Each year, I represent my church as one of the seven or eight preachers in our town’s three hour Ecumenical Good Friday Service. The second to speak today, here is what I said:
Today, on Good Friday, we have a picture of a scourged Jesus, beaten, bleeding, and ridiculed with a crown of thorns, dragging the heavy burden of a rough hewn cross up the hill to Calvary, additionally beleaguered by carrying the the sins of the world on his shoulders, all the while jeered and spit upon along the way. Our hearts rightly surge toward this image with both grief and gratitude. Grief, that he should have had to go through such an ordeal on our behalf, and gratitude, because we already have peeked ahead and know the end of the story.
But let’s look at some of the things Jesus told his disciples before all these events took place. After the Last Supper, Jesus made a point of telling them, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” He already knew the end of the story too, even before his agony in the garden of Gethsemane, where he wished he didn’t have to undergo the intervening chapters. He was telling his disciples not only that he WOULD BE victorious, regardless of the outward tribulation, but that he ALREADY HAD been victorious. He did not say I will overcome the world; he said that he HAD.
In the same way that he gave thanks before he served up a meal to the multitude, or when he gave thanks before he raised Lazarus from the dead, he was claiming his victory before his final ordeal. In all these cases, he knew in advance what would happen, even though it was not obvious to everyone else.
Over the years, I have found that the reverse of error, is true. This is exactly what is going on at the crucifixion. What looked like the best man that ever lived on his way to being crucified to death, was actually the best man that ever lived on his way to crucifying death itself. What seemed like sin overcoming purity, meekness and goodness, was actually purity, meekness and goodness triumphing over sin itself! I’m not saying this was not excruciating work for Jesus. I’m just saying he knew what he was doing. He was consciously and actively accomplishing God’s will; he was not, as it seemed, merely at the mercy of misguided mortals.
Much earlier in the gospel, he had told his disciples, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” He came to show us what we must do; we are to follow his example in healing the sick, overcoming sin, cleansing the lepers, preaching to the receptive, and defeating death. He was our Way Shower, our Great Exemplar. He did his work right, not to do it for us, but to show us how to do our own. And he’s telling us, that we must, like him, “deny ourselves and take up the cross.” This doesn’t sound like something we want to do, but it is not as daunting as it sounds.
If we are following Jesus and his example, we, like him, must first find our victory in our own hearts. What is it in our hearts that we must be victorious over? Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science church, says we must both stop sinning and remove any Pharisaism from our thought. She puts it this way, “Ritualism and dogma lead to self-righteousness and bigotry, which freeze out the spiritual element. Pharisaism killeth; Spirit giveth Life.”
Our first step, in joining Jesus in taking up the cross, is to “deny self.” This means releasing any tendencies toward harboring personal opinions, defenses, self-righteousness, greed or intolerance. We must be clear that God alone governs. As Jesus did, we must worship the Father “in spirit and in truth,” instead of being preoccupied with ourselves and the gratification of the senses.
We too, can learn the proper preparation of the heart, that gave Jesus such nobility and grace as he carried his cross. He prepared his heart by practical prayer and conscientiously communing with his Father. That is how he denied himself and overcame the world. We can do the same.
He taught us to enter into our own mental closet, where our spiritual thoughts are, and close the door tight, shutting out all sin and anything unGodlike. In that mental place of safe refuge, we have a lucid rapport with God, and can feel at one with Him and His purpose for us. In that sweet, secure place, we realize we are actually a unique embodiment of God’s will, just as Jesus was. Before we reemerge back into being “in the world but not of it,” we must earnestly resolve to do God’s work, and to be alert and responsive to His wisdom, truth and love.
Jesus prayed this way so well that he was able to kill death instead of it killing him, and to annihilate sin, instead of it annihilating him. Taking up one’s cross, may sound counterintuitive, but it is your sacred place of least vulnerability, just as it was for Jesus. It simply means a willingness to do and be God’s will for you – whatever it is – accepting an enlightened spiritual perspective instead of a limited, self-serving, fearful, materialistic, worldly view. Those that don’t deny their prideful selves and refuse to take up their cross of complying with God’s will, they are the ones at risk and in trouble.
Jesus understood all this and communed with God more deeply than anyone else. For this, we are indebted to him. We honor him best by following his example. Like Jesus, it is with God’s own strength, that we can calmly brave all danger, fear, misunderstanding and condemnation. Jesus has already shown us the end of the story. Like him, even when it is tremendously difficult, we know that we too shall find immortal life and a victory over the grave.
As we watch our Lord drag his ponderous cross up to Calvary, we can remember that he wanted us comforted with the knowledge that he had already overcome the world. We are to know that it will not look bleak forever. He told us to “be of good cheer,” that “we might have peace.” His dear-bought wish is that we may follow his example by taking up our own metaphorical crosses – being courageously willing to be and to do God’s will for us– with hearts full of trust for the Father of all, who is embracing us continually in eternal life and everlasting love.