No other God has wounds – Good Friday Address 2016

Good Friday 2016

No other God has wounds

Friday 25th March 2-16

Gold Hill

 

24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

1 Peter 2:24(NRSVA)

The other gods were strong: but Thou wast weak: They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;

But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,

And not a God has wounds but Thou alone.

Edward Shillito (1872 – 1948),

Excerpted from, He Showed Them His Hands and His Side.

 

Introduction

Human life is inextricably bound up with the twin mysteries of suffering and love. Each human life is marked by inexpressible joy and indescribable loss. To love deeply, to love honestly and to love fully, we simply have to be open to the pain of loss and separation. We cannot have one without the other. In the end, our lives are a paradox. On the one hand, we have beauty and intimacy and love and on the other we have ugliness and separation and hate. Life itself is a paradox: ugly and beautiful; marked by hatred at times and marked at love by others; a strange and mysterious combination of birth and death, hope and fear, joy and sorrow.

Earlier this week, the people of Brussels experienced this paradox when over thirty people were murdered. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Islamic fundamentalists, in the name of Allah, unleased their hatred and their violence on men and women and their families. On Good Friday last year, my wife and I were sitting in an intensive care unit in Belfast with my sister and my niece as we turned off the life support machines on my brother-in-law, Robert. The same decision was repeated sixteen days ago with my eldest brother, Colin. Many of you here today will be coming to terms with the sad news about one of our previous senior pastors, Jim Graham. He has inoperable cancer and is preparing for the final stage of his journey on earth.

Life is a paradox

On the one hand we have blessings and the other we have sorrows.

I have always thought that ‘Good Friday’ was one of the deepest paradoxes of the Christian tradition. The cross is a paradox. This brutal form of torture, itself one of the darkest examples of humanity’s capacity to make others suffer and experience degradation, has been dipped in gold and dangled from millions of necks for 2000 years. This method of execution and destruction has become, for Christians, a symbol of hope, peace, love and grace. There could be no greater paradox than that.

Why?

Why, of all the symbols that we could have chosen, do we choose the cross as our central symbol? A means of torture as a means of remembering? But remembering what? What can ‘Good Friday’ say to us today? How does ‘Good Friday’ speak into the paradoxes of our lives? Does it have a message of hope for the families in Brussels, for me, for Jim Graham and his family, for us as a Church?

In 2012 I wrote a poem entitled, ‘What is Good about this day’,

What is Good About This Day?

What is good about this day when

hatred, fear and anger pierced

the flesh of One so pure and kind?

Is there goodness in the hard nails

or thorns or whips that shed His blood?

Is it seen in taunts and spit that

humiliate Humility?

I cannot see ‘good’ in these things.

Is ‘good’ found in the temple courts,

in their angry cry, ‘Crucify

this Man! Beat Him! Whip Him! Kill Him!’?

Was it ‘good’ to form a lash then

scourge and pummel him with hatred,

or push a cross upon His back

and mock Him as He stumbled on

to Skull Hill, then cruelly to

hoist Him in the air and drop Him

with a shudder that shakes the earth?

Was it good to see a mother

break her heart with such deep sorrow?

It took the sword from His own side

and thrust it in her lonely heart.

Or perhaps the goodness lies in

seeing a Father turn His gaze

from One who had never before

been placed out of His sight?

No. The only place I see Goodness

on this day of hateful darkness

is in the eyes of Him who hangs

upon the cross for all of us;

and that Goodness breaks the seal of

my heart and opens the floodgates

of my tears and in an instant

everything around me shifts

and on this day of darkest sin

I see only Light,

I feel only Love,

for this was done for me.

©Malcolm J Duncan

 

Two Seeds

Let me plant two seeds in your hearts and in your minds today to think about over the Easter weekend about why I think the paradox of the cross speaks powerfully into our world.

  1. Christian faith itself is a paradox.
  2. No other god has wounds.

Christian faith is a paradox.

