25th March 2016, Good Friday
by Revd Chris Palmer
at St John's, High Path
There’s a Good Friday sermon, famous in certain Christian circles, by the American preacher Tony Campolo. The sermon is summarised in one line, ‘It’s Friday, but Sunday is coming’. In fact, it’s not Tony Campolo’s sermon at all really, because the story goes that he was in a preach off – a kind of preachers’ beauty contest. And Tony Campolo was a junior pastor, young, and thought he was great. And he stood up and preached with all his might. And at the end rather self-satisfied, he sat down, and taunted his senior pastor, ‘you beat that!’. And the senior pastor said, ‘just watch son!’ And he stood up, and started real low key, ‘It’s Friday, but Sunday is coming’. And over the next hour he gradually built it up.
‘People are saying that as thing are, so they’ll be, that you can’t change things in this world. But I’m here to give you the good news. It’s Friday, but Sunday is coming…’
And he got the people to join in: ‘It’s Friday… but Sunday is coming’
‘Friday. They’re saying that a bunch of old people meeting in church can’t change things in their community and world. But I’m here to tell you the good news. It’s only Friday… but Sunday is coming.’
Well you can imagine. And Tony Campolo would have been mighty disappointed in our British, Anglican reserve at joining in.
But the point of he makes is correct. The church always celebrates Good Friday in the light of Easter Day. There is no sense in which we are here today to mourn the passing of Jesus and attend his funeral. We are not called to pretend that when Easter Day arrives it’s a surprise, as it was for the first disciples.
No, we encounter the death of Jesus, as the death of our risen and living Lord. The message of the cross which the church can only see in the light of the resurrection, that Jesus’ death is a moment of salvation, a moment of victory, a moment when love triumphs – these are the message of today.
The hymn we will finish with – ancient, ancient hymn for Good Friday, from the sixth century – says it well:
Royal banners forward go,
the cross shines forth in mystic glow’
Even on Good Friday, the cross is alight with the glory of God. That’s not simply something we discover unexpectedly on Sunday.
So why are we so sad? Why don’t we just have a jolly party today. After all it’s Good Friday. And if the cross is the means of salvation, and we know the resurrection is coming, why don’t we simply treat today as a feast day? Songs of Praise, voluntaries on the organ rather than silence before and after, and Alleluias – oop! The word I’m not allowed to say before Saturday night – and celebration.
‘It’s Friday… but Sunday is coming’. So why do we even have the sorrow of the passion, the pain of the death, the silence of the grave?
And here’s the main point that I want to make. It’s precisely because we know that Resurrection is the end of the story, that we can face pain now, without flinching. If suffering and loss and anguish were the only future we could see, then we would be looking for a way out – an anaesthetic, a running away from pain into… well almost anything that will distract us. It is because we believe that hatred and wrong and crippling sickness are NOT God’s final word, that we can stay with them now.
And so the Good Friday liturgy, invites us to stay with those who suffer. To be with the victims of the Brussels attacks, of the Syrian war, of the hatred brewing in Burundi, with children abandoned by adults to live on the streets in many poor cities in South America and Asia, with the friend dying painfully of cancer, with the person who believes life is worthless.
Of course these are hard things to stay present to. We so often want to run away – like the disciples who abandoned Jesus. We run away, by choosing not to watch the difficult news, avoiding the person who’s faced tragedy because we don’t know what to say, having an affair that promises sweetness and light because engaging with our real relationship is hard, drowning our sorrows in booze rather than feeling our sadness, working hard to make other people like us because we don’t really like ourselves.
I once went to visit a lady whose husband had died. She had a friend there. Every time the widow became tearful talking about her lost husband, her friend jumped up, ‘O don’t cry love. Remember the happy times. Hey, shall we think about the music for the service instead…’ It was a catastrophic inability to let grief be felt. And it was entirely self-serving, because what widow needed to do was cry, and have someone there whilst she cried, and her friend was merely giving pain relief to her own discomfort.
‘It’s Friday… but Sunday is coming…’ Which means we can sit with Friday, and we don’t need to offer ignorant solutions to problems, because God’s life will out. We can be with whatever we face, without an exit strategy, because God’s joy is assured. Mother Julian of Norwich famously said, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’ It is that confidence that allows us to be in Good Friday, in the sorrow of the liturgy, in the pain of the world.
But that’s not the only thing. If you go back to that Tony Campolo sermon – or rather the sermon his senior pastor preached. The aim of the sermon was actually to mobilise a congregation that lacked confidence, who believed that the problems of America in that era – racial hatred, young people without prospects, grinding poverty – were something they could do nothing about. He wanted to mobilise them to believe that they, as he said, ‘a bunch of old people meeting in church’, could impact their community.
Because the other anaesthetic we are tempted to is despair. We might imagine that despair is very different from other ways of running away – into drugs, or illicit relationships, or overwork. But actually I think that despair also is a compulsive behaviour, a compulsive mind set, in which sorrow and grief (which are entirely good things) take a misdirection. Despair is a hardening of these things, so that the soft, empathetic, tender feelings of sadness, are calcified into a kind of fatalism: ‘It’s awful and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ And then we hide behind this despair, to protect us from the pain of engaging.
This is cowardly retreat and nothing to do with the Gospel – and nothing to do with Good Friday. One of the remarkable things about the story today, is that Jesus remains engaged with his own and other people’s needs, even when others run away. On the cross he’s concerned for Mary and John – and offering them the chance for care and relationship – ‘women, behold your son’, ‘behold, your mother’. He’s engaged with the needs of the penitent thief – ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. He’s engaged with the needs of those who crucify him – ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And he’s not frightened to name his own spiritual pain – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ – which is not a cry of fatalistic despair, but of passionate engagement.
And Jesus invites us also to engagement. What are the problems that weigh on your heart? Issues in our community, High Path regeneration, sick neighbours, friends with dementia. Issues of terror, Brussels, Syria. Issues in your life, broken friendships, financial problems. Issues on a global scale, 20% of people are hungry, children dying of curable illnesses.
It’s Friday, but Sunday is coming… And that is a call to become active with and among these problems. The question is not what can’t we do, but what can we do. The point is not to do good from a safe height, but rather to recognise how our own wellbeing is intimately bound with others wellbeing – how we are called to serve each other. On a national scale, I truly believe that the refuge Britain is frightened to give to Syrian refugees, would actually be repaid many times by the insight, richness, and large-heartedness that they would bring to our national life. What is the equivalent for us, for our church’s, for you?
I do feel at moments that there is a rhetoric of despair or small-vision around our churches in this team. But it’s Friday… and Sunday is coming… And we can be a presence in this part of Merton, in Colliers Wood, in South Wimbledon. We have the resources, because God gives us the resources, to love our community, and speak amidst its pain.
It’s Friday, but Sunday is coming. And we can be a Good Friday people because we are also an Easter people.