Atonement (Good Friday)
I don’t know about you, but I struggle to make sense of the gospel that we just heard. On one level it is a tragic episode in human history, one of many tragic episodes in our history. As a human drama, it’s the story of a good person who is betrayed, condemned unjustly, abandoned and made to suffer and die in the most excruciating way possible. It’s the story of one whose message of forgiveness, of truth, and of love challenged those who heard it and posed a threat to the power of the ruling authorities, in this case, the religious authorities and their military masters. At this human level, sadly enough, the story is easy to understand. And the next stage in the story should have been easy enough to predict. Those who followed Jesus, disciples like Peter, would deny or keep their mouths shut, slip out of Jerusalem unnoticed in the dark of night, and we would never have heard from them again.
But that’s not what happened. We know that on the third day, totally unexpected, Easter happened. And in the light of Easter, by looking through the lens of the Resurrection, the followers of Jesus gradually realized that the story of the cross was not just a human story. The cross is also God’s story. The cross is the place where human history and God’s reality touch and become one in the person of Jesus, the one crucified and nailed to the cross. The followers of Jesus came to recognize the cross as the key moment in the relationship between God and humanity.
And as they tried to make sense of the cross, they recalled Jesus’ words. Jesus had spoken about his own death as a service for others, and as a gift for others. At the last supper, Jesus had said, in words that we repeat each Sunday, “this is my body which is given for you.” The earliest statements of belief of the early church proclaimed that Jesus died for our sins. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that in his death Jesus became the source of eternal salvation for all who follow him. Paul, trying to explain the cross to the Galatians, asserts that Jesus loved us and gave himself for us.
But what is this “for us”? What does this “for us” mean? What can it possibly mean to say that Jesus’ death is for us, for this community gathered together on-line today; for me, two thousand years after the crucifixion. Each year as we remember, as we meditate on the cross, we stand in front of a mystery. How is this a gift for us? What does it mean for me?
We’re not the first to ask these questions. The early followers of Jesus asked these same questions, and they searched their own traditions and scriptures for guidance. And in these they found the remarkable picture of the suffering servant in the writings of the prophet Isaiah which we heard in our first reading. Isaiah writes of God’s suffering servant, a man of suffering who was despised and rejected by others, one who has borne our infirmities and carried our disease, one who was wounded for our transgressions, by whose bruises we are healed.
What’s remarkable about Isaiah’s text is not that the servant’s suffering and the violence inflicted on him were caused by others. Sadly that is all too common in our world. What is remarkable is the affirmation that by his bruises, we are healed. Somehow the suffering of the servant serves to right that which is wrong, put together what has been torn apart, and restore relationships which have been broken. To use a more traditional language, the suffering servant makes atonement for the sins of others.
The Jewish people understood the need for atonement. The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the holiest day of the Jewish year. As humans we fall short of who we were created and called to be. Intentionally and unintentionally, as individuals and as communities we choose wrongly and we cause harm to ourselves and to others, and in so doing we create vicious circles and structures of suffering and injustice and oppression. This pain and suffering results in alienation, in brokenness and in separation, in our relationships with each other and in our relationship with God. There is suffering which cries out for healing. There are wrongs which cry out to be made right. There are relationships that cry out for restoration. There is a need for atonement.
There is a novel called Atonement, written by Ian McEwan, which was released as a movie a number years ago. Perhaps some of you have seen it. It’s the story of a young girl, Briona, who falsely accuses her older sister’s lover, Robbie, of a crime. Robbie is taken off to prison, and the two lovers are cheated of the life they could have had together. By the time the enormity of what she has done hits Briona, her older sister has already left home, estranged from her family, and Robbie is in France, released from prison to fight in the horrific conditions of the Second World War, a shrapnel wound in his chest. Suddenly aware of her transgression and its impact, Briona does everything she can to atone for what she has done. She writes to her sister, and receives no reply. She gives up her comfortable situation to live a sacrificial life as a young war-time nurse. She punishes herself, living without love and without friends, working among the wounded by day and typing out the truth of what she did on her typewriter at night in the hope that somehow that will make a difference. In one particularly poignant scene we see Briona scrubbing and scrubbing her hands with a wire brush trying to get the blood of the dying off her hands. But despite her best efforts and intentions, despite her pleading and regret and apologies and self-inflicted punishment, Briona cannot atone for what she did. She can’t make right the wrongs she has caused, and she can’t dismantle the barrier in her failed relationship with her sister. In the novel called Atonement, there is no atonement.
