My dear friends, it is such an honour and a joy to speak to you at this Good Friday service. I wish that I could see all your faces looking back at me from your favorite pews, but I’m grateful that we’ve had the opportunity and space to celebrate Holy Week together, even if it’s virtual. So I hope you’ve pulled up a comfy chair, at least one more comfy than our lovely wooden pews, and you are all ready to reflect on suffering.
I know many of you may be tuning in to this service feeling heavy — after 40 days of Lent and 365+ days of COVID-induced fasting, it might feel harder than ever to reflect on Christ’s suffering and death on the cross.
Some of you may be thinking, Chloe got the short end of the stick, preaching the Good Friday service, but I actually chose it and here’s why: after over a year of COVID-tide, struggling with my own suffering and struggling with the suffering of this nation and with the suffering of my neighbors who are unemployed, mourning the death of loved ones, experiencing homeless due to utility shut-offs and late rent, and dying because of racial violence, I have struggled to hear God’s voice and feel God’s presence. How can God be in the midst of all this?
So yes, reflecting and wrestling with Christ’s suffering has been a challenge, but it’s also been a necessity. And so I invite you, friends, to enter into this reflection with me. It may be uncomfortable, but I pray that it will be healing and help us prepare to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on Easter.
Before I delve into our scripture passages for today, I first want to address why talking about suffering matters. Many of us have likely heard some of these common Christian responses to suffering: we have been told “Your suffering has a purpose, a meaning. It is a step towards salvation and a test to bring you closer to God.” We’ve been told God will not give us anything that we can’t handle, because God is a loving God. Tell that to Job, right? Tell that to the Israelites in Exile.
In his book This is the Night, James Farwell, a theologian and priest, discusses the importance of the Holy Week liturgies, including the Good Friday service. In it, he pushes back against the idea that suffering has a purpose — suffering, he says, is the human condition. It isn’t a “step” to redemption, it isn’t “meaningful” — before Christ, he says, we lived “brutish lives, mean and short.”
Farwell also pushes back at what he describes as the “myth of progress:” our society’s narrative around our history and the belief that everything is continually improving. In the same vein, we as modern Christians tend to skip over the suffering of Christ to talk about his resurrection. This turns Good Friday into a quick, unpleasant step on the path to glory. When we bring up suffering and injustice, we are often told to “be grateful” for all the advances our society has made. And in many ways our society is better than it was a hundred years ago and even 50 years ago, within many of our lifetimes.
But suffering is still all around us, and with COVID-19, it’s been right at our doorstep. In addition to the virus, people are dying everyday in the U.S. because of hunger, because of inadequate healthcare and housing, a changing climate, and because of racial and gendered violence. The Church needs to talk about this suffering. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering.”
What does our scripture for today tell us about suffering? In both Psalm 22 and in the gospel reading, we hear Christ echoing the psalmist’s sense of God’s absence when he cries out, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” I think it’s appropriate for the Church to also cry out — where is God in our present moment? Where is God in all this turmoil?
At this point, we’re all pretty familiar with the story of Christ’s crucifixion, so I want to spend some time digging into Psalm 22. Psalm 22 was likely written by King David. It may be a poetic reflection of David’s personal suffering, I mean the man did go through some pretty tough things in his lifetime, but I think it can also be read as cry to God about the state of Israel and the collective suffering of its people, especially since David, as the God-chosen leader of Israel, struggled with political challenges and wars, which affected the entire nation.
We see this collective suffering when the speaker cries out, “you are the one Israel praises. In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them.” This feels like an accusation against God and what has felt like his absence and neglect of Israel, especially in light of God’s covenant with his people.
In the next stanza, the speaker returns to this covenant saying, “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” The psalmist is saying to God, ‘you have created us and you have created us to be your people. You have shaped us and you cannot sit back and allow us to suffer.’
In some of the most haunting lines of the psalm, the speaker describes his brokenness and suffering, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth, you lay me in the dust of death.”
Here the psalmist is saying that his body is broken, that his heart, his entire being is used up like a melted candle, that his voice is useless like a broken shard of pottery, and that God is leading him and his people to death. The speaker is saying, you have given me more than I can bear. God, you have not held your covenant with my ancestors and me.’
