Sunday, April 12, 2020

Good Friday

This is the transcription of my sermon for Good Friday on April 10, 2020.

Good Friday


Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 19:1-19:42

Good Friday is all about the death of our Lord.  Our Gospel reading is St John’s account of the crucifixion.  Sermons for Good Friday, quite rightly, focus on the Cross.  Normally, here at Christ Church, we have a service of the ‘Last Hour at the Cross’ when we think of the ‘seven last words’ of Jesus from the Cross.
There we tend to stop.  Once our Lord has died, we leave the story, and wait expectantly for Easter Sunday and the good news of his resurrection.  Good Friday, however, didn’t end there.  Our Lord’s body had to be taken down from the Cross and buried.

The Gospels are all agreed that Joseph of Arimathea was the one who stood up to do this.  We are told that he went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.  This was rather brave.  Jesus, after all, despite Pilate’s reluctance, had been crucified as a rebel against Rome.  The Jewish authorities had made their views plain.  By asking for the body and taking responsibility for Jesus’ burial, Joseph was putting himself out there.

Interestingly, St John tells us that another person helped bury the body with Joseph.  This was none other than Nicodemus, who has appeared earlier in the Gospel.

It gets more interesting still when we stop to look at the two characters involved.

First of all, Joseph of Arimathea.  Joseph was a common name, and Arimathea, the town from which he came, identifies which Joseph we are talking about.  All four of the Gospels tell us that Joseph was involved in Jesus’ burial, and each of the four Gospels provide us with a bit of information about him. 

St Mark tells us that he was a respected member of the Council ‘who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God’ (Mark 15:43). 

St Luke describes Joseph as a ‘good and righteous man’, who, ‘though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action’ (Luke 23:50-51).  St Luke tells us it was a ‘new tomb where no-one had ever been laid’ that Joseph laid Jesus’ body. 

St Matthew tells us that Joseph was a ‘rich man’ and a ‘disciple of Jesus’ (Matthew 27:57).  St Matthew also tells us that the new tomb that Joseph laid Jesus’ body in was his own, which ‘he had hewn in the rock’.

St John tells us that Joseph was a ‘disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because of his fear’ of others among his people.  St John also tells us that ‘there was a garden in the place where he was crucified’ (John 19:41) and it is here that the tomb is located.

Putting all this together, we learn that Joseph came from a town called Arimathea.  He was a rich man, who was a devout, observant Jew and much respected.  He was a member of the ruling Council and was, therefore, a person of some power and influence.  He had become a disciple of Jesus, although he kept it secret because of his fear of others.  He had not gone along with his fellow Council members in their plan to get rid of Jesus and have him killed.

It was Jesus’ death, however, ironically that changed everything for him.  Although he had kept his faith in Jesus secret while Jesus had been alive, seeing Jesus die, he could do so no longer.  St Mark tells us he went ‘boldly’ to Pilate to ask for the body.  Joseph made his faith known when in many ways there was nothing to be gained from doing so.  Jesus, after all, was dead and no-one expected anything to come of it.  Joseph had nothing to gain and everything to lose.

Was this an act of repentance and regret for not having been open about his faith when Jesus was alive?  Is it shame at having been a part of the body responsible for Jesus’ death?  We just don’t know.  Whatever his motivation, it took courage and he backed up his courage by giving Jesus the tomb he had made for himself.

St John, however, adds something that the other Gospel writers don’t tell us.  St John tells us that when Joseph took the body to the tomb, he was not alone. 

The second character involved was another rich man and a fellow member of the ruling Council.  It is someone we have met before: Nicodemus.  Nicodemus, St John tells us, went with Joseph to the tomb (John 19:39).

Nicodemus you may remember from the Broadcast Service for the Second Sunday of Lent was a Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night and who found Jesus’ words about being ‘born again from above’ hard to understand. 

Nicodemus appears three times in St John’s Gospel.  In John 3, when he first approaches Jesus.  Then in John 7, when he argues with his fellow Pharisees, telling them that Jesus should not be condemned without being given a ‘fair hearing’ (John 7:51).

Now, in John 19, he comes with Joseph and brings with him a large quantity of spices to embalm Jesus’ body.  The cost of these spices would have been very great.  Jesus was crucified as the King of the Jews in a way which made a mockery of the very idea.  Jesus was, however, buried in a manner befitting royalty.  Crucified as a criminal, he was buried as a King.  The title on the Cross had been right all along.

But now it was too late.  Or so everyone thought, but that story must wait for Easter Sunday.  For now, it is all over.  What did Joseph and Nicodemus think would happen to them next?  How would they face their fellow Council members?  Their fellow Council members may have taken the attitude that it didn’t much matter.  They had got what they wanted.  It was, nevertheless, brave of Joseph and Nicodemus to come out in the open.  Intriguingly, we are told that after Jesus’ resurrection many Pharisees became believers.  Were Nicodemus and Joseph amongst them.  I think so.

Nicodemus is always described in St John’s Gospel as the ‘one who came to Jesus by night’.  At the beginning, he can’t see what Jesus is trying to show him.  It is he who is in darkness.  We get a sense that he is coming to faith in his argument with his fellow Council members over Jesus in John 7.  Now, after Jesus death, he at last comes out of the darkness.

What does all this say to us this Good Friday? 

1. Jesus really did die for everyone. 

Quite rightly in the Church, we are anxious to reach out to the poor and those in the past whom the Church has either ignored or failed to reach; to those who are excluded and oppressed.  But we need to remember that Jesus loves both rich and poor alike. 

