As I was writing this Good Friday sermon, I had Emily Dickinson’s poem Tell It Slant going through my head:
Tell all the Truth
but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
Dickinson is warning us that as humans we want our truth to be moderated. Fearful and defended, we have a hard time with brutal truth. But she is also hinting at the ‘superb surprise’ that is hidden in The Truth. Each year on Good Friday, we find a grace-filled surprise for us hidden in the truth of Christ.
We are reminded that the Gospel of John is very different than the more tell it slant gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Those gospels add dramatic detail to mitigate the shock of the Messiah willingly walking to a gruesome and degrading death, but John’s gospel does not.
In John’s gospel, Jesus does not ask for the cup of suffering to be taken from him, is not deserted by all the disciples, is not subject to the jeers of “Save Yourself!”, carries his own cross, does not talk to the crucified thieves, does not forgive his tormentors, and does not cry out Psalm 22 about the abandonment of God. These are not in the gospel of John. The curtain in the temple does not split in John. John’s gospel, which begins with Jesus’ cosmic presence in Genesis, is clear about Christ’s earthly mission and ends with a forthright sureness of Jesus’ acceptance of the cross.
When 600 soldiers are led by Judas into the garden to arrest Jesus with torches and weapons, the eyewitness account of John tells us, “Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, ’For whom are you looking? They answered, Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus replied, “I am he,’ they stepped back and fell to the ground.”
I have been watching quite a few murder mysteries in the pandemic and I must say that is an odd reaction to a suspect identifying himself. So odd that Jesus asks them again, “For whom are you looking?’ and they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he.” And Jesus steps forward.
Why is this “I am” statement of Jesus so powerful that it knocks the soldiers to their knees? Because Jesus is using the same words that Yahweh used at the burning bush, when Moses asks, “Who shall I tell them sent me?” and God replies, “I am who I am. Say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
We don’t know what to make of this name for God—the “I am.” “I am” in Hebrew basically means “I exist.” God tells Moses to tell the Israelites that God exists and has sent someone to save them. We can connect that to Jesus here in the garden, when he uses the same words to show us that God exists and the “I am” has come. The gospel of John makes it clear that the God of the Exodus Passover is the God who came as Christ to be the “I am” with us, to save us.
Jesus makes seven other astounding “I am” claims in the Gospel of John that reveal the details of his upside-down kingdom–I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate for the sheep, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection, I am the way, the truth and the life, and I am the true vine. John states the point of his gospel is “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John connects Jesus’s “I am” statements in a through line to the Cross. This is a Jesus who knows what is happening and gives himself up willingly.
When we think of the blood of the lamb over the doorways of the people of Israel to spare them from the angel of death in the plagues, we see that as a sign of deliverance and care. But when we think of Christ on the cross, bruised and battered, we have a hard time reconciling Jesus as the same Passover Lamb. We say it in our communion service, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” At Passover, the blood was a sign of life—the deliverance from death. It was like those stickers to alert Fire fighters that there are pets or children in the house and not to forget them. It was a sign of rescue and the goodness of God.
On Good Friday, we can remember our baptism when we are buried with Christ in his death. The baptismal liturgy tells us that we are led out of bondage like the children of Israel through his death and resurrection. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. What is the sign we are marked with? The sign of the cross—an instrument of torture and death. We are marked like the sign above the door at Passover saying, “Nothing more needs to be done here. This is the mark of ‘paid in full.’”
The gospel of John is read on Good Friday because it is the only gospel that has the most powerful statement we will ever hear or need to hear. “It is finished.” We cannot hear this enough from Jesus. In Greek it meant, “Paid in Full,” or “Completed.” We are saved not by what we do but by what Christ has done. So much of our lives feel unfinished and we feel responsible to finish them—children, jobs, retirement, thoughts—but this one thing is done. There is not more to do to be acceptable to God. It is finished. Take off your religious super cape and put it in a drawer. You do not need to earn God’s love, acceptance or forgiveness. It is done. You have been made complete by Christ. Nothing you do can ever change the completeness of Christ’s loving sacrifice for you. God has outsacrificed you on the cross and ended that system forever.
Sally Lloyd-Jones wrote: “Jesus could have just climbed down [off the cross]. Actually, he could have just said a word and made it all stop. Like when he healed that little girl. And stilled the storm. And fed the 5,000 people. But Jesus stayed. You see, it wasn’t the nails that kept Jesus there. It was love.” A grace-filled surprise hidden in the cross.
As I read the scriptures this year, possibly coming out of the pandemic but still being out of church, I wonder if maybe this day, Good Friday, is a day to admit and recognize my rescue story. A day to say, “Thank you, Jesus, for putting the rescue sign on my head when I didn’t even know it.” A day for those of us who have felt the “I am” life preserver and come to stand, overwhelmed, at the foot of the cross.
It’s God’s Friday, Good Friday.