I speak to you in the Name of the One who was willing to die so that I may live. Amen.
“I am he.” – “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” – “I have spoken openly.” – “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” – “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” –– “It is finished.” … These are the words and phrases of Jesus that leapt off the pages of St. John’s Passion narrative as I read and reread it this week and last, unable as I was to let go of the one word of this entire liturgy that struck me first and has not let go of its strong grip on me since. Just one word – easily understood by most folks and regularly used in common conversation – yet perhaps never more profoundly nor significantly placed than it is as the thirty-first word of our worship this solemn day. This one word “demands my soul, my life, my all” and I invite you to let it do the same for you (although, don’t say I didn’t warn you about its nagging impact!) The word is willing – it is found in the collect of the day – and it describes our Lord Jesus Christ who “was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross.” Willing … he was willing.
Defined as “disposed or consenting; inclined; or done, given, borne, used, with cheerful readiness,” willing is worth 11 points in Scrabble, 15 points in Words with Friends … and yet it is priceless in the context of the event we recall and enter into today. Jesus was willing! Jesus – the Word the made flesh, a part of God since the beginning of the world – the earthly son of Mary and Joseph – born in a rugged stable and visited by humble shepherds and wise kings – baptized by John (his cousin) and followed by the fishermen, tax collectors, and sinners whom he called. Jesus – who walked on the sea and stilled the storm – who turned water into wine and fed more than 5 thousand from a little boy’s lunch. Jesus – who healed the sick and raised the dead – who taught in parables and welcomed children, women, and outcasts – who insisted that enemies were to be loved and wrongdoers forgiven – who left us with a prayer that named God “daddy” and a meal of remembrance that serves his own body and blood. This Jesus was willing – to be handed over to the very people he came to save, though he knew their jealous hearts wished him dead. He was willing to be betrayed by the disciple trustworthy enough to carry the purse – denied by the friend who swore he would never leave him – and abandoned by the merry band who had followed him everywhere. He was willing to be questioned and judged by authorities of a kingdom not his own – and to be condemned in the place of the nastiest of criminals.
This Jesus was willing to wear a crown of thorns – to be humiliated, beaten and spat upon – to have nails driven through his hands and feet – and to be lifted high on a cruel cross in plain view of jeering spectators, within sight and earshot of his beloved mother, and between two common thieves who were getting what they deserved. This Jesus was willing to refuse the anesthetic wine – to drag his whipped back and dislocated limbs up and down the splintered wood for hours in order to simply breathe – to endure his lungs filling with fluid and a heart rate forced so fast it would burst – to sweat, and bleed, and yet not cry out in pain … This Jesus was willing to DIE … willing to DIE … and all because it was the will of his (and our!) loving Father that “not a single one of those given to him would be lost.” He was willing to DIE so that the world – the whole world – beginning with Adam and Eve (who first succumbed to the great temptation of humankind’s desire to be like God) and carrying on until a day that no one knows – including the angry, envious, frightened, and vicious of Jerusalem on this day so long ago – along with the saints and sinners we have known and loved – those we think deserve it and especially those who don’t … and ME … and YOU … Jesus was willing to DIE so that we might live – He was willing!
But Jesus was not the only one with a will in our Good Friday story, was he? No, he was surrounded and accompanied by plenty of others who were willing to impact the last days and hours of his life, and thereby the course of human history. And just as our Lord’s willingness reveals the depth of God’s love and longing to save us, so the “willingnesses” of the other Passion players demonstrate the pervasive and wretched nature of sin that made this whole event necessary. It’s so easy to condemn them – to “what if” and “why” all that they were willing to do – in our desperate attempt to change the heartbreaking outcome – to pridefully assume that we would have chosen better - that we would have been willing to “save” the Savior of the World from that which he was willing to do for us. And yet we must be honest with ourselves because, as eleventh century St. Anselm wrote to a young man who had doubts and misgivings about the cross, “Child, you have yet to consider the seriousness of sin.”
Take Judas, for example. A third grade student at our Episcopal Day School just this week wrote a stunning cinquain poem about the one who betrayed Jesus. Judas – loving man – listens very carefully – feeling bad for a choice – traitor.
We all know that greed is a powerful motivator, but 30 pieces of silver really wasn’t a lot of money. I’ve learned (and liked) that Judas may have had another motive behind what he was willing to do. It may be that he wanted to force Jesus’ hand – that he had indeed listened attentively to all that his beloved teacher had said, and that he wanted to hurry the coming of a kingdom in which he would be part of the inner circle – a kingdom in which he would have had a high office. If this is true, then Judas’ betrayal was the unfortunate result of excessive ambition – and that wasn’t a new sin for the people of God – and it’s not unfamiliar in our own day either. Who among us doesn’t long for more – for better – for esteem, even for greatness – for ourselves and for those we love? Have you ever been willing to do and say whatever it takes for that which seems almost too good to be true? Do you remember (and regret) times when you betrayed your own integrity, or that of someone else, in order to get ahead, or feel happy, or be satisfied? I know I’ve been willing – have you? And that’s why Jesus was willing to die!
