(Readings online here)
At the Passover Seder it’s customary for a child to ask, “How is this night different from all other nights?” And the answer is a peculiar one. To paraphrase, “What makes this night different is the way it connects us with every night, every moment, in God’s dealings with us.” It’s a moment that joins all moments together. What makes it different is what it has in common.
Good Friday is a moment like that. It differs from other moments by joining all of them together. It especially joins all moments that bring rejection, suffering, death and loss. Any pain you’ve known this year, any pain you’ve known in your life, is welcome here.
It’s welcome on any Good Friday—but most particularly welcome in this year of shared grief and anxiety. It’s welcome because this is where God is. It’s welcome because God knows “from the inside” what your suffering is like, and God is bearing it with you.
Sometimes we ask a related question: What makes Jesus’ suffering different from all other suffering? Christians over the years have tried out several answers, and some of them are dreadful. They wind up driving a wedge between Jesus and God, or they wind up driving a wedge between Jesus and us, or maybe worst, they wind up driving a wedge between us and us.
When we split God apart into an angry father who wants to hurt somebody and a loving son who wants to appease his father’s anger, we drive a wedge between Jesus and God. The cross isn’t Jesus suffering God’s rejection. It’s God suffering our rejection in communion with Jesus. It’s God facing all the hate the world can muster with open arms. I’m not saying God isn’t angry at our rejection. Anyone who’s rejected has a right to be angry. But God’s anger is all on our behalf. What angers God most is what our rejection of love does to us and what it makes us do to each other. But even here, at our most extreme rejection of God, in God’s anger at our rejection, God’s final word is love.
Sometimes we try to make Jesus’ suffering look especially gruesome. But when we do that we may be driving a wedge between Jesus’ suffering and ours. I’ve heard people say that Jesus suffered more than anybody else. But that’s just false if we’re talking about physical torture. Countless people suffer worse pain every day. And again what we’re missing is that this isn’t about how much he suffered but about who’s suffering here. This is a pivotal moment in God’s suffering. This is the one who feels every pain the world can inflict more intensely than we can and who still won’t leave. It’s the intensity of God’s love enduring all this that makes Jesus suffering especially intense. And the one who suffers here is the one who bears our suffering. Jesus’ suffering, our suffering, God’s suffering all come together here. There’s no wedge that can pry them apart.
Most dreadful is when we let Jesus’ suffering drive a wedge between us and us. It was already starting to happen when this story first got written. It’s traditional to read John’s version today. Did you notice how he refers to Jesus’ opponents? They’re called “the Jews.” That’s sad, because in this story just about everybody who isn’t a Roman is a Jew. And we know that most of what Jesus taught would have been welcomed by countless rabbis in his day (including many Pharisees!). But for 2000 years that phrase has fueled violence against faithful Jews, even though St. Paul insisted that they’re still God’s beloved people.
We let Jesus’ suffering become an excuse to drive a wedge between us and us. We single out other people to blame for our problems. But the word from the cross is that our problems are common problems and that we all need to come together to face them responsibly. However many Temple appointees may have colluded in Jesus’ death with their Roman bosses, surely the lesson here is that those of us who think of ourselves as God’s people are always the ones most capable of doing the most harm in God’s name. We Christians ought to know that by now, given the harm we’ve done over the centuries. There’s no branch of the Church that doesn’t have an appalling history. But on this cross God makes room even for the suffering we’ve inflicted in Christ’s name. We can learn to be honest about our own betrayals and join with all of God’s beloved people to face our common problems.
This day is different from all other days—different in bringing all days together. As we walk the way of the cross, Jesus walks with us, God walks with us, and all of us are God’s beloved people. In a few days we’ll celebrate unspeakable joy, but that’s not what we need today. Today we follow and rest in the God who finds us at our lowest and worst and who won’t be driven away. Thanks be to God.