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Good Friday

Sermon at Saint Margaret’s, Budapest (2024.03.29)

Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42

“…so marred was his appearance beyond human semblance and his form beyond that of mortals, so he shall startle many nations.”

Reflecting on the founding of Boston, Massachusetts, 19th century American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, commented that despite the colonists’ optimism regarding their future, the first two things they built were a jail and a cemetery.

Here on Good Friday, we are confronted with these same two fundamental problems of the human condition: sin – that is, our propensity to do those things which we ought not (and reciprocally, to not do those things which we ought to) – and the consequences of sin; our inevitable death.

The concept of sin – that there are things God prohibits us from doing – is not exactly popular these days. We live in a culture that strives to maximise human freedom and individual choice. The right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is even enshrined in the US Constitution! How dare anyone tell us what we should or shouldn’t do?

The problem with the pursuit of happiness, is that without constraints, not only does it damage us, but it damages the people around us. Theologians call it the polluting effect of sin. Like the archaeological remains that are now contaminated with microplastics despite being over 9 meters under the soil, sin corrupts and degrades in ways that we could scarcely imagine. 

If we take just one of the 10 Commandments – “You shall not steal” – imagine how different our culture would be if everyone kept it. Last year, US companies lost over €100 billion due to theft, resulting in countless bankruptcies and lost livelihoods. Around the world, €4bn is spent on door locks every year – wasted money, but necessary because of sin. Beyond the abstract effects, however, are the emotional impacts we experience when we’re cheated by a shop merchant, have our homes broken into, or realize that our mobile phone or wallets have been snatched.

Or another commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife”? Sexual ethics become a taboo subject, but even if we set aside the contentious debates, the human toll on partners and children devastated by a selfish moment of infidelity is staggering. As is the number of people trafficked and abused to make porn. I was recently shocked to read about the number of young people so traumatised by their initial sexual experiences that it prompted a call in the NYTimes for a renewed discussion about sexual ethics and the limits of consent. 

Those are just two of the 10 Commandments. Imagine a world without deceit, or envy or murder; a world without the horrendous evil we read about on our screens each morning.

Anarchy is great until people start dying, something we see playing out in Haiti right now. A society without limits on human freedom very quickly devolves into dystopia. It doesn’t take Moses on a mountain with two stone tablets for us to recognize that. While there is much that is noble and good within humanity, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was exiled to the Gulag for criticising Stalin and consequently experienced horrendous evil up close, famously commented: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states…nor between political parties, but right through every human heart”

At the end of the day, evil isn’t just around us; it resides within us as well.  We each have “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and unfortunately “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 3:23; 6:23). That was God’s warning to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: if you eat the fruit, you will surely die. Not simply physical death, but alienation from God; being cut off from life with the one who created us to be in relationship with him.

The good news, however, is that from the beginning, God promised a solution, someone who would come and redeem us; a messiah who would free us from the sin that has enslaved us and deliver us from the tyranny of death. A messiah who would come and set the world to rights, restoring justice and peace; who would reconcile us to God. The entire Old Testament anticipates that coming reversal of human history.

On Good Friday, that day finally arrived. 

However, unlike the conquering political king that the Jewish people were awaiting, someone who would lead them to a military victory over the Romans – however farfetched that seemed – Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a war horse. That’s why Peter drew his sword and started swinging it around, cutting off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s slave. Yet Jesus rebuked Peter, commanding him to sheath his sword; that wasn’t the kind of messiah he would be.

Instead, Jesus’ messiahship was grounded on Isaiah’s prophecy of the “Suffering Servant” from today’s reading. The messiah Isaiah predicted, would be “despised and rejected”, “stricken [and] struck down by God”.  In our sinfulness “we all like sheep have gone astray”, each “to our own way”.  Yet he would be “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities…and by his bruises we are healed” (Isa 52-53).  

In a mystery that continues to confound theologians, Jesus’s death on the cross somehow atoned for our sins – a word derived from the idea of making “at one” through reparation or satisfaction of an offense or injury. Theological models abound: the Ransom theory of Atonement, Christus Victor, Penal Substitution, Satisfaction theory, Moral influence theory, Recapitulation theory, etc. However, while each get at something important, all are ultimately imperfect explanations. 

In the words of Isaiah, “So marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals— so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him.” Not only is the image of Jesus, the Messiah who was brutalised and hanging on the cross a shock to the conscience, but it transcends understanding and leaves us speechless.

Jesus was the lamb of God who took away the sins of the world – yours as well as mine. On the cross he bore our sins, and because of his death, we can be reconciled to God. It is a great gift, but also a mystery – Jesus trampling on death by death. If nothing else, it should lead us to repentance, because – as we are about to sing – it is “a love so amazing, so divine, it demands our soul, our life, our all”. 


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