Vicar’s sermon Good Friday 2024

Year after year we are here – watching a man die. An execution. A bizarre thing to do on a Spring Day, but we are invited to watch, to attend to every part of these last hours of Jesus life: to watch and pray.
The death penalty in this country was removed from the statute book many years ago. That said, we have all seen films or TV dramas which have shown us the ritual that surrounds judicial killing. I think of Kevin Costner’s ‘Robin Hood: Prince of thieves’ movie. Some of the ‘Merry men’ led out of prison in Nottingham Castle, through the crowd towards the scaffold. From a balcony above them, Alan Rickman, (the most wonderful of Sherriff’s of Nottingham) watches, even as he attempts to woo Maid Marion. There are drums. Soldiers. Prayers said and final words uttered…and then, in this case a dramatic rescue.
The same cast appears in period dramas: a representative of the law (a judge or prison governor). The constabulary. An executioner, a priest reading some prayers…and a small group of onlookers: family members perhaps, stood beneath the scaffold.
Here they all are in John’s Gospel. Pilate (symbol of the law) has made his judgement: reluctantly. He had attempted to save Jesus…and failed. Perhaps out of frustration with the priests before him he took the opportunity to extract from their gritted teeth the statement ‘we have no King but Caesar’. ‘That will have cost them!’ he thinks. And then he insists the charge above Jesus’ head humiliates the Jews even more: it is ‘The King of the Jews’ on the cross.
So we have the judge. We also have the soldiers: what was known as a quarternion- four men given this task. Four men dividing between them Jesus’ clothing. Jesus’ death so commonplace that they hunker down to play dice whilst he dies beside them (and, lest we forget, two others also die). The soldiers show us just how great a capacity we have to shut ourselves off from the pain of others, to shield ourselves from harsh reality….to demonise others so that we can justify their ill treatment. Thank God He takes the sin of the world because we cannot bear it. His life is worthless…but we’ll have his clothes.
The priests are there: certainly not saying prayers. These priests are complaining about Pilate’s sign. Words clearly matter for them: the small print: ‘let’s make the sure the paperwork’ is correct. It’s all rather unpleasant but we can put the files away soon and ‘move on’…provided we are not implicated, there’s no comeback on us. The other gospels tell us more about these priests and teachers: ‘He saved others’ they say ‘he cannot save himself. Let us see whether God will save Him.’ And so they treat Jesus as a crude theological experiment. It’s simple isn’t it? If He is so good then God will come to His aid. But God doesn’t respond so it is clear, Jesus must be evil. A grim, twisted theology for anyone who has ever suffered and so far from the truth of a God who suffers with us.
And then there are the friends and family, stood near the cross. Mary, His mother. His mother’s sister – we’re not told her name here – but tradition has it that this was Salome (mother of James and John- the beloved disciple, Jesus’ first cousins). Mary, the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene.
It, of course, makes sense that his mother is present: though it breaks her heart she would be no other place. It makes sense that she is entrusted to John – a close family member. Salome (if such it is) had asked Jesus to reserve two special places for her sons in His Kingdom: she’d not got what she wanted – rather, he had highlighted to the family that His kingdom was about service, not power. Mary, the wife of Clopas we don’t know, but Mary Magdalene has been with Jesus throughout.
Why are they there? I suppose they are there for the same reason that people sit beside their loved ones in hospitals and hospices for hour upon hour. They are there to say ‘you are not alone’. They are there to say ‘you are loved’. They are there because, even in the worst of circumstances our relationships matter. They are bound to Him and He to them.
And what do they tell us? Like so many family members before and since they tell the story of his death. They notice especially His words: ‘Here is your son: here is your mother’. ‘I thirst’ – and how he was able to drink. And then they notice his remarkable final statement: ‘It is finished’ – the ‘great cry’ or ‘loud voice’ that the other gospels record.
What did He mean? I wonder whether those last words (‘I thirst’ and ‘It is finished’) are meant to be read together. John’s gospel does not give us the ‘agony’ of the garden of Gethsemane. But the story records Jesus ‘accepting the cup’ that God offers. This ‘cup’ is not something Jesus wants: it is to be feared…it is a cup of judgement. Is it this cup that he drinks to the full on the cross? Taking to Himself God’s judgment upon the world and draining it to the full’ -it is finished’. If so then we can echo the writers of the epistles who proclaimed: ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. Judgment on the Sin of the World (our sin included) has been carried out.
Or might it be that, in this gospel where water has become wine and people have drunk, and a woman at a well asks for a drink and He offers ‘living water’ – might it be that Jesus, here, on the cross, drinks His full of God’s presence and so reveals His glory? Soon water and blood will flow from His side: signs of God’s life giving, sacrificial love. If so then His cup ‘runneth over’ – our prayer might be that this life ‘flow through me’ (as the song says)
The minutes have ticked by. He has given up His Spirit. We have gathered at the foot of the cross, like the women (and John), out of love for Him. And we come back, not just year after year, but week after week to ‘remember Him’, to remember the one who most perfectly shows us the heart of God, freeing us from fear and judgement and full to the brim with love for each of us. We worship.

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