but today I’m going to talk about love as solidarity.
The cross was a really shocking event for those who believed Jesus was the Messiah. As the chief priests say in Matthew’s account of the Passion:
‘He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.” ’ (Matt. 27.43)
The early Christians found themselves asking, ‘If Jesus was God’s son, why did God let him die?’ And they came up with some ways of understanding it. One of the most common was touched on in our reading from the letter to the Hebrews, where Jesus’s death is described as a sacrifice for sin which also established a new covenant between God and humanity.
But if we think about it for a moment, we might want to ask, ‘Why did God require this sacrifice? Why did God choose this way to establish a new covenant with humanity?’ In the end, any way of trying to make nice, neat sense out of the cross comes up against questions that can’t be answered. The cross, like the presence of evil in the world, is still a problem.
So let’s go back to that question we started with: where is God? From the perspective of Jesus hanging on the cross, God has abandoned him. The kingdom of God has not come. He no longer feels the closeness of the God he called ‘Father’. Where is God?
But from the perspective of our faith, God was present in Jesus. God was present when Jesus healed the sick, when Jesus gave dignity to the despised, when Jesus opened people’s eyes to the grace of God. But, according to our faith, God was also present when Jesus was born small and helpless. He was present when Jesus was rejected and persecuted. He was present when Jesus was mocked and spat upon. And he was present when Jesus cried out in anguish, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Our faith proclaims that God came to be with us in Jesus, not just in strength, in success, in epiphany, but also in weakness, in failure, in darkness. The Word became flesh in Jesus and stayed flesh to the bitter end. God’s love in Jesus is a loving solidarity with us, and especially with all who suffer.
But what good is this crucified God? Don’t we need a powerful God, a God who is going to make everything all right, a God who can defeat evil? Yes we do, and that is the God we believe in and will think more about tomorrow, but the cross reveals a different side to God, which we shouldn’t ignore – a God who not only saves his people, but a God who suffers in loving solidarity with us.
Solidarity is first and foremost the acknowledgement of a fact – the recognition that our lives are bound up one with another. ‘No man is an island entire of itself.’ (John Donne) We’re discovering this anew in this coronavirus outbreak: internationally and within our communities, I depend on other people, and what they do can affect me, for good or ill. But, as I said, this kind of solidarity is simply acknowledging a fact. A more powerful kind of solidarity is when I allow another’s suffering to affect me. This kind of solidarity, drawing alongside another person, can be a very powerful expression of love.
If I’m honest, of the three dimensions of kingdom-of-God love I’m exploring in these sermons, this is the one I find most difficult. It’s easy to think that acting in love might involve the offering of service or salvation – both of these can be offered from a position of power, that leaves us privileged and comfortable, in control. But solidarity of the kind God undertakes in Jesus is hard. To do it we must be prepared to go to those who bear the sin of the world on their shoulders, and bear it with them.
As with God on the cross, we might well ask, ‘What good does it do?’ Wouldn’t it be more use to end the suffering and defeat the sin, rather than sharing the suffering and bearing the sin? Maybe – but these aren’t alternatives. Wouldn’t it be better to swoop in from outside and be a hero, solving things from a distance, without getting our hands dirty? That’s not how God chose to do it. God chose to save us by coming alongside us, and I believe this makes his love credible. I also believe we are called to love like this.
One of my favourite theologians, Jon Sobrino, gives the example of Archbishop Óscar Romero, who spoke out against the actions of the Salvadoran government in the late 1970s. When it became clear that his outspokenness might get him killed, he was offered personal protection, but he declined, preferring to stand in solidarity with his people, who were being killed in large numbers. He quite literally put himself in the firing line when he didn’t need to, out of love. Could we do that – stand alongside others in their fight for justice, with all the risks that entails?
God is not revealed on the cross in a way that makes sense, in a way that justifies the cross, in a way that makes the cross one cog in a machine that produces salvation. God is revealed on the cross in a way that moves us to sympathy with Jesus’s suffering. And if Jesus’s cross remains a scandal that moves us to sympathy, how about all the other crosses in the world?
I’m going to end with a poem written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer while he was in prison in 1944. The usual English translation uses some rather old-fashioned language – it’s the only place I’ve ever encountered the word ‘bestead’: ‘sore bestead’, meaning ‘in dire need’. The poem sums up the mystery we remember today, and is called ‘Christians and Pagans’:
Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.
Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.
God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, pagans alike he hangs dead,
And both alike forgiving.