I have yet to experience an Incarnation tradition for reading the Passion narrative on Good Friday thanks to COVID restrictions. In other churches I’ve been in, we’ve done a variety of things. In one church, we actually did a physical walk around the parish, stopping at particular historically significant points to read a part of the narrative. At others, we simply split up the readings and had members of the congregation play different characters. There have been some really unique things done when services were still online (I saw everything from puppets and cartoon characters playing the parts to digitally edited together parts read by real live humans, to zoom read parts). Of course we are back in person and as much as some things have opened up, I think it’s important to be careful and cautious for a central reason: what we do for those who are most vulnerable, we do to Jesus. And folks, most of us in here are pretty darn vulnerable should we get sick, whether because people are waiting on surgeries, or whether they have underlying health conditions, whether you’re simply older, or because you could carry COVID back to your communal living situation or long-term care home.
Like you, I’ve found these restrictions frustrating, disheartening and life changing. I have not been able to visit as I’d liked, I’ve not been able to be with people in their last days or moments, I’ve not been able to hold church funerals to allow us to mourn together and gather in lament but also in hope comforted by God’s Words as God has gathered your loved ones to him.
And yet all of these things we have suffered and struggled with have been a stark reminder of the things we’ve probably taken for granted, just as I’m sure the disciples had begun to take Jesus’s presence with them for granted. And not just his presence, but his power, his miracles, his leading them onward even when they weren’t sure where exactly he was taking them. Today’s Passion narrative was the disciple’s wake up call. And the last two years have similarly shaken us out of our complacency and called us to re-examine who we are not just as individuals, but as a congregation, that is part of a particular Christian denomination, that is part of a Church that purports to worship, obey, and so follow and act like Jesus.
Today we are being asked by god to enter into the story of Jesus’s betrayal, his arrest, his trial, his torture and his execution. In order to understand the profound gift that Jesus’s resurrection opens for us both now and for eternity that we’ll celebrate at Easter, we first need to journey with him today, Good Friday. We still recognize Good Friday rather than skipping it and going straight to Easter because we are a people who need to physically embody our faith. So here, as a people who truly are in a state of shock because of COVID, we are brought face-to-face with the stark judgement of the Cross: our finitude, our suffering, our uncertainty.
With Peter and Judas we are confronted with the question of whose we are, shall we persevere through the Cross to find hope in the resurrection, or shall we stop and cut ourselves off from the living fountain of life, given in the resurrection? Shall we turn away from God in the things we say and allow our secular world to pretend power and authority in dictating justice, righteousness, and goodness? Or shall we endure through the cockcrows in our own personal lives? This Good Friday, we are in the position – one unique given this time and place in history – to ask deep questions about how we are responding to God. I encourage you to take today and go and read through these passages again. Please don’t rush. Take a moment, consider how you fit into the character of Paul, of Judas, of Pilate, of Jesus’s betrayers, of Jesus’s family, of his disciples? And all of them. Don’t just choose one of the characters because you’re likely going to find that you fit into each one of them in various ways and at various points in time.
Maybe this stark removal from the normal rhythms of life has brought you to realize that you engage other people with fear of something, rather than in faith that you are loved, held, desired, and given purpose by someone far more powerful than today’s Pilate. Maybe it makes you realize that you run from things because you have been hurt in the past or recently by those who betray, who misjudge or mischaracterize you. Is that running really serving you now? Or has it left you in the place of Jesus’s people here and Pilate: unable to see truth, to be held in that truth in love, to forgive yourself, or others, and to move on with hope? Have you gathered in church primarily for your own comfort like Peter, or to push yourself to learn who God is in a way that will challenge you, and likely make you uncomfortable because God’s ways are not your ways, or the world’s ways, so that you can learn to share him with others?
There are so many ways we fit into all the figures we encounter in this Gospel reading. Take the time to enter into them. And once you’ve done that, take the time to pray to God to give you the capacity to endure the shock of a world turned upside down by COVID, by the social upheavals that have come as we’ve recognized our racist tendencies, the violence by which we too often try to gain control and certainty. All of these things are our Good Friday before God. So bring them all before God, confess, repent, go down to the depths of your broken humanity with Jesus this Friday and Holy Saturday and enter into the pit of hell, so that when you hear the announcement of his risen body on Sunday, you might find yourself recommitted to witnessing Easter Hope to others. AMEN.