But about halfway through the psalm we see the speaker turn, “I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.” And later, “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
It almost seems as though the psalmist has walked away in the middle of writing and come back a while later, after a meal or a nap, with a change of perspective. While this is a possible interpretation, I think there’s something a little more complex going on. In the first half of the psalm, the speaker goes back-and-forth seemingly stanza by stanza between describing his pain and holding God accountable. What really gets me is when the psalmist reminds God that he has been God’s since he was first born. It feels as though this psalmist is saying that “even in the midst of suffering, my personal suffering and my people’s collective suffering, I cannot and will not turn my back on you God, because you have made me yours.”
Now, what the psalmist couldn’t have known and what we as modern-day Christians see almost immediately, are the seemingly prophetic references to Christ on the cross. Not only does Christ himself directly reference this psalm when he cries out the opening line, but in our gospel reading today, John quotes this psalm when he’s recounting how Jesus’s torturers divided his clothes amongst themselves.
In the Isaiah text today, the prophet poetically describes a suffering servant, one who was, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.” My fellow Handel fans will also have recognized some of these quotes from Isaiah as Handel describes Christ, “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”
We see an interesting reversal in Isaiah as although, “we like sheep are gone astray” it is the good shepherd, Christ, who is sacrificed as an offering. Christ has come into the human condition, into the most brutal humiliation and suffering, bearing even the absence of God the Father while dying on the cross. Unlike us, Christ had many opportunities to turn away from his suffering. But he took up his Cross, and he was betrayed, humiliated, tortured, and died.
What does Christ’s suffering mean for us? We know that becoming a part of the body of Christ does not mean that we get a pass on suffering. We still have to live in this broken, fallen world. We still have to die. The “Good news of Easter,” James Farwell writes, is “God’s power and will to transform our lives not after we “get through” suffering, but in the midst of it.” (8-9)
This semester I have been taking a class through the Stevenson School about racism in the Church called, “Repairing the Breach.” One of the essays that we were assigned to read is called, “The Pain of Racism,” written by Charles D. Fowler III, a Black deacon in the Episcopal Church. In his essay, Fowler talks about the role of the Church in societal injustice and suffering. He talks about Dr. Martin Luther King jr.’s life and legacy, particularly his participation and leadership with other Black ministers and lay-folks in the Civil Rights Movement.
Fowler recounts how Dr. King & other Black ministers announced that they “would lead a march to the Birmingham jail on Good Friday and that he, Abernathy, and Shuttlesworth would wear denim work clothes, the movement’s “sacrificial uniform.” Abernathy told the reporters that Christ had died on the cross nearly two thousand years ago and “tomorrow we will take it up [the Cross] for our people and die if necessary.” (267) He was talking about taking up the Cross.
Why has the Covid-19 pandemic been so heartbreaking? It is because we cannot turn away from the suffering at our door, in the same way Dr. King and his fellow pastors couldn’t turn their back on their community’s suffering, because it was one with their own suffering. Fowler’s essay is centered around the question, “Do we feel the pain of others?” I want to add to the question: do we feel the pain, not just of others, but those who have been “othered?”
What’s so striking about Christ’s death on the cross is the love and compassion that it embodies. We have all been through times where we suffered out of love for another, whether it be a sick friend or a dying family member. But how often do we feel the pain of another who is not our family or friend? How often do we hold collective suffering? For those that have read the news at all for the last year, you know how easy it is to instantly get overwhelmed with all the pain that people are experiencing. But as the Catholic activist and nun Dorothy Day wisely said, “I really only love God as much as love the person I love the least” (187).
I want to close with a reflection on Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic, theologian, and English saint who survived the bubonic plague, a plague that historians estimate killed off anywhere from a third to half of Europe’s population at the time. Julian’s own family and most of her community were victims of this horrible disease, a tragedy that we can only begin to imagine. Throughout her ministry she wrestled with suffering, both her own and those of the people she ministered to. But along with other mystics in her time, she found incredible comfort in Christ’s suffering and sought to ache for what Christ ached for, his people and his world.
In the midst of Christ’s suffering and her own suffering, she wrote, “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” This, my friends, is the Good Friday promise, that Christ’s suffering for us has redeemed our own suffering. As the Body of Christ, we are joined with him as he suffers through us and within us for the world. My friends, wherever you may be, whatever cross you might bear, know this: in Christ you are not alone, and although we do not know all ends, “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.