At midnight on April 15 two years ago, as a new day began, my phone rang. I had heard since that afternoon about the bombings that took place at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, about the people wounded, about the deaths, about the fear. Now a friend called to tell me that the boy killed there by the second bomb was Martin Richard of Dorchester in his eighth year of life. I had known Martin’s Mom, Denise, since she was thirteen years old herself and had had the honor of witnessing her marriage to Bill, when they committed their lives to one another “for better or worse.” I had been at their home and brought Christmas gifts for Martin and his brother and sister, Henry and Jane. Now I came fully awake and cried for the end of this boy’s beautiful life in such terrible circumstance and for the suffering of his loved ones.
Three and a half decades earlier, and more than 2000 miles distant, in the Cathedral of San Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero had preached from the pulpit there in an atmosphere of fear, mistrust, and anxiety in a time of struggle and terror. That struggle and terror would ultimately claim his own life violently during a celebration of the Eucharist. Romero called upon his hearers in these words:
We have never preached violence,
except the violence of love,
which left Christ nailed to a cross,
the violence that we must each do to ourselves
to overcome our selfishness
and such cruel inequalities among us.
The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword,
the violence of hatred.
It is the violence of love,
the violence that wills to beat weapons
into sickles for work.
I think it is true enough that although violence and suffering and death occur moment by moment on this circling world inescapably, and although oftentimes their victims are the innocent, it is difficult for us, whether as individuals or as a people, to squarely face these realities. It is painful for us to look suffering in the face, to confront violence, and to admit that even now at the sunset of each day it looks as if death has the upper hand in its contest with life.
But there are times that armed conflicts enter the homes of noncombatants directly and the lives of families are changed forever. There are times when aircraft fall to the ground, even occasions when learning the reason why is worse than not knowing. There are the everyday sufferings of children hungering to the point of death for food that is available, but not to them. There is the violence done to persons and communities because of what they believe and hold sacred. All of these have likely occurred since we began this stark and beautiful liturgy of Good Friday.
As we read the text of the Song of the Suffering Servant in the prophecy of Isaiah, servants of God were being despised and rejected, stricken and afflicted around the globe. As the words of Psalm 22 sounded among us, somewhere, perhaps near, a person’s living prayer was: “O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest.” Like Jesus, the High Priest of the Letter to the Hebrews, at this moment in ways we do not want to witness, there are those learning obedience through what they suffer. What they suffer innocently. What they suffer, often in our estimation, inexplicably. As we heard in striking song the story of Jesus’ Passion according to John, as we heard him willingly go to the cross, he who had said earlier in the Gospel, “I give my life freely. No one takes it from me. I give it up and I have the power to take it up again,” some in our human family were suffering violence too, unwillingly, and their lives have been taken. You will hear about them, perhaps even their names, if you attend to the news as this day ends.
Sometimes, though we would wish to, we cannot escape all this, as when a midnight phone rings to tell you your friend’s young son has been killed. And sometimes, if we dare to pray the full reality of this Good Friday, we as a believing people are brought into direct contact with the violence of execution, with the suffering of the innocent Christ, with the death of the Son of God.
Two thousand years have sought to domesticate this death, to look too soon beyond it, to reduce the cross to a mere decoration, to a harmless piece of jewelry. But when we dare to pray the Church’s prayer together as we do now, there is no escape. And this is always true, all the days of every year, if we have ears to hear. How often have God’s people gathered around this table in this building and heard these words addressed to God:
Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of us all. He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.
‘To live and die as one of us . . . Christ stretched out his body on the cross, to offer himself . . . .’
What happened in Gethsemane, in the home of Caiphas in the middle of the night, at the palace of Pilate early on the day of preparation for Passover, and above all on the hill at Golgotha: these are the very moments, the only ones, that can give us the strength to recognize suffering, to confront violence, to enter even into death.
It is Pilate, the Roman governor, in the midst of this swirling day of conflict and decision around Jesus of Nazareth who raises a central question: “What is truth?” He may have asked it sincerely. He may have asked it in derision. But it is there, at the center of the passion of the Christ according to John.
The 18th and 19th chapters of John’s Gospel give us a report on the trial of the Christ that led to his suffering and death. But seen through the lens of Pilate’s question, it is he the Governor, and the Jewish High Priests, the disciples of Jesus, and the Empire and the world that are, rather, on trial. The judgment to be given is this: is there truth in them? Where was truth found on that day, and on this one?
Pilate recognizes the truth of Jesus’ innocence of crime. But evenso he agrees to condemn him to crucifixion, to ignore the truth he sees. The Chief Priests, in order to reach their goal of getting rid of the troublemaker from Nazareth, stand in a public place in the presence of their own and proclaim, “We have no king but Caesar.” They deny the truth given them by God, truth they proclaimed every day in their prayer.