Jesus preached ‘good news to the poor’.  The good news, however, is not that they are poor as if poverty is a state that we should seek.  Nor that the good news is for the poor rather than for others who are not.  The good news to the poor is that God loves them and that while the kingdoms of this world might exclude them because of their poverty, God does not.

Jesus was a friend of the poor.  He was a friend of the rich as well.  This doesn’t mean he didn’t challenge both rich and poor.  He did.  He challenged the rich about their wealth and about putting their trust in riches, but he did not exclude them, any more than he excluded the poor.  Quite the reverse.  The poor too were challenged not to think that their hope lay in gaining riches.  Instead, it lay in trusting God.

The Church too easily can make it sound as if there is virtue in being poor for being poor’s sake.  It is true that often not having this world’s wealth leads people to see what really matters in life and so to put their trust in God.  It is true too that those with money can put their trust in their wealth rather than in God.  The issue, however, is not whether someone is rich or poor, but whether they trust in God and how they regard and use their poverty or wealth to bring glory to God.

All of us rich, poor, and anywhere in between, need to be concerned, first and above all, not with the state of our bank balance, but with the state of our relationship with God.

2. Sometimes it just takes time.

St Luke describes Joseph as a ‘good and righteous man’.  He was ‘waiting expectantly for the Kingdom of God’.  There is no open criticism of him in the Gospels.  The Kingdom of God obviously mattered to him.  He was focused on God and not just on himself.  He had obviously been affected by Jesus and was attracted to him.  It just wasn’t strong enough to get him to come out in the open.  In addition to his fear, what doubts, if any, did he harbour?

Nicodemus ‘came to Jesus by night’ and that description of him has stuck.  It is used as a description of him each time he is mentioned in the Gospel.  He knew that there was something special about Jesus: 

‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ (John 3:2)

But he couldn’t work Jesus out.  He didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about.  ‘How can these things be?’ he replied to what Jesus told him.  His inability to understand provoked from Jesus the question:

‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’ (John 3:10)

There are those of us who feel just like this.  We are attracted to Jesus.  We do think that he has something important to tell us.  But we are confused and can’t quite get there.  It’s difficult and hard to understand.  No matter how much we try, we seem to remain in the dark.

Jesus said:

‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ (John 12:32)

St Luke tells us that as Jesus was being crucified, darkness covered the land from noon to midday (Luke 23:44).  Today, as Jesus is being lifted up, it may be us who are amongst those who are being drawn out of the darkness to Jesus. 

Jesus said:

‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ (John 8:12)

Good Friday is not simply about an event in the past that we remember each year, nor is it something we only think of today and then forget as we move on to think of happier things.  The Cross is where we see God’s light shining in the darkness.  Shining in the figure of the one dying there for us and because of us and who invites us to be drawn from the darkness to himself.

St Paul wrote:

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4:6)

As we look on the face of Jesus Christ this afternoon, we need God to shine in our hearts to give us too the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.

Sometimes it just takes time as it seems to have done for Nicodemus, but at last at the Cross he seems to have got there.

The Cross changes everything.

3. The Cross challenges us to decide.

Both Joseph and Nicodemus kept their faith in Jesus secret.  Both had much to lose.  I am not thinking here of their money.  They were unlikely to lose that.  But they were members of a powerful body.  They were respected; had influence; and exercised authority.  They stood to lose that power.

It would be so interesting to know what part they played in the trial and examination of Jesus.  We simply do not know.  The suspicion is that, even though we are told Joseph did not agree with their plan, being heavily outnumbered they kept quiet.  Feelings were running high, and the Chief Priest had already made his mind up.  Anyone going against the majority would certainly be unpopular at the very least. 

We shouldn’t underestimate how important being popular can be to us as humans.  We see in popular culture how people crave to be celebrities; how they love getting their photos in the media and having everyone looking up to them and wanting to be like them.  Some celebrities are famous simply for being famous.  The rest of us can be a bit smug about this.  We, of course, are not like that. 

Maybe not.  We do, however, rather like being well-connected or well-thought of by those above us in the social hierarchy or at the places where we work.  Some bosses use this as a tool to manipulate their employees.  And we all do rather like being liked, even if it is only getting likes on social media.  And, at the opposite end to being liked, many of those who find themselves not being liked but receiving hate messages, often end up suicidal, even if those hate messages are only anonymous and online.

But in addition to making them unpopular, there would be another price for Joseph and Nicodemus to pay in loss of power and influence.  Who now would trust these two who had been secret disciples of Jesus all along? 

Power is a powerful drug.  Politicians crave it and will bend the rules and abandon their principles to get it.  Being in authority and having control, together with the trappings of power that go with it, are addictive, and not easily given up.

The Cross shows what happens when you refuse to put your trust in riches; when you reject power, position, and prestige; when you speak the truth and reject the values, priorities, and attitudes of this world.

We may want to believe in Christ and yet hang on as well to our place in this world, but ultimately there must come a time of decision.  The Cross challenges us to choose.  ‘We preach Christ crucified’ wrote St Paul.  We cannot hide forever.  We cannot be secret disciples for long. 

It sometimes takes time, but the choice has to be made.

It took the Cross for Joseph and Nicodemus to make it.  Today, however, we only know the names of two people apart from the Chief Priests who were on the Council that sentenced Jesus.  ‘Whoever serves me, the Father will honour,’ Jesus had said (John 12:26).  Today we honour Joseph and Nicodemus.  Now we need to do as they did and end the secrecy.

Whose side are we on? 

The Cross challenges us to decide.

As we spend time at the Cross today, may we come out of the darkness and follow Christ in the days that lie ahead.


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