The Dangerous Gospel of Good Friday

What follows is the text of the sermon I gave for our Good Friday service, only an hour ago.

Today is Good Friday, the day that we commemorate the death of our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ.

On Sunday, we will have Easter. Easter is one of those times of year where many people that we would not normally see in church will come. They will come, because Easter Sunday is a day of hope. It’s the day that we celebrate the new life that comes with resurrection. It’s a wonderful day to start a Christian journey, or to reaffirm a journey that we’ve gone astray from. New life is something that we always seek; every year, every month, every day, we seek to “wipe the slate clean” to “start fresh.” And so, we all come on Easter Sunday, to celebrate the chance at new, abundant life that Jesus gave us when He walked out of the tomb. And we call Good Friday “good”, because we believe that Jesus took our old lives to the cross, so that we could have this new life on Sunday.

But, today is not Sunday. Today is Friday. And, while the Gospel of Easter Sunday is affirming, and joyful, and comfortable, the Gospel of Good Friday is dangerous, controversial, and solemn. Yet, we ignore this Gospel at our own peril.
This dangerous Gospel begins in the Garden, when Jesus says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” It continues when Jesus tells His disciples to “put away their swords” in defense of their lives and His. It reaches a climax when Jesus, accused before the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, answers the charges laid before Him with a simple, “It is as you say.” And, it culminates with Jesus looking at His enemies, the ones who had nailed Him to the cross, and saying, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

This dangerous Gospel demands more than it gives. It calls us to death, rather than new life. It strips us of our rights, our privileges, our pride and our freedom, and gives us a cross. Resurrection Sunday offers us a crown of glory, but all that Good Friday has to offer is a crown of thorns. Easter gives us clean and shining white robes, but Good Friday divides our garments and strips us naked.

What will we do with this dangerous, perilous Gospel? Will we run and hide, in fear of our lives, as most of the disciples did? Will we deny that we know Jesus, as Peter did? Will we stand helplessly at the foot of the cross, as Mary and John did? Will we recognize the innocence of the Son of God, as the murderer next to Jesus did? Will we help Him carry the cross, as Simon of Cyrene did? Or, will we stand and mock him for His impotence, as the Roman soldiers did?

The call to follow Jesus on Good Friday is a call to die “to” and to die “for”. When Jesus told His disciples, “Whoever would come after me must take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life, will lose it. But, whoever will lose his life, for my sake, will find it”, He was not using a spiritual metaphor. They lived under a brutal occupation by the most powerful empire in the world, and the message that they spread would have dire consequences for them. We can see the evidence for the literal meaning of Jesus’ call in the way that so many of His disciples died in the same way that He did.
So, the first and most important lesson that we can learn from this dangerous Gospel, is that the call to die may very well be literal. Many Christians around the world understand this. As we sit, comfortably, in this church, there are thousands across the world who live in fear of a very physical death, such as the university students in Kenya, who were dragged out of a worship service and killed just this week. Christians in Iraq and Syria live in fear of extremists who drag them into the streets and behead them, regularly. Christians in Communist regimes worship in secret, for fear of a State that will not tolerate any form of religious expression. For these Followers of Jesus, the decision to follow Jesus is a literal laying down of their lives.

But, as Americans, we do not understand this as fully as we should. We have always lived in a country where the greatest persecution we suffer is the insults of those who do not share our faith. In our country, we worship in public. We have prayer breakfasts in government buildings, we have churches on every street corner, the words “Under God” are enshrined in our pledge of allegiance, the words “In God We Trust” printed on every dollar bill that comes into circulation. For us, the idea of death in the name of Jesus is an abstract, a hypothetical. We may boldly proclaim that we are willing, but would we still proclaim as boldly if our faith was put to the test, if our lives were truly threatened?

In this culture, the things that we have to die to are much more subtle. When we Christians talk of dying, we often talk of dying to our sin, dying to the world. But, there are things that we must die to that we would balk at. Dying to our sin is easy, compared to the cross that Jesus would have us bear. Dying to “the world” is a cop-out, when we see the Savior inviting us to share in His suffering. Jesus tells us that we must die to ourselves: everything that comprises ourselves. We must die to our pride. We must die to our concept of freedom, of liberty, of rights. We must die to our families: our parents, spouses, children, friends.

We must die to our responsibilities. I heard a tragic story recently of a young man. This young man went to a Chrysalis retreat, and he came back full of fire, passion and zeal. He literally wanted to leave everything that he had behind, and go and use the skills that he had cultivated as a carpenter to build houses in third-world countries. He was committed to this course, until a very well-meaning relative said, “You can’t do that. You have to get a job, you have to go to college, you have responsibilities.”

That young man was ready to die to everything that he had built and cultivated in his short life, and he was ready to die for a group of people that he had never met. But, someone told him that he couldn’t, that the call was too much, too foolish. And now, that young man drifts through life, unfulfilled, restless, because the call that he answered, the call to die, was also his hope of resurrection. It was denied to him, because he was told that the cross was too heavy, that he had another cross to bear, the false cross of responsibility.

