When my grandfather’s mother passed away, the steelworkers union gave him a gift bible. It came in a wooden box with a little latch, and attached to its corner was a chain with a little gold cross. I would play with that box and that little cross when I was young and leaf through the pages of that book, although I didn’t know what it was really about. I didn’t know then how important that little symbol was to the contents of the book, that the cross was the focal point of all the stories contained inside. That the problems that begin at the beginning with sin and snakes and forbidden fruit, that the promises made by God to patriarchs and the messages given by God to prophets all looked ahead to this little golden cross, that all the letters springing from the mind of a converted Pharisee and the dreams and visions of a man in exile were all looking back to the cross as a great beginning, albeit one necessary to view through the eyes of faith.
There was something important I did get a sense of though. That this symbol and this book were meant to make a difference in ways that other symbols and books could not.
The cross of Jesus, from a certain perspective, was the end of all hope. Jesus had come preaching a kingdom of God that was everywhere and nowhere, lived out in every human relationship, as small as a copper coin given out of poverty, as small as a tiny seed which once taken root grows into a refulgent display of life itself, a kingdom of the heart and of the soul, a kingdom with no boundaries and no tyrant, where a loving God ruled through grace and justice.
There were those who wanted Jesus’ kingdom to be like the kingdoms of the earth, to have worldly power. Jesus himself was tempted by the devil to have plenty, and safety and authority. Even up until the end, his disciples are fighting the battle on the wrong front, using swords against those who had come to arrest Jesus.
And from that mindset, the cross is failure. The cross is the sign that Jesus’ project didn’t work. If this was the Messiah, then he is no more. If this was the work of the Hebrew God, then either he has failed, or he never was. The empire is the only kingdom, after all, and the only thing that truly matters is power. It was a lovely thought, this kingdom of God, but the cross is the sign that Jesus wasn’t right.
Jesus was not the only person to have been crucified. When a township rebelled against Rome, the Romans would crucify the offenders on the roadways leading into the town as a reminder to all who entered of the terrible price of insurrection, as a visible sign of true authority, and who was in power in this place.
This is the King of the Jews, they wrote above his head. It was a further message to a defeated Hebrew nation, to say that whatever rebellious thoughts based on their religion they still harbored must surely now be put to rest in this humiliated rabbi. This is the King of the Jews, they write with the intent of mockery. But in irony they were right because he was the King of the Jews, and the gentiles, and every people, but his rule did not look like the rule of other kings. The kingdom of God that he preached was not really over, it was just beginning.
And so it is that a device of death becomes the adornment of our worship spaces, the symbol of our faith that we wear on our chains, that marks our holy books.
So it is that the story of a death becomes the theme for this evening on this Friday that we can only call good because we know who it is who is going to his death, and why he has chosen to do so.
There is a way that we can miss out on what tonight means. There is a way that we can drain this Friday of all its goodness and go away untouched. By not being selfish. By not thinking about ourselves. That might sound odd. We spend a lot of time in this place encouraging one another to think about others before we think of ourselves, and again ironically, in some ways this cross that we are talking about is the ultimate sign that our discipleship in Jesus is meant to be lived out in imitation of his complete lack of selfishness. But we are not here to abstractly observe that the cross is God’s answer to sin in general. That may be a beautiful truth but it is a truth that it’s not close enough to our lives. Come to the cross tonight thankful not just that Jesus died for the sins of humankind, but that Jesus died for your sins. Remember that you are meant to include your own broken story with those told in the pages of scripture. Your story is a part of the story of salvation. In this same way that I can read that God gives freedom to slaves in Egypt, but not believe that God offers me freedom, in the same way that I can read that God writes his good law on the hearts of his people, but not believe that God can change my mind to desire righteousness, in the same way that I can read that God holds his people so dearly that all their names are written on his hands, but not believe that my name is written there, I can read that the cross means forgiveness for all humankind’s sins, but not believe that it has to do with my sins. And by believing that I can be shut out of exactly the good part, of this Good Friday.
Let us then not honor this evening as observers. Because to even wonder at the sacrifice of Christ from a distance—in abstract—is not enough. All the problems that began with sin, all the stories about human brokenness and failure contained in the pages of that book do indeed look ahead to the cross for their forgiveness. But the sins found in the bible are not the only ones touched by the cross. It is also for the sins with which we struggle. And the brokenness, which we inhabit. For the sins that we have done today.
When John concludes his gospel, he is clear about why he has been writing. For his whole gospel he has been writing in the third person about the story of Jesus, but at the end he makes it clear that this story is a direct address. Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, he tells us, but these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that, through believing, you may have life in his name.
It was meant to be an instrument of death, and a sign of failure; it was meant to be the end of the Kingdom of God. Amen.