Life is never easy and on one level, Christianity was never meant to be either. A friend of mine, Krish Kandiah, wrote an excellent book in 2014 entitled ‘Paradoxology: Why Christianity was never meant to be simple.’ In the book, Krish outlines to apparent contradictions, or paradoxes of the Christian story and the ways in which they reveal something of the mercy and the grace of God. By examining thirteen different narratives in the Bible, ranging from the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to the story of Judas and his apparently free but determined choice to betray Jesus, Krish helps us see the inherent paradoxes of faith.

Abraham shows us that we serve a God who needs nothing but asks for everything. Moses shows us that God is far away and yet closer than our breath. Joshua shows us that God is compassionate yet clear in judgment. Job teaches us that God is actively inactive. Hosea shows us that God is faithful to the unfaithful. Habakkuk shows us that God is predictably unpredictable. Esther shows us a God who speaks silently. Jesus shows us a God who is divinely human. And the cross? What is the paradox of the cross? It is simply this, that we serve a God who wins as he loses.

Christian faith is, according to the writer to the Hebrews, in chapter 11, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Ironically perhaps, the challenge for a Christian is that we need faith the most when we feel it the least. It is easier to trust God’s purpose and plan when everything is going as we would like it to go – when the sun is shining, when our lives are fruitful and when all is well. It is hard to trust God when everything is falling apart.

Jesus’ disciple Thomas refused to believe that Jesus was risen until he saw the marks in Jesus crucified body. Jesus decided to meet him and to show him those marks. We read of the encounter in John 20:27ff:

Then he [Jesus] said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have come to believe.’

Thomas had the benefit of seeing the physical, resurrected Christ alive and in front of him. He had the opportunity to place his hands into the sacred wounds of Christ. That encounter with a Christ who was murdered and then alive transformed Thomas. He became the first human being to call Jesus ‘My God’. Christ doesn’t give us that direct encounter with himself face-to-face normally. We do not have the opportunity to put our fingers into the wounds. We are not told, by the way, whether Thomas actually did place his hands into Christ’s broken body. We are those who are blessed because although we have not physically seen Christ, yet we have come to believe in him.

Good Friday is a day when we, metaphorically, look again at the wounds. We look intentionally and deliberately at the suffering of Christ. We see his pain, we hear his cries. We read the story of the Passion. We remind ourselves of all that Christ went through and we do so believing, in faith, that he did this for us.

Of course, as Christians, we know the end of the story. We know that Good Friday gives way to Easter Sunday and the Resurrection. That gives us hope and courage and confidence. Death does not get the last word but I often think that we need to learn the lesson of the space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Deep down, most of us live with the reality that our lives don’t always make sense. It feels unfair. God can feel far away. Cruel things happen. Separation is an inevitable companion to love. Birth and death walk hand in hand. Many of us experience the pain of Good Friday and the mystery of suffering or walking in the fog, more often than we care to admit.

That is the paradox of faith that is answered by the Cross. God knows that we find ourselves between times. He knows that struggle. He knows that life is sometimes crushing. The death of his Son and the events of Good Friday are apparent defeats, but in reality they are moments of great victory. Sin is being borne on the cross for us. Satan is being defeated on the cross for us. The wrath of God is being satisfied for us on the cross. The ultimate example of overcoming hate with love, evil with good, war with peace is being played out on the cross for us. In the words of Paul to the Colossians in Colossians 2:13-15:

And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.

Here, then, is the paradox of faith. It is we who watch what happens on the cross who were dead. Christ, as he dies, brings life to us, who are already dead. As we watch this defeat, we are actually seeing a great victory. The very thing that carries the stench of death, Christ’s crucifixion, is the source of our new life. As Christ dies our sins are lifted from us. Our separation from God is removed forever. Our failures are replaced by his accomplishments. Our weakness is replaced by his strength. Our dead lives are given life by his dying. Our victory is never ‘our victory’, it is his victory given to us. We have failed but he has not. We are weak but he is not. We have often been overcome by evil; he has not.

