a sermon for Good Friday
“But I am a worm, and not human. Scorned by others, and despised by the people.” Psalm 22:6
Pastor Karl-Heinz Nickel, the long-time pastor of Trinity Church in the small eastern German town of Gommern, presided over a very small parish whose numbers had dwindled almost to nothing during the years of the Communist Party’s dictatorship. Once the Berlin Wall came down and the two Germanys—the open west and the closed east—were reunited, Pastor Nickel had hoped that the church would experience some type of revival. Slowly, over the years, some people did come back to the congregation—some that were reacquainting themselves with a faith of their grandparents, others who were just curious. But overall things stayed fairly quiet.
I got to know Pastor Nickel during the year I lived in Gommern, and I was interested to know just why the Christian church in the former East Germany had fared so poorly compared to the church in the free west? Why had so many people essentially left the faith in the years of the communist regime? He and I had several discussions about it, and he tried to explain that communist rule implemented certain policies that made it almost impossible for the church to survive. For example, if one decided to be confirmed, which typically happened at age 15 or 16, then that person could not become a legal member of the Communist Party, which was the only ticket to most careers in adulthood. Understandably, that turned a lot of young people off to faith in general. The government also enacted many policies that made it difficult for congregations to raise funds for upkeep and for staff, and since people didn’t have a lot of personal disposable income anyway, as a result of the command economy, churches fell into disrepair.
But I remember that Pastor Nickel said that despite all of these official governmental obstacles to the flourishing of the church, the thing that probably was the worst to deal with was that Christian faith was, by and large in society, “lӓcherlich gemacht.” That is, Christian faith was made fun of, or, more accurately translated, made to look ridiculous. It wasn’t a formal policy—it was just the way faith in God was treated by people in common society. People were seen as simpletons and idiots for actually believing in things God and worshiping on Sunday and professing the power of sacrificial love. I think could detect in his voice a slight sadness and resignation as he told me. Being made to look ridiculous proved to be the biggest burden of faith. And yet they persisted.
The trials of Pastor Nickel and his flock are an extreme example, but even today in America we can feel shame for our beliefs. Even being made to wear a face mask can be humiliating. And yet tonight we all gather to remember that the defining moment of Jesus’ life was being made to look ridiculous. How can Jesus’ followers in this life ever really expect to be the cool kids, the admired and strong, when the head himself is wounded at the pinnacle of his ministry? He hangs naked in a position of complete humiliation, hands nailed outstretched. He needs water to slake his thirst; his tormentors give him vinegar.
And that’s just the ending of it. The moment he is brought before Pontius Pilate and the soldiers it is one moment of embarrassment after another. The scarlet robe they put on him is meant to be joke. The crown of thorns is a cruel trick by his bullies. When they cast lots for his clothes as he dies, it underlines how weak and insignificant he is. He didn’t even have enough property to divide, and what he had wasn’t large enough to rip in two. Could you imagine what it would feel like to watch people you didn’t know, your haters, try to divide your belongings while you were still alive?
What a strange way to be a God. What a peculiar way to show your divinity, your dazzling other-worldly strength—to let yourself be mocked and derided when it would be completely in your power to silence them all, when it would be completely within your power to flash across the earth in a blaze of glory and amaze them all. The Tuesday morning adult Bible study this spring is reading a book together called Making Sense of the Cross by former Philadelphia Seminary president David Lose. It’s a great title, but I think the cross is hard to make sense of, and this is one place where I’d want to start. How does humiliation really accomplish anything good? The East German rulers figured out that it is an effective way to crush a religion.
Even if he is not delighted with it, Jesus himself understands that humiliation is part of God’s plan to restore humanity to God’s love. On the cross many of Jesus words are prayers that come straight from Psalm 22, an ancient prayer of the Hebrew Bible that articulates what it’s like to be totally rejected. As he dies it’s like he’s saying his prayers:
For dogs are all around me, a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled.
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me.”
If we must make sense of the cross, then it starts by understanding God does not send Jesus simply to be mocked and tortured and encircled by evildoers. God sends Jesus to be human in a pure and selfless way. God sends Jesus to love in the way all people were created to love. And once that gets going in this dark world, the cross becomes inevitable. That is, it becomes clear pretty quickly that God’s love in Jesus must come down to meet us where we are, to search all of us out, to stand with humanity wherever humanity is found. Even when it is found in shame. Even when that shame is death.
It doesn’t feel like victory tonight. I realize that. But it truly is the best victory the world can ever hope to make sense of: the cross. To all those who have ever been made fun of, to all those who have been mocked for who you are and where you stand, to all those who haven’t fit in, to everyone who hasn’t been selected for the in-groups, who has been left behind by popularity and success, who have been enslaved, discriminated, tonight should feel really good. Because tonight God says, “I see you.” God says, “I know you feel ridiculous. But you are holy stuff. God says, “My Son, by evildoers encirled, stands with you, and he will not leave.”
So just wait a little bit, just wait with me, and see what happens next.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.