When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
This is a day unlike any other. In the entire history of the world there has been nothing quite like what we remember today, and there will never be anything quite like it in the future. Millions upon millions of people have been killed unjustly and prematurely; but only this death has to do with the salvation of the world.
Look around at those who have gathered together with you tonight. Most people, of course, are not here. They are out doing what they do on any ordinary Friday night – dancing, drinking, eating, driving, laughing, loving. It has always been like this…
When Jesus was marched up to the place called Golgotha, which means the skull, most people did not even notice. Crucifixion was such a common activity that people were conditioned to avert their gaze from the bodies hanging on crosses. Many people were preoccupied with their own problems, which might help to explain why Jesus was so abandoned by his closest friends.
So, on this strange night, a night unlike any other, we gather together to remember the death of a man who was, and is, God in the flesh.
All week long I have been wearing my clerical collar. I know this might seem like a fairly Catholic thing to do, but it is traditional for all clergy to wear such things. For years I have been warned by other pastors about the dangers of wearing this collar: “No matter wear you go, people will assume that they can talk to you about all their problems.” “You can never prepare yourself for all the glares you will receive.” “It is a relic of the past, if you want to connect to people of today, ditch the collar and find something contemporary.” For me, I simply wanted to wear it this week to mark the occasion of Holy Week, and on another level I wanted to wear something that would force me to act like a Christian in public. You can’t get away with cutting in line at the grocery store when you’re dressed like this.
So I initially chose to wear it this week to honor this special time in the life of the church, but it slowly became an experiment here in Staunton. After hearing all of the stories about what this collar can bring in terms of interactions in the community, I was excited to see what might happen. I had plenty to do this week, but whenever I had the chance, I would go somewhere publicly; I worked on a sermon at a coffee shop, played drums for the Stonewall Brigade band, went to Walmart, the Staunton mall, Food Lion, I walked up and down Beverley street. I went everywhere that I could think of.
I was anxious about all the conversations and judgments people might make of my appearance, but I went out anyway. And you’ll never believe what happened… nothing.
I walked around this whole town and I received absolutely no response about my appearance. No one asked me about it, no one pointed and whispered, no one even looked at it. Now I know I’m not the best looking guy, but I’m used to people tat least taking a glance my way occasionally; its something we all do out of habit. But for the last few days I have felt largely invisible.
So I decided to take it one step forward… Today, at noon, I arrived at church to begin carrying our cross all around Staunton. The cross that the confirmands so diligently decorated and created dug into my shoulders as I departed from the church and walked toward downtown. I walked from the church to Beverley Street, went up both hills on either side, and eventually made my way back toward the north end of town. I walked for two hours, and you know what happened? Nothing.
Now, of course, walking with a 8 ft long cross will gather attention, I noticed a handful of people driving and walking who began to stare at the object on my back, but the moment I smiled, made eye contact, or waved, they diverted their attention to something else. Two couples actually switched what side of the road they were walking down in order to avoid my trajectory. For two hours I walked in silence and contemplation, every greeting I uttered was met with a blank stare, and just like with the clergy collar, I felt invisible this afternoon.
That was until I was standing next to a man waiting at the light by the library. I noticed that he kept looking at my cross, back to the ground, back to the cross, and back to the ground. Finally I heard him mutter, but loud enough for me to hear, “Jesus H. Christ.” To which I replied, “Actually its Taylor C. Mertins, but thanks for the compliment.” He did not think it was as funny as I did.
While walking across the lawn to put the cross back in the sanctuary I began to wonder if this is what Jesus felt like when he carried his cross. I wonder if what was most tragic was not the fact that he died, but that he died without anyone really caring or noticing. How strange that God chose to save us in this way, in the death of his Son abandoned by his friends on a cross.
Today, as it was in the time that Jesus died, many of us believe that we need not look at the cross at all. Here in our sanctuary all we have is this tiny cross on the altar. Many of us are far more familiar with the idea that, “God so loved the world, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” In that verse we are told not to look, but merely to believe.
We so desperately want to skip over the suffering of Friday and jump straight to the glory of Sunday. Thats why more people attend church on Mother’s Day than Maundy Thursday and Good Friday combined. The cross is a harsh message. We want to divert our attention away from it. We want to hear good news. We want to laugh in church. We want to walk out feeling better about ourselves and the world.
Yet, to ignore Christ’s death on the cross is to be tempted to believe that we are no longer in danger. But my friends, even Christ’s death does not mean we get to escape death, but only that even in death we will not be abandoned by God.
Looking on the cross and believing God are inseparable. Perhaps we have grown so accustomed to seeing the Christian cross that we now largely ignore it. Or we really know what the cross means so when we see it we, like the contemporaries of Christ, avert our gaze. But, Christ died on the cross. He hung up there for hours. He cried out to God. He suffered. He died.
This good Friday we are called to open our eyes to what Christ did, to look on the cross and live, to realize that believing is seeing.
How very strange of God to save us in this way, and how much stranger that we are to look on Jesus’ death if we are to have life.