How often do we, in this culture, chase these responsibilities, these activities, things to fill the emptiness, the lack of fulfillment? How many of us have burned in our hearts to do something radical, something dangerous, something so perilous and foolish that it can only be a call from Jesus? How many of us have quenched that fire in our hearts with the responsibilities that we have made an article of our faith?

If we are to follow Jesus on Good Friday, we must learn that our responsibilities are often nothing more than a well-dressed idol. They are an outgrowth of our pride, our need to be important to the world around us, our need to have purpose in a world that so often seems purposeless. Yet, Jesus demands only one purpose for us on Good Friday: a long road to a lonely hill, and a cross. He calls us to be despised by those for whom we wish to be so important, to surrender the rights and the earthly responsibilities that we have filled our lives with. He calls us to be fulfilled in death.

To follow Jesus on Good Friday, it is not enough to die “to”, we must also die “for.” We call this Friday “Good” because Jesus died “for” us. So, if we are to follow Jesus on this road, who do we die for? We die for the same ones that Jesus died for. We die for the poor, the helpless, the hopeless, the broken, the bloodied, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. We die for the young veteran in our congregation who can’t see a way to go on living. We die for the young mother who worries about how to pay the rent, how to put food on the table, how to raise children with a spouse who is either absent or non-existent. We die for the desperately drug addicted man, whose only hope lies in a needle in his arm. We die for the man on the side of the road, holding a cardboard sign, living without pride or dignity. We die for the senior citizen, who has to choose between buying food and buying medicine. We die for the parent of the adult child, who wonders day and night if their child still lives, after months and years of not hearing from them. We die for the thieves and the murders. We die for the prostitutes and the pimps. We die for the Muslim, for the black person, for the immigrant, for the terrorist, for the hypocrite. We die for them when we die to ourselves, when we make the task of being Jesus to them our only responsibility, our only purpose. We die for them when we give up our time, our energy, our money, to minister to their physical needs, as well as their spiritual.

In 2006, I went to Iraq for the first time. In 2008, I went for the second time. And, by June of 2012, I was only a shell of the person that I had once been. I had purpose, I had responsibilities, but it was all I was. I was crushed by all the things in my life that made me feel important, that made me feel useful. My family, my duty to my country, my responsibilities to the soldiers under my command, my responsibilities to the commander that I served… all of it made me popular in the eyes of those I worked with. It made me valuable to those that I served. And yet, for all the acclaim and value that I had cultivated, I could not see a way to go on living. And so, on a normal day in June, I woke up in the morning and decided to take my own life. I would leave no note: my life was my note. I simply decided to drive as fast as I could into a utility pole on Peacher’s Mill, which I drove down every day.

As I passed the stop light at the intersection of Peacher’s Mill and Creek Coyote, I saw a church sign. I had passed this church many times, but today was different. Today, I was ready to die. And, the sign said something simple, something like, “God loves you, and so do we.” That simple message, that profound statement, made me buckle my seatbelt, slow down my car, and find a new way to live.

But, I died that day. SGT Woywood, a man who was respected for all of the responsibilities that he was willing to undertake, ceased to be. And, over a period of months spent in this sacred space, that man was resurrected into the man you see here today, a man who tries so desperately to make his only responsibility that of following Jesus. A man who has died, but who has discovered that it was the only way to be reborn, the only way to find new life.

I want to die for each of you. I want to die for those that Jesus died for. I want to be like the young man who was willing to leave everything to die for those who live in desperate poverty and homelessness.

I want to be a Good Friday follower, not just an Easter Sunday follower. I want a dangerous Gospel, not a comfortable one. I want to die before I am resurrected.

Do we all want that? Or do we only want to worship the triumphant Jesus coming out of the tomb, and ignore the Jesus who willingly went to the cross?

Will we live for our rights, our freedoms, or will we die to them? Will we chase after our responsibilities, or will we carry them with us to the cross? Will we seek a crown of glory, or a crown of thorns? Will we accept only an easy path to new life, or will we desire the dangerous, but authentic, road to death?

I found a quote some time ago, and it so perfectly encapsulates what I’ve been trying to say tonight, that I must share it as I close.

“Religion seeks to transform a man; the Cross seeks to crucify him. Religion may fail to bring about the desired result, but the Cross never fails to achieve its end. Mankind will pursue morality, virtue, spirituality, even perform religious works and good deeds, in order to avoid death on a Cross. But there are no wounds, no scars, no evidence of having ever died and been made alive again unto God. Either a man has never died, or he has died and been raised again. You cannot fake a resurrection.” – Chip Brogden

Sisters and brothers, will we follow Jesus unto death? Will we follow Him, though it means scars? Will we follow Him, though it means death to everything that we hold dear? Will we follow Him, though it means giving our life for the least, the last and the lost? For it is only in dying with Him on Good Friday that we can ever have hope of a true, authentic resurrection on Easter Sunday. Because the straight and narrow that Jesus would have us walk is only as straight as the road to Golgotha, and exactly as narrow as the cross on which Jesus died for love.