A sermon for Good Friday*
*I first preached a variation of this sermon in 2017, on my first Good Friday as a priest. My training priest was so furious with me – that I had told people that I don’t know why Jesus had to die – that I didn’t preach on Good Friday again, until 2022. Now I think that sharing our doubts and questioning, even as priests, especially as priests, is essential. So here it is again; revised, revisited and still unsure whether Jesus really HAD to die, or if it was a sure consequence of real living…
I remember the exact moment when all I knew and believed about what happened on the cross came tumbling down around me.
It was 2011, and a Tuesday, around 7:30am. I was sat on my sofa, drinking coffee, reading the bible passages for that day. I had all my theology and knowledge, safely and neatly stacked in metaphorical boxes around me, lids firmly fixed down. I remember so clearly that as I sat and read one of the accounts of the crucifixion, I felt this creeping sense of unease wash over me, and something inside my mind or heart dared to ask this question that I’ve asked countless times since: Did Jesus have to die? ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’
And I realised I no longer knew the answer.
I knew it was safely stored somewhere in one of these proverbial theology boxes that I’d carefully been packing since Sunday School, but I couldn’t locate it. And I knew it was important – I mean, I had to know why Jesus had to die if I wanted to be one of His followers, right? So I put down my coffee, and quickly got dressed. I didn’t have to be in work until 9am, there was still time to figure this out and get things straight before then. I drove to my church and burst through the door and straight into my priest and blurted out ‘I no longer know why Jesus had to die?’ and she looked a bit stunned by this early morning theological conundrum, and she ermed and ahhed a bit, and then she looked at me and said what, in hindsight became the most beautiful answer. She said, ‘I don’t know the answer to that’…
And so, my quest continued…
At that time, I worked at the cathedral and was surrounded by priests all day, so I went to ask them. I dashed to work, armed with my burning question; desperate to have it sorted, as quickly as possible.
I got to my desk and was facing precious Martin; a wonderful, kind priest, who was very posh. And I said to Martin ‘why did Jesus have to die?’ and, without missing a heartbeat, he said ‘Gemma; Jesus died for the propitiation of our sins’ and then he paused and said ‘…yep, I’m happy with that’, but I wasn’t. I tried on this theory for myself and I couldn’t make it fit. And I didn’t know what propitiation meant.
And then in bounded Keith – big, brash, loud, Baptist minister Keith. And I asked Keith, ‘why did Jesus have to die?’ and he said ‘so God could look at you.’
‘Yes’, he said ‘before Jesus died, God couldn’t bear to look at you because you were so full of sin and God can’t look upon sin’. And I remembered this explanation from before; this was one I’d clung onto for years, and I tried it on again, and the weight of it did something bad to my heart and soul and I knew I couldn’t carry this explanation around any longer. I knew God loved me, loved all humanity, every last one of us, through all time and eternity, and I couldn’t reconcile that love with God not being able to look at God’s people, unless Jesus died.
So I pressed on with my big question.
And I pressed on.
And I still press on.
And I will press on, always.
And, if that even is a question then, still, I don’t know why Jesus had to die. In fact, I don’t believe he had to; not to fulfil a great celestial plan, anyway. But Jesus showed – still shows – such a radical way of living, such a purity of life, heart and mind that death was… inevitable.
I know Jesus turned everything upside down with His outrageous, indiscriminating, love; and when humankind comes face to face with that love, it does something to our very core and sears into our soul and it’s so rare, so ‘raw’ that it’s terrifying, and our fear causes us to kill it. To kill love. I know that.
And I also know that even though Jesus told his closest friends, over and over, what was going to happen to him, still they didn’t understand either. They didn’t know why Jesus had to die. Not only did they not understand, they ran away and betrayed Him, and denied they’d even known him. They didn’t understand what was happening.
On that first Good Friday night, they weren’t sat around in the upper room waiting for what had been promised to them, full of hope, nodding knowingly. They were hiding; huddled there, this night, terrified, distraught, guilt-stricken, with images of their best friend; bloodied and beaten and broken. They could still hear the cries of the crowd – crucify him. And they could hear their own voices – I don’t even know the man. Life was gone. Hope was gone. Jesus was dead. That’s what they knew. So if that’s all we know too, that is enough…
Today we do well to kneel at this cross, where our friend Jesus is beaten and broken. And we kneel undone, as we see our sin and hear our own failings ringing in our ears. All we have known is in tatters around us because we haven’t always followed the examples of our Jesus. But we also know, in ways we can never comprehend, that His crucifixion is part of something bigger than our understanding.
We do not fully know what happened on the cross, or in the darkness of that tomb, none of us do – and the truth is we cannot, because this is the work of God Almighty, an unfathomable act of grace and mystery, where death equals life. And that is enough. That is even good.
So, we kneel here today, clinging to our faith and to our humanity, and onto to any shred of knowledge we may ever had – albeit tentatively – and, as we do, we hold fast to all we know of the extravagant, unending, indestructible love of God. We kneel with those disciples who knew nothing, but still dared to be together, even if it was in hiding.
And we watch, and we weep, and we wait… And it is good. Amen.