What about Peter? It hardly seems possible that Peter would have so disappointed his Master and Lord. Present every time Jesus performed a miracle, spoke a parable, or communed with God – Peter named Jesus as the embodiment of God’s purposes for his people, and Jesus named Peter as the rock on which he would build his Church. This brazen disciple, who was eventually given the opportunity to profess his threefold love to redeem his threefold denial, was also willing to die for proclaiming the truth – but not before he was willing to sin boldly in fear. Simon Peter’s denial came about in moments of weakness – when he must have been so confused and undoubtedly heartbroken – the stress was surely intense, nearly unbearable. “I do not know the man,” he was willing to cry out in anxiety and weakness – unable to resist the temptation to save himself, ironically in the midst of the act that would save us all. But I am so weak myself more often than not, aren’t you? It’s not that we seek to do what’s wrong, but the lure of denial is strong – so much easier and less frightening than the truth that is in us! And human beings are fragile creatures – we have been since the beginning of time – willing over and over again to get going when the going gets tough – ready to let down those we know and love (or don’t) – able to turn our backs on God and His will for our lives – prepared to disappoint ourselves. I know I have neglected Christ countless times since last Good Friday – even since I was here last night. Of my own power I am weak – and you are weak – and this is why Jesus was willing to die!
Now, consider the religious hierarchy in the Passion narrative – the faithful followers of the Law – those who boasted of always knowing what was meet and right. They were willing to put on trial the very Son of God, and to convict him for the supposed blasphemy of his saying he was indeed “all that.” Like so many who call themselves godly in our day, the Temple authorities didn’t always mind Jesus feeding their poor and healing their sick – but whenever he was willing to condemn them for the ungodliness of their envy and judgment – they were done with him. Jesus openly said he had come to fulfill the Law they professed and policed, but they were seriously uncomfortable with the way he was doing it – and this should sound all too familiar to us. Some of the bloodiest wars have been fought – countless divisions exist – and many of the meanest and most hurtful things are said – all in the name of fervent and “right” belief in the Savior of the world. Humankind seems less and less willing than ever to accept – and welcome – and change, even for the sake of the One who changed everything. We gripe, and gossip, and bicker – unwilling to step outside our comfort zones, or open our minds and hearts, or allow our stubborn selves to be transformed – and all because we are afraid – and so Jesus was willing to die!
There was also an ignorant and easily swayed mob in our tale today – and there was a persuadable governor who both loved and feared the power given him by a corrupt empire. There were soldiers so numbed and accustomed to such atrocities that they were able to turn from the cross to play games – and there were curious onlookers who found a strange satisfaction in God’s apparent inability to save His own son from death. There were two “nocturnal” disciples whose roles had to be Jesus’ burial because they were so uncertain about resurrection – and an unnumbered team of followers who had always been around, that is until they fled that fateful day. There was Mary Magdalene – a woman who, upon hearing “it is finished,” must have recalled the end of her old life and the second chance she had been given – and other women who couldn’t have known how to comfort Jesus’ own mother, despite having heard him say a lot about his return. These and countless unmentioned people were willing to do and say many things on that first Good Friday – just as we are today and every day – and for them, and for us, Jesus was willing to die!
And so we must be willing to respond! We respond, of course, in humble (even unworthy) thanksgiving for all that Jesus was willing to do for us –
that he was willing to take upon himself our human nature and our sin – that he was willing to suffer and die for us. The cross is God’s loving gift to us – and we say thank you for the gifts we are given! But gifts can be hard to receive at times, because they often reveal our need of them. When confronted with grace – free gift – there is something in us that reacts with a compulsion to create laws and regulations that will make us worthy of the gift – because accepting grace means realizing that we are helpless to save ourselves. This is why the Passion narrative is helpful for us – because in it we can easily see people willing to do things that show their neediness for God – and in them we see (and accept) our need as well. And so we must be willing to respond in acknowledgement of – and in confession for – our sins. We are prideful and ambitious – we are weak and afraid – we are unwilling, and stubborn, and neglectful, and unaware. And yet Jesus was willing to die! Which simply must move us toward a willingness to amend our lives – because we must not allow Jesus’ willingness on our behalf to be in vain. And so we remember this solemn day on each and every day of our lives – and we invite and receive a new willingness in us.
I encourage you to take a nail from the baskets now being passed around. Hold this nail in your hand as a witness and sign that your Lord and Savior was willing to hold you in his on that cross. Hold it through the singing of painful truths like “I crucified thee” – through the reciting of the ancient anthem which proclaims, “by your holy cross you have redeemed the world” – and through the prayer that bids our Lord to “set [his] passion, cross, and death between [His] judgment and our souls.” Hold that nail in thanksgiving – in acknowledgement of your weakness and need – in the confession of your sins – and in your commitment to amendment of life. Then take the nail with you from this place – and put it wherever you need to see it most. For myself I will carry it in my wallet – to recall the price willingly paid for me as I choose how to spend my own money. It should spend my time attached to my calendar – to measure the time I am willing to give to God and his will for my life. I will hang it on my mirror – so that I cannot look at myself without remembering what Jesus was willing to do for me. I will behold this nail – and I hope that you will too – even as we “pray [Almighty God] to behold this [his] family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing. Amen.
April 3, 2015 – Good Friday – The Rev. Dr. Lisa Barrowclough
The Church of the Good Shepherd (Augusta, GA)