Sermon: Good Friday – 3rd April 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 9.30 am

Arthur Miller, the great American writer, wrote a play, Death of a Salesman. In it is the central character Willie Loman- an unattractive, travelling salesman. He’s 60- he’s worked for a long time-he’s struggled to pay the mortgage, improve his home- yet she has grown apart from his two sons, and he despairs at the apparent hopelessness in his life. He has been unfaithful to his wife-yet she can see him with clear and loving eyes and she says in wonderfully poignant words:

 He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he is a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He is not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

 There’s a world of difference between Willie Loman, and Jesus of Nazareth of course. But is there? Surely if we have understood anything about Jesus, we have seen that in the way he hands himself over, in the way he empties himself and takes the form of a slave, he shows us not only something about God, but something about us: that Jesus shares with us our common humanity. When Jesus disarms his betrayers and deniers and welcomes them as guests at the Supper, and hands himself over, it is precisely to the Willie Lomans of this world that he extends his hospitality.

So, just as last night at the Supper, so on this day, “attention must be paid” to this singular human being, And as we pay attention, it becomes apparent that far, far more important than even his miracles of healing, and his teaching, is what the Gospels, each in their own way, depict as the decisive movement where he moves from action to passion, where he ”hands himself over”, where he ceases, of his own will, and as a matter of great inner strength, to be a subject, and places himself into the hands of others as an object simply to be done unto – and all of this reaching its climax in the Garden of Gethsamane. What is decisive, as we pay attention to this man, is his entry into his passion: that he was exposed simply as an object, and treated in whatever way others chose.

It is at this point surely, that we realize the old story has completely collapsed. The one in whom we had set our hopes: the one who could have offered a prayerful, narrowly religious way forward: the one who could have compromised or negotiated for the greater good: the one who could have rallied all our cries for change and walked a revolutionary path: this one eschews all these options, and allows himself to be handed over. The old story with all its certainties and assurances is in tatters: all our hopes are dashed: he has relinquished all power and has bound himself to vulnerability. Here, the prophet who critiques Israel from within, declares in and with his own body, a stunning reversal of all the ways we want to think about ourselves and about God.

In Gethsamane, he takes possession of this drama: here, at his most vulnerable, at his weakest, he offers us an altogether new way of being human. The disciples would take time to come to see this, take time to put things together, just as we so often do. For this new way of being human, this new form of community does not need to find its identity through violence or exclusion: it does not need to expel any one: it does not need an enemy ”out there”, it does not demand a “them” in relation to “us”.

Jesus in handing himself over shows us that violence never achieves the communion or peace we crave. Jesus occupies the space of the victim to show us that we need never do this again. He didn’t die because God wanted or needed a victim: he died because we want and need victims. Here, in this singular movement from action to passion, Jesus absorbs, and does not pass on, violence, envy or abuse.

What Jesus does is bring to an end a whole way of being religious. In his body, he draws attention to a reality that the sacrificial system has always pointed towards, and has never achieved: communion with God. What he did is the culmination of a long and gradual process, a prophetic process of withdrawal from all forms of sacred violence. Jesus allowed himself to be handed over in full awareness of its consequences: he did not wish to be the victim: there was no death wish in him. In full awareness of what he was doing, and its consequences, he offered this entirely new way of being Israel: of being human: of being a light to the world.

Sacrifice: understood as making something happen, as making a difference in God’s attitude towards us, as somehow persuading God to change his mind about us: this way of approaching God is forever finished with what Jesus did. His is no sacrifice, in this sense, but rather the end of an entire sacrificial system: what Jesus did, is sacrificial, if we understand it to be a handing over, not making anything happen so much as revealing and affirming what has always been the case: namely that we are already one: we are already in communion, both with God and with each other: that we are already forgiven. As Julian of Norwich would say: God can’t forgive, because there has never been a time when God hasn’t forgiven! So we pay attention to this man: we let go of the old story of certainty and triumph, the old story that constantly needed a victim, that fed on competition and rivalry and exclusion: and like him, we find the courage to hand ourselves over, not in resignation or despair, but in vulnerable, non-violent self-giving love.

This kingdom-prophet wanted not just his band of followers to embrace his vision: he wanted the authorities, those in power to do the same. And he did this because of his overarching sense of vocation: called by God to show something of God, and God’s glory: to show what is utterly distinctive about God: that God, out of love, hands God-self over: that God is nothing other than self-giving, self-emptying love, both in the act of creation and in the person of Jesus.

God, like any creative artist, hands over his very self, and waits upon what is created. This vulnerable “suffering”, this passion, gives over to the other the power of both being and meaning. Jesus enacts this self-giving in his very passion: this is nothing less than unconditional love, love without strings, love that offers everything to the other, love that is without limit, love that is precarious, love that risks all for the other’s sake, love that gives to the object of our loving a certain power over us, love that hands over the issue and outcome and response. When I love you like this, the response you make is not in my control: that is love’s risk. “If you love you get crucified: if you don’t, you’re dead already”.

“Attention, attention, must finally be paid to such a person”. For here we can say with Julian of Norwich: “Love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show you? Love. Hold onto this and you will know and understand love more and more”.

And so we wait: just as God waits, just as Jesus waited. Having given all: all he could do for the cause of the kingdom, to win the nation to discipleship, to bring his close followers with him: having handed himself over in Gethsemane he shows himself to have risked all, to spare himself nothing: and the consequence of this is that he is handed over to death. And so we wait. This time between Good Friday and Easter Day is the most poignant of days: our liturgies fail us, just as our old stories have failed us: we are reduced to waiting , a place of great grace if we can bear it: where we are stripped of illusion and false hopes, where we can wake up to the reality of our real needs and true values: where we can begin, if we dare, to let a “small shy truth” speak into our bewildered hearts; a “small shy truth” that offers the possibility of meaning, the meaning that is found in the only absolute there is, namely Love: a love that will require our hearts to break and be enlarged, our minds admit to their inadequacies and yet sense a wider horizon, ourselves be touched by a mystery beyond our understanding and our words, but which might just possibly be all we need to know and do.

Reverend Philip Carter