(A Good Friday sermon preached at St. Anselm's Anglican Church on April 3, 2015)
History. Tragedy. Violence. These are the very things that much spirituality seeks to help us escape. There can be no escape today. We are at the paradoxical heart of the good news of God – namely that this wonderful announcement is to be encountered within the story of the horrific, barbaric, brutal killing of Jesus Christ, the human embodiment of God.
The human embodiment of God. Now there is a paradox. The definition of human – made of ‘humus’, literally an earthling – is mortal. In other words, not God. And the definition of God is holy, other … in other words, not human, not mortal. To speak of a human being as, at once, both human and divine is to invite appropriate scepticism. Yet here we are, standing in the embers of Christendom in a country in which its schools and banks, offices and governments close down on this Friday because … well, because there is as yet a fading memory that Easter stands in direct correlation not with chocolate but with the state sponsored execution of the One who enfleshed the divine in human form.
This paradox, this memory, this mystery is carried forward in two Latin words, found in today’s reading from John’s gospel (John 19:5). Jesus is in police custody. He has been interrogated. The interrogation has included torture. The soldiers humiliate their prisoner. It all sounds so contemporary. If they had smart phones there would surely be tweeted photos of him in the royal crown made of thorns. It is at this moment that Jesus is paraded out of the cells and into the public eye. Pilate can find no legal reason to go ahead with a prosecution. He brings Jesus before the gathered crowd and says, in Greek: “Ide o anthropos.” In Latin it becomes: “Ecce homo.” Literally, “Behold, the human being.” “Here is the man.”
This dramatic scene has been a focal moment for a thousand years in the history of Western art. “Ecce homo.” Behold, the man … the man who is in custody, who has been beaten, who is now brought before the crowd, before you, before me for judgment. When standing looking at a painting of this moment one is placed in the moment of decision, face to face with Jesus. Pilate asks what we want done with him. “Ecce homo.” It is not a portrait of the Son of God lying in a manger, surrounded by shepherds and magi with an angel chorus singing “Peace on earth”. Nor are we standing at the Jordan River as the young rabbi from Galilee comes up out of the water while the Holy Spirit descends from on high. We are not in the synagogue in Nazareth as he preaches: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”. We are not on the mountain as he pronounces upside down blessings upon the grief stricken, the poor, the hungry. Today we are not at the scene of the blind receiving sight or the lame leaping for joy. Nor is it the moment when Moses and Elijah confer with him on a transfiguring mountain top of clarity. On those occasions it is easier to identify him. “Ecce homo” - behold, the one who is both human and divine, the incarnate word of God.
Today, however, it is as if we are security personnel handed identity papers for an unknown migrant, an illegal immigrant perhaps, in which we find the peculiar title “Messiah – Christ – King” next to a mug shot of a beaten and bleeding troublemaker. What is to be done with him? Incarceration? Parole? Life? Execution? A judgment needs to be made. John reports that before the crowd can be polled the “chief priests and police” act as judge and jury, advising Pilate to “crucify.” This is often how it is. The authorities make their case, rush to judgement, influence public opinion. The masses soon join the cry for blood. In John’s gospel the masses are labelled “the Jews”. It is not as if there is a different crowd that is not the Jews – a crowd of Greeks, for instance, or even of Christians. Everyone in this story is a Jew. For too long the church has scapegoated Jews on this day, imagining that Christians would never get caught up in mass hysteria, rushing to judgment, crucifying the Messiah sent to save us. Yet it occurs in every generation. With Peter and Judas and the rest who flee and deny and betray at the first sign of trouble we, too, share complicity in the events of Good Friday. The church has blood on its hands.
It is at this place, the place where we cannot escape being implicated in the injustice and betrayals that we so decry in others, that God meets us. Here the awful cross becomes the wondrous cross. In the garden of God’s new creation the cruciform tree of death is transformed into a cruciform tree of life. Here the soil of human trauma and tragedy becomes the seedbed of divine healing and forgiveness. This is what William Tyndale was trying to capture when drafting the first English translation of the Bible nearly six hundred years ago. What can we call this event, when the act for which we are to be judged becomes itself the source of our liberation and acquittal? Tyndale could not find such a word in English and so he created one: “atonement”, literally ‘at-one-ment’. It is in the atonement that God in Christ transforms the cross from terrible to wondrous. Ecce homo. Behold the one whose rejection and sacrifice is, mysteriously and wonderfully, the source of God’s new world, God’s kingdom come, God’s will done.
Christian spirituality is Easter spirituality. Which is to say that Christian spirituality is, first, Good Friday spirituality. There can be no resurrection without crucifixion. There can be no way to the wondrous news of God’s power to make new without the truth about our participation with the powers that oppose and block and seek to eradicate God’s future. It means that Christian spirituality can never be an escape from the brutality of history or the suffering of the neighbour. Christian spirituality is Christian living fully immersed in the world where we find ourselves, in the knowledge that the Triune God comes incognito, hidden, revealed in the faces and lives of those we regularly judge unworthy. We who have misjudged Pilate’s beaten prisoner, convinced that he deserves to die can never look at a neighbour or a stranger in the same way again. Ecce homo. Behold, the man. The man whose shame is the subject of God’s redeeming love. Ecce homo. Behold, the woman. The woman whose trauma is the location of God’s divine mission of healing. Behold your calling, my calling, our calling to judge them worthy of compassion - worthy to be suffered with and for.
Then behold this: behold yourself. Behold the judgments that have been passed upon you by others. Behold the judgments you pass upon yourself. Judgments carried as heavy burdens. Ecce homo. Behold the God who knows what it is to be judged unworthy. Ecce homo. Behold Jesus Christ whose death and resurrection is the path of salvation from shame to blessing, from trauma to healing. Ecce homo. Behold the One who calls us to die to what has been that we, and all the world, may receive newness of life … life in all its fullness. At one. At one with neighbour. At one with creation. At one with self. At one with God.