Let this seed of hope, this seed of faith, be planted in your heart. In the midst of the deepest struggle, God’s victory is being worked out in our lives. Christ’s death means we will never be abandoned. We cannot be abandoned. God will not do that to us precisely because he did it to his Son. In fact the reason the cross is so painful for us is because it reminds us that God’s Son bore the very isolation, pain and suffering that we deserved for us.

No other god has wounds.

And so to my second seed. The suffering and death of the Son of God is unique in the world’s religions because in it we see the ultimate answer to suffering. God does not give us a ten point explanation of suffering. He does not set out a systematic answer to the pain of the world. God does not stand aloof, watching as the world suffers. In the Lord Jesus Christ, God enters the world and experiences suffering with us and for us. The death of Christ was not a mythical and ideological story. It was a physical and experienced reality. In the words of 1 Peter 2:24:

24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

Peter could not have been clearer. This was a physical death, an experienced death. This was the God-man, Jesus Christ, being wounded, scarred and beaten; being maimed, marred and murdered for us God can look us in the eye and say, ‘I know what you are going through because I have gone through it too.’

This incredible reality sets Christianity above all other religious traditions. We do not worship a God who gives us life lessons in how to be happy or a God who sets out a strategy for how to avoid sorrow. We worship a God who has experienced sorrow. He is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. His back was ploughed with a whip. His head was pierced with long, jagged Jerusalem thorns. His arms and legs were pierced. He suffered for us and he suffers with us. Christ comes to us in weakness, in pain and in sorrow on Good Friday. In the words of the 19th century poet, Edward Shillito,

The other gods were strong: but Thou wast weak:

They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;

But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,

And not a God has wounds but Thou alone.

The One who had the right to reject us instead rejects His Son in order to accept us. The Hand that gives us life is nailed to a cross. The Feet that run to embrace us are fastened to piece of wood. As Christ dies he winds ‘a bloody bandage around the wounded world.’[1] Christ’s suffering is the suffering of the God who is ‘the lonely greatness of the world’. God’s power holds up the cross that holds up Christ. And as his eyes close in death, the darkness of the world is shattered.[2]

When Thomas sees Jesus and believes, he sees the wounds. He looks at the wounds. We too need to see them to believe. Not the physical wounds of Christ standing before us, of course, but we must look at this. We must let it sink in. Christ did this for us.

By being the wounded Saviour Christ redeems all wounds. He makes sense of suffering by suffering. He redeems death by dying. He sanctifies pain by enduring pain. Cecil Day-Lewis, the Poet Laureate from 1968-1972, wrote Pieta after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. He drew an image of the dead J.F.K., lying across the lap of Jackie Kennedy based on the famous scultpure of the dead Christ lying across the lap of his mother, Mary, crafted by Michelangelo. Two lines in the poem are particularly powerful to me:

A divine, dazed compassion calms her features.

        She holds all earth’s dead sons upon her lap.[3]

The wounds that mar Christ are the wounds that mar us all, transferred to him. In his death, every needless death is absorbed. The deaths of the people of Belgium, every martyred Christian, every drop of blood ever shed is seen in his death. Every sorrow is seen in his sorrow. Every tear of mourning and loss is understood by him. God attends every funeral and whispers, ‘I know how this feels’ to everyone who will listen to his quiet voice. He kneels beside every mother and father who has lost their child and whispers, ‘I have walked this road’.

Our wounded God has redeemed the wound.

Our murdered God has redeemed death.

Our broken God has redeemed brokenness.

Our bereft God has redeemed mourning.

As we turn our attention to eating bread and wine, symbols of the death of Jesus Christ, may we come like Thomas did. As we lift the bread, we place our hands in the wounds. As we drink the wine, we see the blood of Christ. With hearts that are broken and yet deeply thankful, we look at the One who looks at us and may we, too, cry in our hearts, ‘My Lord and My God.’

Amen

[1] From ‘The Passion’ by Andrew Young (1885 -1971).

[2] See, ‘He is the Lonely Greatness’ by Madeleine Caron Rock.

[3] See ‘Pieta’ by Cecil Day –Lewis (1904-1972)

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