It is easy to forget how strange it is, how incredibly counter-cultural it is, to confess that you are a Christian. On one hand it is easy enough to hold the view (if only privately) that it is a good and helpful way to make our lives more meaningful and purposeful as we strive to live good lives; that it offers a certain sort of comfort in times of suffering and some sort of hope beyond the grave.
But then along comes Good Friday when the church makes us sit for 1, 2 or maybe even 3 hours (!) to contemplate the meaning of the cross given to us in the story of our Lord’s Passion.
Something happened on the cross that has captured our attention, our imagination, our deepest longing across time and place. There is so much more to the cross that we imagine. Once a Roman instrument of horrendous instrument of public shame and suffering in Jesus the cross becomes an instrument and the ultimate sign of God’s saving love for the whole world. And it is not limited to examining what happened on a Friday afternoon on a hillside outside Jerusalem long ago. For you see the cross is both a mirror and a window… the cross holds up a mirror for us to hold and look into….and in that mirror we can see the truth about the human condition and our place in its darkness… the brokenness of the world, the fallen nature of our own lives that can so easily succumb to fear and pride… lives that so easily follow the crowd; lives trampled by the quick fix, by fear and injustice; lives that betray and deny our Lord. We see our self in the mirror, too.
But in the cross we also have a window, a window through which we are invited to see the mystery of God’s unfailing, unquenchable love for the world, for you – love made known in sacrifice and suffering, love so complete, and so utterly powerful that it knowingly, deliberately enters the worst that we can serve up … ; love so complete, so utterly powerful that it intentionally confronts, takes on and extinguishes the grip, the power of sin and darkness; even death itself. In the words of Isaac Watts famous hymn, Love so amazing, so divine, it demands my soul, my life, my all.
We have gathered this morning to hear God’s word and to meditate on the meaning of Christ crucified; to meditate on the very heart of Christian faith.
Where ever you are on your spiritual path, I believe that you are here today because God has drawn you into the circle of his boundless love and wisdom and that God has something important, even life-changing, to say to each of us today. We are together here; in the right place.
They had eaten supper together in the upper room last night. Do this in remembrance of me Jesus said to his friends said as he broke the bread and passed the cup. And then he washed their feet in a provocative sign of servant hood. Love one another as I have loved you, Jesus said. That will be the you are my followers. And in a gross understatement he said, You don’t understand this now, but later you will.
Taken together the last supper and the foot washing on Thursday foreshadow the events of Good Friday. It was the shared allegiance to Jesus that drew such a disparate, motley collection of people together. Jesus new his time had come to leave them and he is giving them a long, really long goodbye speech. He has given them keystones, signs and directions to remember after he is gone to help them piece it all together and to keep going. As the evening closed in Jesus had prayed: Father, the time has come…. I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world (John 17:1; 24). When he had finished praying Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was an olive grove, and he and his disciples went into it. (John 18:1)
Darkness has closed in. Judas brings a detachment of soldiers to the garden together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees. A garden of friendship and beauty is now the place of betrayal. But notice how the arrest happens. There are no prayers of agony in John’s account. Jesus is nobody’s victim. He is not identified by Judas’ kiss. In fact Jesus takes the initiative; he steps forward into the light cast by the lanterns. Jesus asks them, who are you looking for, and when he says “I am he”.
they stumble and fall down! I am he.
Throughout John’s story of Jesus this little sentence is the declaration of his identity. This man standing before you in the garden is the one who from all eternity was one with the father. He is the great I AM, the bread of life, the shepherd, the living water, the light of the world, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth and the life. I Am He. Jesus says. No wonder the arresting party stumble backwards and fall to the ground. That is what people do when they come face to face with God.
The arrest happens without resistance. Jesus is bound and taken first to Annias for questioning and then on to the High Priest, Caiaphas for further interrogation. The religious authorities are the first to cross examine God’s anointed one.
Now I see myself in the mirror – for all the times I have doubted, questioned run away from the loving gaze of Jesus. Jesus goes forward.
Now outside the house of Caiaphas the focus shifts to peter. Peter stands outside the gate, huddled around a charcoal fire to keep warm against the chill of the night.
Jesus is telling the high priest the truth while Peter is telling lies outside. Jesus is speaking openly he has nothing to hide…Peter hides under cover. Three times Peter denies knowing Jesus…you are one of his disciples aren’t you, the women guarding the gate asks him… I am not, Peter says…
The night is chilly and they are gathered outside around the charcoal fire… Peter must be cold and tired; he must have been drained of the sudden rush of energy in the garden as the brief confrontation unfolded. And if the guard around the fire new that he had not only been in the garden with Jesus but had cut off one the servant’s ear Jesus might well have had the company of his senior associates as he went to the cross. Perhaps Peter’s behavior around the fire avoided that outcome. But this is clear: , fear, and its outward sign of lies and betrayal have their grip on Peter. I do not know him, Peter says. There is something of Peter in all of us, isn’t there?
Betrayal is a devasting experience … for the one betrayed as well as the betrayer.
Think of a time when you have experienced betrayal by someone important to you – a colleague, a dear friend, a family member, your partner. Or maybe you are recalling a time when you betrayed someone or when you betrayed your own values and good intentions. Betrayal emerges from fear. Fear of discovery, fear of being asked to do something we don’t think we have the ability or the strength to do, something we cannot face. Our instinct is to detach; to deny knowing anything about it…to run away. We don’t want to appear unworthy. Sometimes we work hard to forget about it. That never works.
Peter knows that survival is what matters now… maybe it had all been a huge mistake, a massive misunderstanding. I left my business, my family for this… I could have taken an easier road kept my head down… but I put my lot in with Jesus…it never occurred to me that it could lead to this…I never knew that healing a leper or sharing a meal with a prostitute might cost you your own life…this is not what I signed up for…I do not know the man. Peter says.
Again the mirror is in my hand. It is one thing to be where you can give, where you can be generous and even a little daring in your generosity; and think quite well of yourself. And then it makes a claim on you…a claim you don’t think you can live up to…I do not know the man. Peter says a third time.
John spends such a small amount time on Jesus’ trial before the High Priest. The short episode in which Jesus is questioned by Annas, the patriarch of the high-priestly family, seems designed to show the irrelevance of Jesus’ teaching at this point in the story. Jesus’ reply to Annas’ questions about his doctrine and his disciples are dismissive: he is saying “You should know that stuff by now”. This is not going to be an investigation to establish any kind of unbiased record of Jesus’ public career. It’s an investigation into who Jesus is. It’s a trial of identity
Fearful of capture, and no doubt devastated by having to deny Jesus to save his own life, Peter leaves the fire and moves out into the approaching dawn. As he steps away from the fire, Jesus emerges under guard.
For a moment their eyes meet – and Peter’s world collapses in remorse as the cock crows a third time. There would be no escape from this. Jesus knew that all along. And he loved them to the end. He loves Peter and Judas and each one with a love unquenchable, undeniable; love that would be poured out on the cross for the sake of God’s beautiful, broken world.
Yes, we know Peter for there is something of Peter in each one of us. I see it in the mirror. Betrayed and betrayer – we know them both.
Jesus does, too. And he loves them, each one. The window opens.
“Again Peter denied it and at that moment the cock crowed”.