‘Going to Pilate, Joseph asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate ordered that it be given to him’ (Matthew 27 v 59)
At the end of the agony and the death of Jesus, there is stillness…
From St Matthew’s Gospel, the dead body of our Lord is taken down and the first rites of burial are completed. The body is placed in a new tomb, with honour and – as far as the authorities are concerned, with some anxiety. Why? Principally as a result of fear towards the disciples of this prophet of Nazareth, who people have followed, some of whom have even given up everything for. Last weekend, we recalled the shouts of Hosanna and now he is dead. The other bodies of those killed that day were of course thrown on the dunghill to be gnawed by the dogs and crows. Nobody would want to steal them and want to tell more stories about them.
The events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are for those of us who frequent churches, a penitent moment in the year; a time of reflection and silence. In many churches, during the service last night the place will have been stripped down, and the place this weekend, given over to cleaning, and flower arranging. For in these events, it is as if the place goes back to its beginning, and now will start again.
The Very Reverend Keith Jones, Dean of York and one point a spiritual director to me shared a story with me one Good Friday that when he was a parish priest in Ipswich on this day he used to go with dustpan and brush and sweep out the sanctuary of the church – a ritual that he felt was right. However, there is in this a cheerful sense of new beginnings all around, as if to say “There, that’s all over” now we can get on with Easter and enjoy it. Families come together, and it’s a long weekend, and for the first time in weeks it’s not an affront to see Easter eggs and Hot Cross Buns together in the shops.
For us who have given up something for Lent, we can decide to give it up for one last time and then resume our indulgence with a better conscience on Easter Day. Before we enjoy the special flavour of Easter where jubilation will breaks over us, we pause to consider the finished work of God.
I would like to share an alternative, or less common Good Friday message in that sense: some of this might be too catholic for you, but please stay with me. It is believed by ancient writers that Good Friday was not the end but that Jesus still had work to do and that while Our Lord body‘s was laid in the grave, he went and preached to the souls in the underworld. In the First Epistle of Peter, it says that the people he went to in particular were the neighbours of Noah, who were swept away in the flood without the benefit of Noah’s ark. Now these people, according to the belief, had been very wicked – and “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually”. Nevertheless, measure this with today; they had no churches or chapels, no guardians of public morality to help them, like arguably we have now. So, it could seem on the surface that this seemed unfair. And so now, to put everything right, Jesus goes to give them, at last, a chance of responding to him. I have to say this strikes me as a rather curious and quaint idea.
Yet on the other hand, this grows out of a striking realization. It is, that whatever happened on the hill of Golgotha in Jerusalem which we remember today sometime in what we call the AD 30s, it had universal repercussions. How odd to think of the wicked people who laughed at Noah for building his ark! But if you could think that Jesus’s death had implications for them, what about all the countless people of history who have never heard of the death on Calvary, those who have no idea of what Christianity is about, and have died in their generation. Of course what has happened has some implications for them.
There are, I know, some Christians who are very tough minded about salvation. Why? Because, they can consider that the heathen have simply had it, along with un-baptised children, and the people next door who never go to church and the people who go to the wrong church down the road: especially them. We all know those kinds of people. What a lovely feeling I suspect it gives them, to think that the Lord in his mercy has chosen to save them, as he saved Noah in his ark! The difficulty for many of us is that such tough-mindedness strikes us as immoral and because rigid and I would agree. This is not, conversely how the first disciples saw it in the early church. They rather saw in this death as a surge of love and forgiveness being made to all sorts, even the most remote and unexpected. They saw a universe in need, and God reaching out to draw all those who will respond to himself.
So better to say that the reason we call this Friday Good is because God has also reached out, and does reach out, and will reach out patiently, so that the human race may have a surer and surer hold on faith, hope and love. It is not that the world is full of evil, but that the good is so scattered, and thus so goodness and promise is squandered.
Through our readings, hymns and reflections tonight, we have seen not only the courage and love of Our Lord Jesus, but also the readiness of hearts then and now to receive him and treasure him. So, what indeed about us – you and I gathered here tonight? We too have mixed motives and puzzled interest in these events. We are not all good, but also not all bad either. Here, with the work of Christ presented before us, God calls us to imitate what a human life should be. He wants our lives to make proper sense, to be stronger in generosity, and more joyous. There is something of heaven now if you will take it! Let him cleanse the rooms of your soul, and drive out the darkness! Let your ageing, and your dying, be no cause of fear because of the life you share with Christ which is stronger than that. Let your small mindedness and meanness of spirit be swallowed up in thankfulness and happiness – not of the specially churchy version of those things, which look bogus at 200 yards, but simply the truth about life.
A life shared with Christ does not guarantee us of a parking space, freedom from illness, late trains, or even losing your credit card. But Christ was on the cross for you and me, that we should bear these and all other ills with the greater peace; and should live with our neighbours more lovingly and with our world more respectfully. So on Easter Day in this place, I hope that we will come together again and turn from evil and follow him who by his death has brought us into a new life.
The collect for Good Friday
Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold us, your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen