Did any of you see the picture of the black hole, the first ever image of a black hole, that was released last week? It caused quite a stir, not just in the scientific community, but around the world. It was an image of the gigantic black hole located at the centre of galaxy M87, 50 million light years away from earth. For those of you that haven’t seen the picture, first thing you see when you look at is what looks like a ring of fire around the edge of the black hole. Then you see the dark centre which is the black hole itself.
Now, scientists have known about black holes for a hundred years now, ever since Einstein published his theory of general relativity and physicists took those equations and used them to show that a black hole could exist. Since then, scientists have gathered evidence that indicates that black holes actually do exist, they’ve looked at the way that galaxies turn around them, and measured the waves that are produced from collisions around their edges. But actually seeing the thing makes a difference.
“I have to admit that I was a little stunned,” exclaimed Avery Broderick, one of the scientists who worked on the project. “For me, seeing the thing makes it real in a way that knowing it can’t.”
Or as another scientist remarked, “I think any scientist in any field would know what that feeling is to see something for the first time.”[i]
You could say that Good Friday is the dark centre of our faith. And if someone was to ask me to articulate that centre, to express our Christian faith in a single phrase, or if you like, to pick out the most important verse in the whole bible, I would choose the words that we heard last night:
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
We are God’s beloved. We have been told that God loves us. We hear it clearly in our scriptures. In the beginning, when God created humanity in God’s own image, he looked upon us and all of creation and declared it very good. Over and over the prophets have declared God’s steadfast love for us. And in Jesus, God made it both personal and concrete, taking on flesh, living among us, full of grace. Jesus’ actions and his words proclaim God’s love for us. Just three Sundays ago we heard the parable of the prodigal son, and were reminded once more.
We’ve heard it, we know that God loves us.
But on the cross we actually get to see it. To see the image of what God’s love for us looks like, in all its fullness. And like the scientist I quoted earlier, we have to admit that we are a little stunned.
Because the love we see on the cross isn’t easy love. It’s not the natural, instinctive love that is expressed between a parent and child, or the exuberant, joyful love of two people who have fallen in love. It’s not even the beautiful, inspiring, extravagant love that we witnessed two Sundays ago when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume.
No, this is a harder love, the sort of love that I tend to shy away from. A love that suffers. A love that sacrifices. “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus had told his disciples the previous evening, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
During his trial, while he was being questioned, Jesus told Pilate that his whole life’s mission had been to testify to the truth. And the truth that is seen must fully on the cross is that God loves us. Even when love gets hard.
Does it make a difference to see it?
If I am honest, I have to admit that when I look at the cross, God’s love is not the first thing that I see. When I look at the cross, I see pain and suffering. I see failure. I see abandonment. I see sorrow. Humiliation. Shame. Weakness. Betrayal. Vulnerability. Violence.
In fact, when I look at the cross the first thing that I see are all the things that I am most afraid of.
When Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you,” when he says “Follow me”, at first I say yes, yes. But then I look up and see a cross looming ahead of me in my own life, when I see that loving as Jesus loved will expose me to pain and suffering and failure and abandonment, I am afraid, whether I admit it or not, whether I’m even aware of it or not.
And deep in my reptile brain, fear triggers a response. Fight or flight.
We see it in Peter’s story. Peter is ready to follow Jesus. His intentions are good. When Jesus warns him of what is to come, Peter insists that he will follow Jesus. “I will even lay down my life for you,” he declares.
But then he sees the cross looming in his path. The soldiers arrive in the garden. Peter is afraid. He responds by fighting. He pulls out his sword, cuts off a man’s ear. But Jesus tells him no. The way of the cross does not return violence for violence. And so instead of fighting, Peter flees. Then he denies Jesus three times.
We are like Peter. Our intentions are good, we want to love one another, we want to follow Jesus. But when we see the cross looming ahead on our path, we become afraid and we turn instead toward self-preservation. We get caught in a circle of fear. And when we act out of fear, that’s when things go wrong. Sometimes we fight, and we blame and we return violence. More often we flee, and in our flight, in our turn toward making ourselves safe, we get defensive, we abandon, we deny, we manipulate, we put ourselves first. We do it as individuals, we do it as tribes and we do it as nations. Our fear of the things we see exposed on the cross is at the root of so many of our social ills, wars, violence, environmental degradation, income inequality, poverty, addiction and so much more.
Our scriptures have a name for this. They call it sin. And it is a trap. In time, when our fears subside, and our sense of security is restored, our good intentions surface again, and once more we set out on the path of love. But when love gets hard again, and it always will when we’re called to love our enemies, and when we see another cross looming ahead, the circle of fear takes over and turns us back to self-preservation once more. Do you recognize the pattern? Round and round it goes.
What can rescue us, what can break us out of this circle of fear?
Look at the cross again. This time don’t just see the things we’re afraid, this time see the one who is on the cross, the one who was willing to bear all of the things we’re afraid of in order to show us how much we are loved.
See the violence, the suffering, the abandonment, the humiliation, the shame, the scapegoating, the failure, the brokenness, see the sin of the world.
And then see how God responds: with Compassion. Grace. Mercy. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Jesus on the cross receives the pain that humanity inflicts and holds it, without passing it on. The cross reveals God’s love for us, even and especially when love is hard.
Does that matter? Is it enough to say that the cross reveals God’s love for us?
Certainly there is much more we can say. But I am convinced that the simple truth of knowing that we are loved is the most powerful thing in the entire universe. Because love heals. Love strengthens. Love redeems. Love forgives. Love brings us together. And love overcomes fear. In fact, love is the one thing that can make us less afraid, that can break us out of the circle of fear that entraps us. As our scriptures tell us, “There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear.”
But if the cross was the end of the story, would that be enough? I don’t think it would. In fact, if the cross was the end of the story wouldn’t that only serve to reinforce our fears? We need the cross to see that God loves us so much that God is willing to endure all these fearful things for our sake. But not only do we need to see that God is willing to endure them, we also need to see that God is able to overcome them, to defeat them, to show us that the things that we fear do not have power over us and that love really is the most powerful thing in all of creation. We need to know, we need to truly know, we need to see that nothing can separate us from the love of God. That’s the assurance we get in the resurrection. The cross shows us that God loves us. The resurrection shows us how powerful that love is. And with that combination, we need never be afraid.
On the third day, he was raised to new life. This is a picture not just of endurance, but of power. And of transformation.
Look at the cross again. “Jesus on the cross shows us how to hold pain and let it transform us rather than passing it on to others.”[ii]
Because the cross, together with the sure and certain knowledge of the resurrection that follows, reveals not only that God loves us, but it also reveals the shape of the life that we are called to. We are being called to a way of life that passes through the cross and on to new life.
Instead of remaining trapped in our small circle of fear and self-preservation, we are called to live the way of the cross, the way of love, the way that passes through the hard stuff, transforming us and raising us to new life. The cross is both the way forward, and the way to the way forward. It is the path we are called on as we seek to love one another and to follow Jesus. But it is the transforming power of knowing that we are loved, revealed to us on that same cross, that frees us to overcome our fears and to embark on this life-giving journey of love together.
Look at the cross. And hear his voice: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Homily. Good Friday. April 19 2019. St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Ps 22; Hebrews 10.16-25; John 18&19.
[i] Globe and Mail article April 10 2019 by Ivan Semeniuk
[ii] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