A sermon preached by Bishop Humphrey Southern at our online service for Good Friday, 10 April 2020, 2pm.
This is the third hour, the climax and the nadir of Golgotha. The darkness is at its deepest and the silence at its most profound. We have reached the third hour.
Perhaps this year that sense of darkness and of silence, of bleak lost-ness, is more palpable than we have ever before experienced, or even imagined. We are now on Calvary. We have arrived at Golgotha. This is the third hour for us.
In Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ passion this moment is marked by that terrible cry of despair: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And that may be speaking powerfully into our experience just now. Calvary was a God-forsaken place for Jesus, and this third hour time of coronavirus can easily be experienced by us as God-forsaken too.
But the Gospel account traditionally appointed for reading on Good Friday, is not Mark’s or Matthew’s (or Luke’s), but John’s. And, as we have just heard, John’s account reads significantly differently.
There isa great cry in John’s Gospel account from the heart of the silence and the depth of the darkness, but it is not a cry of forsakenness, but of something very different indeed. ‘Tetelestai!’– ‘It is finished!’ – not (let this be emphasised) uttered as a whisper of surrender, the dying gasp of one defeated, but as a shout of triumph. Jesus, we are told, ‘cried out in a loud voice tetelestai’. As countless translators and commentators have insisted the sense is clear of the verb and the tense used: it is finished. All is done. All has been completed.
Yet – and devastatingly in our experience this year – we are bound to protest that it is not! The darkness and the silence – not least the darkness and silence of our churches – persist and will persist, on and on through this day and this season, through Easter itself, and into the uncertain future of an indeterminate lock-down with its social isolation, the agonising separation of families and loved ones, its sacrifice, loss and anxiety. In so many ways, ‘it’ is not finished. Or so we want to insist from the depths of our experience. For this is our reality.
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken [us]?’
And yet, and yet, and yet… let us not forget or ignore the immediate context of that great shout of triumph of triumph – of completion – in the Gospel we have just heard. In the darkness, in the silence and the abandonment, when there was no sign of hope, or of rescue that is when Christ proclaimed his victory. Where Mark’s and Matthew’s Jesus cries out forsakenness, John’s in the same moment shouts out triumph, and there is no contradiction between the two.
That is the mystery, and that the paradox – that the full salvation – of the cross of Christ. ‘Where life was lost, there life has been restored’. Where humanity is most in despair, there God, nailed to the cross, is most real, and most powerful.
It cannot be said too frequently or too insistently: Easter morning, when it comes, does not cancel out, or negate, or sponge away Good Friday. It confirms it, and seals it.
It is in the depths that Christ is victor; in the depths that God is known; in the depths thattetelestai, it is finished. This is where and when and how Christ is triumphant – in the darkness and the bleakness, where despair is most real and fear most powerful:
- in the ITU wards, among the exhausted staff and their agonised, tortured patients;
- in the care homes with their shortages of equipment and feelings of being overlooked and under-resourced;
- in the Government offices and ministries, among the commentators and modellers, the economists and the epidemiologists;
- in the silenced and locked church buildings and among the bewildered faithful who are excluded from them.
- Above all, in the devastated and separated families and communities nursing their anxieties, griefs and nameless dreads where death has visited, or may yet still.
In all these places and in all these circumstances where the cry goes up ‘My God, my God, why …, the same saving truth holds good. Tetelestai! It is finished! Love triumphs.
And this is what it looks like. Amen.