Where is truth found? What does truth sound like and what does truth do?
Simon Peter, the Rock, three times is asked if he is one of the disciples of Jesus. He replies, again and again, “I am not.” He does not deny knowing Jesus. He denies following him. He denies being in relationship with him. He denies the truth he has found and followed in Christ.
Where is truth on that day of suffering and violence and death, and on this day of the same?
When Judas comes with a band of soldiers and weapons and noise to arrest Jesus in the garden, it is Jesus who asks whom they have come after. They respond, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and he affirms, “I am he.” Or as it can directly be translated from the Greek in which the Gospel is written, “I am/Ego eimi.” In words that lead as the crow flies straight from the words spoken by God to Moses in the third chapter of the book of Exodus when God reveals his identity to his messenger: “Tell them that ‘I AM’ has sent you to them.”
Twice in the garden Jesus affirms the truth that is in him, the truth that he is: “I am he.” “I am.” Here, at the beginning of this tale that leads to death on the cross, the truth is revealed as personal, as living, as standing among the people in Jesus Christ.
He had already said in his teaching:
I AM the bread of life;
I AM the light of the world;
I AM the gate, the Good Shepherd of the sheep;
I AM the resurrection and the life;
I AM the way, the truth, and the life;
I AM the true vine.
On this Good Friday, Jesus affirms again the truth of his identity, as we have heard in the Scriptures:
I am God’s suffering servant, despised and rejected;
I am the lamb of God, led to the slaughter;
I am an offering for sin;
I am the righteous one;
I am a worm and no man;
I am the one who delights in the Lord;
I am the one who gives praise to the Lord even in suffering;
I am the great High Priest;
I am the obedient Son, made the source of salvation;
I am handed over as a criminal;
I am the witness to God’s truth;
I am King of the Jews;
I am Son of God;
I am the Crucified;
I am the one who places disciple and mother into one another’s care;
I am thirsty;
I am giver of the Spirit;
I am emptied of life and of all.
On this day truth is found in Jesus Christ, in his words and in his actions. In action he accepts suffering “for the sake of us and our salvation,” as the creeds say. He allows the violence of the world, begotten by sin, to deal him a deathblow. He takes in all the violence of a brutal, murderous, and powerful world. He accepts it into himself, knowing that it will end his life, because he knows as well that this offering marks the end of the power of sin, of the triumph of violence. In this death, the truth is, death dies.
As our fellow believer Peter Chrysologus wrote in the 5th century:
By allowing himself to be taken captive, he overpowered his opponent;
by submitting he overcame him;
by his own execution he penalized his enemy,
and by dying he opened the door to the conquest of death for his whole flock.
So here is the truth, and from this day forward it is no secret:
in Jesus Christ, gone in freedom to death on the cross,
violence becomes weakness;
suffering becomes strength;
and death surrenders to life.
The violence of love and of brotherhood, as Romero would have it, overcomes the violence of hatred. The beating of the weapons of war into farm implements begins. We will not live to see the completion of that transformation in the world around us, anymore than Romero, or Martin Richard, or any of the sisters and brothers who have gone before us did. But if we dare to look closely enough, if we dare to seek out suffering to see it, if we dare to look violence in the eyes, if we dare to track down death to question it, we will witness that work of transformation that was begun on the cross still real and ongoing today.
But can I, can you, can we have the strength to pursue suffering, to throw out a dragnet for violence, to actually hunt death down (rather than running for our lives)? That is the question that truth leaves us at the foot of the cross this afternoon. It is a question well-phrased deep in the text of Johann Sebastian Bach’s rendering of the Passion of Christ according to John:
My heart, while the whole world
suffers as Jesus suffers,
the sun is clothed in mourning,
the veil is torn, the rocks split,
the earth quakes, graves gape open,
because they behold the creator grow cold in death,
for your part, what will you do?
Was willst du deines Ortes tun?
“For your part, what will you do?”
Will you speak and live the truth? Will the I AM of Jesus the Christ inform and shape who I am and who we become? Will the truth of the cross of Christ transform our perception of violence and suffering and death? Will you stand with the Oscar Romero’s of the world, cost be damned? Will we be willing to hold Martin Richard, fallen on a Boston street, as many eons as it takes to meet, oppose, and repel the suffering of the innocent?
This Friday is made holy and good only by the truth of who God is revealed to be in Jesus Christ. God is one who suffers with the least among us. God is the one who dares allow violence to do its upmost. God is the one who contends directly with death in public. God is the one who invites us right now into this divine contest.
For our part, what will we do?