Sermon preached by the Right Reverend Dorsey McConnell, the Bishop of Pittsburgh
Good Friday 2017, Trinity Cathedral. Text: John 18:1 – 19:37
Savior of the world by thy Cross and precious blood thou hast redeemed us: save us and help us, we humbly pray thee, O Lord.
If you read carefully the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of John’s Gospel, you will notice that the one emotion running throughout his account of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, is anger. There are others present, here and there, notably grief and fear and regret, but anger takes center stage early on and keeps it almost to the end. The way John tells this terrible story, the anger he traces isn’t just about a lot of individually angry people who happen to show up in the same place at more or less the same time. This anger is more like a general force that runs through the characters in the story like a current, an irresistible tide that flows into and out of them, driving them, compelling them to do things they perhaps wouldn’t think of doing under other circumstances. The anger begins with Peter lashing out at the High Priest’s servant and cutting off his right ear. Then the temple officials take over, slapping the Lord in the face. From there the rage moves into the crowd demanding Jesus’ death. Then to the soldiers as they mock and beat the Lord. Then to the mob again who cry out, Away with Him. Away with him. Crucify him! In other gospel narratives, the rage passes into the thieves who are hanged on either side of Jesus, and continues with the bystanders who taunt the Lord right up to his final breath, and only ending with his last words, It is finished. And if we were to look for a good old English word to get at the essence of this anger, that turns souls into mobs and can convert an ordinarily reasonable person into a terrorist, we might settle on the word wrath.
Wrath is the stuff of epic poems and Greek tragedies. It accounts for a lot of the bent and broken places in our family histories. It is completely different from righteous indignation, or anger over an injustice, though we sometimes may want to dress it up that way. Wrath is always springing up in our own lives, especially in the way we react when we are in the wrong, and know we are in the wrong, and cannot bear to admit it, or when we are hurt and do not want to talk about it, or when we have suffered a terrible loss through our own fault, and seek desperately for someone else to blame. Wrath is primitive stuff. When you’re in the grip of it, it can feel like some dark wellspring coming up from an unseen source and flooding you with the insistence that you will prevail no matter who gets hurt. And you want to hurt whomever you hold responsible, even if the innocent get caught in the blast zone, though of course when you’re in this mindset, there are no innocent, nor would you even see them if there were.
The Bible traces this wrath back to Cain, the first murderer, who kills his brother Abel in a fit of jealous rage; but the roots of it lie with Adam and Eve, our first parents, in their disobedience and exile, their grief over their loss, their frustration that they can never regain paradise. We know this story only too well. Take an ordinary example drawn from a family album: a man marries a wonderful woman, goes about the next twenty years ruining their marriage by his own abuse and neglect until she finally leaves him, then spends the rest of his life chewing over his disappointment, mixing it into a perfect stew of resentment and self-pity, telling himself the story over and over again, how she never understood him, that he was the real victim, and so on. It’s the saddest thing imaginable, the way we so often prefer to live in our own darkness of pride and self-justification rather than in the light of God’s freedom and grace, so long as gaining that freedom means admitting we were wrong and that we’re sorry. It’s a miserable house to live in, the house of wrath, but sometimes we’d rather die than leave it.
The truth is that this tide of human wrath is a dark extension of something far greater, namely the wrath of God. That wrath is no mere emotion on God’s part— it is the tide of consequence unleashed in the face of God’s offended justice, the righteous anger of the Most High in response to human sin, to our insistence on living the way things rather than the way they ought to be. Divine wrath is God’s thunder calling our attention back to the moral foundations of the universe, and proclaiming God’s absolute refusal to accommodate Himself to our degradation of His image in us. It hurts us the way physical pain hurts us, as an alarm sending a message throughout our nature that something must change or we will die. Sometimes when we are in pain, we must rage before we can weep, and that is the case here, in John’s story of Christ’s passion, where our human wrath at being under God's judgment meets God's final answer, which is not wrath at all, but mercy.
This solution is completely unexpected. God neither mollifies nor condemns us. He does not spout judgments or wag his finger in our faces. Instead he erases our sin by his mercy, erasing the wrath as well. God does this through three specific actions of Jesus Christ his only and eternal Son, through the way He speaks, the way He endures, and the way He absorbs.
First, Jesus speaks truth. If you read this story carefully, you will find that whenever anyone else but Jesus opens their mouths they are angling for position or power. Jesus alone speaks straight from the Father’s heart with no concern about what it will cost him. For this I was born, He says to Pilate, and for this I came into the world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice. Standing before the judgment seat of this world, Jesus embodies and holds before us the perfect image of human integrity, the dignity we had before we fell, and He invites us to receive that dignity again, to be among those who are of the truth and so can hear His voice. We cannot create that dignity by anything we do. We must receive it as a gift from Him. Here, before Pilate, Jesus announces that gift and prepares to take it into the darkest recesses of human existence.
Jesus does that by enduring suffering. Read the story again, and you will find that all the guilty actors fall over each other trying to escape the consequences of their actions, while the one innocent man who deserves no punishment, does nothing to avoid it. The Pharisees incite the crowds, the crowds coerce Pilate, Pilate finally throws the burden onto Jesus and washes his hands, as if that could clean up anything. And, because the only way to end this game is for someone to take responsibility for the whole thing, someone great enough, and innocent enough, to offer a sacrifice permanent enough to stop the endless cycle of offense and retribution, and because that someone can only be God, Jesus the eternal Word made flesh simply endures, taking upon himself, in the words of Isaiah, the stripes that heal us, the wounds that reconcile us, the chastisement that makes us whole.
Finally, as Jesus takes upon himself our suffering, He absorbs our wrath. John wants us to see that it is not only the rage of the crowds, of the priests or of the guards that leave their mark on the Lord’s naked and bleeding body. The Savior offers himself on the Cross with His arms outstretched, to take into His own heart of love every insult we have suffered or hurled, every curse we have borne or muttered, every blame we have received or tried to transfer from ourselves to another, just as his body absorbs every cut and bruise from the lash and the thorns and the nails. As the letter to the Ephesians puts it, in this way He reconciles us in one body to God through the Cross, thereby putting our wrath to death in him. And the end result is peace, peace with God so that we might have peace with one another.
How much are we now in need of that peace! We live in a time when a surplus of rage seems to fill everything. I know of some families who will not share a table at Easter because of the way someone voted in November. Things we once would never have dreamed of saying to one another, words of gross indecency, implacable fury, accusations and insults of the basest kind, now have become the common stuff of public speech. We shame our elders, dismiss our friends, and poison the well for our children. We lose sight of our own guilt, and along with it we lose the urgency of repentance and the possibility of reconciliation. But here on Calvary, there is always time, always mercy, always another chance to trade in our twisted nature for the dignity God declares is ours through the merits of His Son. So let us bring our anger here, and leave it at the Cross. Through all He has spoken, all He has suffered, all He has taken into Himself, Christ has given us his peace, so that we might carry it into the world and give it away. If you struggle as you do so, if you find the old sins coming back as they will, and the old resentments burning bright again, as they may, then leave them at the Cross again; come back as often as it takes, but each time, try to hear his voice a bit more clearly as he says, Peace I give to you, my own peace I leave with you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. And if, as you live in the world, you are tempted to meet wrath with wrath, insult with insult, take a step back, take a deep breath and remember what He has said: It is finished. The wrath is ended. He has overcome the world.