April 7, 2023

Matthew 26:14 – 27:66

“Why Do We Call it Good?”

On Good Friday, I don’t always preach a sermon. Sometimes we just let the scriptures speak for themselves. We tell the story of Jesus’ last day. We journey with him through the agony of his passion. And we pause at the foot of the cross to mourn for a while, because Jesus our Lord is crucified.

But this year, I wanted to preach. I wanted to spend some time with the event that we are remembering today, and to consider why it is such an important part of our Christian faith — why Good Friday, in many churches, is the most highly attended service of the year.

During Holy Week, I often remember a theme activity that I did with our Kids’ Club program back when I was serving in Saskatoon. We spent some time with the Easter story as a whole. The kids got lots of practice looking up Bible verses as they had to look up 14 different verses that traced out of events of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. And then they had to put the events in the correct order. Once they had completed the activity, we reviewed the story, and invited them to share how they would explain the story of Jesus to someone who had never heard about him before.

As one of our church kids was sharing, she used the phrase “Good Friday” to describe the day that Jesus was crucified. I immediately noticed the look of shock on the face of a visiting friend, and the girl’s hand shot up into the air to ask a question… “Why,” asked the girl with little or no church experience, “Why is it called GOOD Friday?”

Why, indeed! It was a day of confusion. It was a day of abandonment. It was a day of pain and suffering. It was a day of sorrow and death. Why do we call it GOOD Friday?

Though it was noon (normally, the brightest time of the day), darkness came over the whole land until three o’clock in the afternoon. And at three o’clock, Jesus cried out in what must have been anguish and despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Some of the people standing around wondered whether there would be a miracle — whether the prophet Elijah would come to take Jesus down… But he didn’t. Jesus gave a loud cry, and then he breathed his last. He died. And for some reason, we Christians call this day GOOD Friday.

You see, somehow, we believe that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we have been reconciled to God. A broken relationship has been healed. We have been forgiven and restored to right relationship with God. We call it GOOD Friday because somehow, through the events of that day, we have been saved.

Right after verse 50, in which Jesus takes his last breath, Matthew’s Gospel describes another dramatic event — an event that seems to result from Jesus’ death: Verse 51 says: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

The “curtain of the temple” is probably the curtain veiling the Holy of Holies — the inner sanctuary where God would be found — where the people were not allowed to go — where only one carefully chosen priest could enter, and only once each year. When Jesus dies, Matthew’s Gospel says that the curtain that separates off the Holy of Holies is torn completely. Suddenly there is access to God. Somehow, in Jesus’ death, there is a new direct connection to the Holy One being provided by Jesus.

The Gospels and the letters of the early church consistently proclaim that it is by Jesus’ death that we are saved, that we are reconciled to God, that we are freed to live in joyful relationship with the God who loves us.

If you want to delve into this topic more deeply and try to understand it, one of the things you can do is study theologies of atonement. “Atonement” is an English theological word that simply means “reconciliation.” Break the word apart to remember its meaning: “At-one-ment.” Atonement is God making us “one” with God once again.

Though we struggle in the church, and sometimes disagree about HOW Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplishes “atonement,” the Christian consensus is that somehow, it does. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have experienced that reconciliation. We have been drawn close to God, and so we believe.

Living Faith: A Statement of Christian Belief is a subordinate standard of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. In the section on “Jesus as Saviour,” Living Faith highlights the many images and metaphors used in the scriptures to try to understand and explain how Jesus’ death and resurrection saves us:

3.4.3 God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery
which the Scriptures describe as
the sacrifice of a lamb,
a shepherd’s life given for his sheep,
atonement by a priest.
It is also the innocent dying for the guilty,
the ransom of a slave,
payment of a debt,
and victory over the powers of evil.
Such expressions interpret the love of God
revealing the gravity, cost, and sure achievement
of our Lord’s work.
Yet that love we cannot fully explain.
God’s grace, received by faith alone,
pardons and justifies,
redeems and reconciles us.

When I started writing this sermon, I had the idea that I would carefully explain all the models for salvation that Christians believe in, or at least all the different models that show up in our Presbyterian statement of belief…

Jesus the Teacher, who shows us the way to God…

Jesus the Moral Example, who models the self-giving way of love that we are to follow…

Jesus the Victorious Champion, who conquers the powers of sin, evil, and death, and is raised to new life…

Then there’s Jesus as our Satisfaction, who though innocent, takes the punishment that we sinful people deserve…

And there’s Jesus as the Happy Exchange, in which Christ takes unto himself all the negativities of our lives: our sins, our guilt, our subjection to suffering and death. And in exchange, Christ shares with us the forgiveness of sins and the power of resurrection to eternal life.

There’s even a model where Jesus is the final sacrifice, or where Jesus is the scapegoat who takes upon himself all our sins and bears them away.

Obviously, there isn’t time here to explore all of those models for salvation. But those are some of the ways that the Christian Church, in our scriptures and our theological reflection, have tried to explain the difference that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has made in our lives and in our relationship with God.

In my own personal reflection on this day, I have noticed that I am particularly drawn towards the model of Jesus as Victorious Champion who wins out over the powers of sin, evil, and death. If you worship with us on Easter Sunday, you’ll see that the text I chose from 1 Corinthians 15 has this kind of model in mind.

But it was a terrible day… that Friday so many years ago. It was the day that a human community (very much like our human communities today) put an innocent man to death by nailing his hands and feet to a cross and hanging him there to die.

We don’t need to watch “The Passion of the Christ” to know that it was a terrible day. Not only because he was innocent… Not only because it was a particularly torturous way to die… but because that man had been the human embodiment of LOVE… in his words, in his actions, in his touch, and in his presence, those who encountered Jesus came to believe that they had met God.

And on that terrible day, he was killed. Human sin and evil, human betrayal and abandonment, human fear and failure seemed to have the last word. And Jesus was dead.

But even as we remember that terrible day, we know that it was only day one. Day one would end, and day two would pass, and with day three, hope would once again be born. Jesus would be raised. Life would win over death, and evil would lose its power.

Often, as Christians, we talk about Jesus’ resurrection as the hope for our own resurrection. We think it is mostly to do with what will happen to us after we die — that we’ll get to go to heaven like Jesus — that death won’t win over us, but we’ll have eternal life. And, you know, I do believe that. I preach it at funerals all the time, proclaiming the hope that we have for our friends and loved ones who have died. But I also believe that Jesus’ triumph over sin and evil and death can actually make a difference to our lives today in this world.

When we are concerned about our war-torn and hurting world, and when we’re starting to despair… we remember that God is more powerful than all the hatred and greed, and that we get to work with God in building a realm of love and peace. When we are overwhelmed by the struggles and pains of our lives, and when we’re thinking of giving up… we remember that God is more powerful than all the sickness, the sadness, the mistakes and misfortunes, and that God will be with us to help us through until the morning.

You see, the amazing good news of the Gospel is that God can take a terrible, terrible day, and God can transform it into something that we can rightly call good. “Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

Let us pray that as God transformed that terrible day into GOOD Friday, God will continue to transform our lives and our world, until we truly reflect God’s image and the goodness of God’s creation. As we continue our journey with God, let us be encouraged by the hope that God in Christ is indeed more powerful than everything that can hurt or destroy us.