In our relationship with God we don’t have the ability to put right the things that go wrong or to restore the relationship that so often we turn our backs on. If atonement depends on me, then there doesn’t seem to be much hope of atonement. And even Isaiah’s suggestion that a third party, the suffering servant, can somehow bear the sins of others and make atonement is hard for me to understand . . . unless . . .
Unless the suffering servant is not a third party . . .
What if the suffering servant is God himself? God incarnate, God in human form, God who was fully present in Jesus.
What if it was God who suffered on the cross? Who experienced the pain of rejection and abandonment?
The message of the gospel of John is that the one who died on the cross is none other than the Word who was God who became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is the one who bears the name “I AM”, the divine name that caused a complete detachment of soldiers and police to fall to the ground in the garden.
We all know, each in our imperfect way, what it means to love. And that means we all know or can imagine, at least in some measure, how painful it is to be rejected by the ones we love, and how much we suffer when we see the suffering of those that we love. We can’t love without being hurt, without being open to pain and sorrow.
This time of COVID-19 reminds of that stark reality in a new and challenging way. It is hard to be physically separated from those that we love. It hurts to be unable to be at the side of a loved one who is sick or dying. In this community, we lost one of our friends this week, and our grief is only accentuated by our inability to gather and mourn together. It is painful to think about John’s last days having been spent in isolation, despite our best efforts to remain connected.
How much more then must God, who is love, and who created us out of love, suffer and endure pain as a result of the brokenness, the alienation, the suffering and the sin of our world. In the course of human history, with its war and violence and genocides, in the course of our own personal histories, imagine how much pain and suffering a God who loves has had to endure.
On the cross, the reality of God and human history touch each other. God’s story and our story become one story in Jesus. Jesus is the one who reveals God to us, and the cross is the place where that revelation is made in its fullness. On the cross we see a God who is vulnerable, who is powerless, who suffers. On the cross, the God who loves experiences the pain of being rejected by those he loves and the sorrow of seeing the suffering of God’s beloved children. The response of God the Son is to stretch out his arms on the cross and absorb and endure that pain and sorrow.
At Christmas we sing Immanuel, God with us. On Good Friday, we learn what it really means for God to be with us.
And as God the Son dies on the cross, bearing the hurt and pain of love rejected, bearing the sin of the world, there is one question which seems to really matter. Is that it? Having experienced within Godself the painful reality of what it means to love each one of us, does God go on loving?
The answer is given in the resurrection. The answer is yes. And by absorbing that hurt and continuing to love, God overcomes the separation in our relationship. Does it matter? Yes, it makes all the difference in the world. There is atonement. The sin of humanity has been dealt with, not by the demands of justice but through the gift of love. Our relationship with God is restored, not by anything we have done, but by God’s gracious initiative. This is the source of eternal salvation. Separation has been overcome. The barrier has been brought down. Our brokenness has been made whole. And for us the veil has been withdrawn, ripped from top to bottom, and we get to see what grace looks like in the death and the resurrection of Jesus.
The cross is where God is revealed to us. This is the God in whose image we were created, this is the God we are called to follow. And this manifestation of who God is and how much God loves us gives us the power to become children of God, and challenges us to be transformed into agents of God’s reconciling love in the world.
As we stand before the cross, let us remember what God has done for us, and that God is with us, even in our darkest hour.
Homily – Good Friday, April 10 2020, St. Albans Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Ps 22; Heb 10:16-25; Jn 18:1-19:42 Image by Claudio Ungari, Creative Commons