Ultimate Witness

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, 12:00 noon, April 14, 2017, Good Friday.

Text: John 18:1-19:42


What happened on this day all those years ago?  I know we just heard the story.  We know that Jesus was betrayed, denied, beaten, mocked, crucified.  But why?  One of the oldest answers to that question is explained like this:  human beings were like inmates in a prison of sin. There was no way we could get ourselves out.  So God sent Jesus to be our bail.  Jesus gives his life to cash in ours.  He dies, we go free.  There are lots of reasons this has been such a common explanation for centuries.  It resonates with the story of Passover and the sacrificial lamb whose life is given in order to save the lives of God’s people. (Ex 12:1-13)  The so-called substitutionary atonement theory of the cross makes sense insofar as we know that there is damage we have done in our lives that can’t ever be fully repaired, that there are human messes to which we have contributed, messes that are beyond our capacity to clean up.  In other words, the price is too much to redeem what has been done—we don’t have what it takes.  Only God does.  The bail-out theology of the cross handles this quite well.


I will grant that God is the only one who can save us and redeem this beautiful broken world.  But I take issue with the idea that the God who is love and mercy would be so cruel as to sacrifice the beloved son when divine mercy had spared Abraham and Isaac from so brutal a scene centuries before.  I simply don’t believe that God would intentionally add violence, brutality, and injustice to a world God labors to save from all those things.  It seems to me that the God of love and mercy will not be a blood-thirsty God who requires the blood of Jesus to let everyone off the hook.  After all, our God is the God of whom the Psalmist writes: “you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps 51:16-17)


So what happened on this day all those years ago if it was not a cosmic payoff?  Jesus, the embodiment of God’s grace and mercy, the embodiment of God’s love and justice, gave up his life instead of giving in to the powers that wanted him to conform, to be quiet, to go away, to stop protesting.  Jesus gave up his life instead of giving up his solidarity with the poor and oppressed.  Jesus was innocent of any crime, innocent as a child, innocent as a lamb.  And on this day, the beloved child whose only crime was telling the truth was executed by the state.  On this day, the gentle lamb was slain.


How can this great tragedy have any good in it?  What possible positive difference can such an outrage bring?  To say “Jesus died for our sakes” or “Jesus died for you” is not to say that Jesus is your “get out of jail free” card, but rather to say that Jesus died for love of you, because he wouldn’t forsake you.  Jesus died out of love for you and a desire that you should have abundant life.  Jesus died out of a love for you that led him to courageously stand up to all the things of this world that would do you harm, that poison your mind, that harden your heart, that tempt you to worship idols that steal your life.  Because of Jesus’s love for us, he didn’t back down from what threatens us even when he knew it would cost his life.


What happened on this day all those years ago is that Jesus becomes the ultimate witness, the one who shows us what it looks like to be truly and fully human as God intends.  Jesus bears witness to love, bears witness to courage, bears witness to mercy, forgiveness, patience, compassion.  Jesus shows us what it looks like to be a real friend, to have integrity, to do what is right even when it means risking everything.  That kind of witness is literally life-giving.  Fr. Oscar Romero was a Catholic priest in El Salvador who tirelessly spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture.  In 1980, Romero was assassinated while offering Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence.  The people who experienced the way that Fr. Romero lived and died were changed by his witness.  They knew he loved them, that he cared for them, that he was willing to risk everything for them.  I read that one of the peasants reflecting on Romero’s impact, simply said, “Before we were not, now we are.” 


What happened on this day all those years ago is that Jesus, the ultimate witness, shows us perfect love and faithfulness, and—if we are willing to look—we see our capacity to follow in Jesus’s way, to come alive in a new way, to be truly human.  And, as we are likely painfully aware, if we are willing to really look at Jesus on the cross we also see our capacity to be less than fully human, to be inhuman. As we look at Jesus on the cross, we are forced to witness the effects of our failure to love and to have compassion.  We are forced to reckon with our complicity in cross-building and torture, forced to reckon with the hardness of our own hearts, to reckon with the ways that our self-interest and idol-worship distract us from doing what is right and the ways we allow innocent people to be slaughtered while we are busy making our plans…


In the thirteenth century, Saint Bonaventure, a Franciscan monk and theologian wrote this prayer:  “O Lord…show us what kind of man it is who is hanging for our sakes on the cross, whose suffering causes the rocks themselves to crack and crumble with compassion, whose death brings the dead back to life. Let my heart crack and crumble at the sight of him. Let my soul break apart with compassion for his suffering. Let it be shattered with grief at my sins for which he dies. And finally let it be softened with devoted love for him.”[i]


What happened on this day all those years ago is that Jesus gives us the opportunity to look, to see perfect love crucified by human fear, greed, cruelty, and corruption.  And, as we look, to be changed, to have our hearts “crack and crumble.”  A cracked and crumbled heart is a “broken and contrite heart” and that, God will not despise…


When our hearts are broken open and we witness true love in this life, when we witness self-giving courage, when we witness loyalty and solidarity and true strength in humility, when someone stands up for us or fights for us or sacrifices for us, something happens to us. We are changed.  We see that we matter, that we are, that we are loved.  And when we look at Jesus on the cross we see that we are loved even when we are the ones responsible for his suffering.  And we are forgiven and given the chance to change. We are given the opportunity to grow in love and compassion and live the life we are made for. We are redeemed.  We are set free.



[i] Bonaventura 1217-74, The Tree of Life, ed. Eward Cousins, Classics of Western Christianity, SPCK
quoted from 2,000 Years of Prayer, compiled by Michael Counsell. http://edgeofenclosure.org/passion2.html