It is so difficult to know what to say or do after reading the account of our Lord’s death. It is somber and sobering. It almost feels like the best and most appropriate response is silence. Perhaps we all should just sit here together in a prolonged, shared moment of numbness. What are we to do with what we just have heard?
Today’s second reading blazes a path for us to follow. The Letter to the Hebrews probably was written to Jews living in Rome about thirty years after the Crucifixion. Originally attributed to Paul, its authorship has been in question for a long time. What is not questioned is the power and eloquence of the letter; exploring the person, work, and meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
The author has had some time to digest the events we have just read and thus is in a position to give us direction on how to respond to Jesus’ death. He tells us to do three things. Each begins with two simple words: “Let us.”
After setting out an intricate argument for how Jesus replaces the entire system of the Jerusalem Temple by making the perfect offering of himself (cleansing us of all sin), and describing how Jesus forever takes the place of the high priest (thereby giving us access to God’s presence), the author writes,
Let us approach [God in God’s sanctuary] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
So our first response is spiritual. We are to be in this place in God’s presence confident in God’s love for us. Good Friday is not a day about human failure, rather it is about God’s all-powerful, unfailing hessed – a Hebrew word meaning steadfast, covenant love.
My Jack Russell terrier has many different ways she responds to me based on the stimulation I give her. If she has done something wrong and I have yelled at her, she slouches down, slinks forward, and gravels at my feet; wondering what she must do to get back in my good graces. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says this is not what Good Friday is to be like. If I pick up her leash – signaling a walk – my dog begins to bounce and twist and yelp and basically loose her mind. This is not what Good Friday is like either. In the evening, when I settle down on the couch, I give my dog a bone and pat on my lap, signaling I want her to jump up and join me. She eagerly obliges and settles down across my outstretched legs, comfortable and confident she is where I want her to be. This is an image of Good Friday. God has signaled us to come close. Of this we are confident.
Here is the second directive:
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.
The readers of this letter lived in challenging times. Both Peter and Paul are martyred in their city, perhaps by Nero, around the time the letter is written. The readers know their lives are in jeopardy. The author sets out to encourage the faithful. Hold fast. Do not be discouraged by all that is going on around you. God is with you.
Our world today is a challenging place for Christians. In some places, like Egypt, the faithful gather in fear for their lives. In other settings, churches have grown apathetic and indifferent. Here at St. Paul’s, as with many western churches, our mission-mindset seems thwarted by a society not interested in what institutional religion is selling. Good Friday calls us to hold fast to hope because our efforts are not grounded in our success, but rather in God’s faithfulness.
Here is the final directive:
Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.
We all know people who say, “I don’t need to be in church worship God. I can worship God in the mountains, or at the beach, or on the golf course, etc.” To them I always respond, “I am glad you can worship God when you are at location X. I wish everyone had a spirituality capable of being with God everywhere all the time. But, when you are off worshipping God in your private way, how are you reaching out and connecting with others? God is concerned with more than your worship. God wants you to be in fellowship with other worshippers; offering your help and support and receiving help and support when you are in need.”
Good Friday is to be a day when good people come together to do good things. I met with a group of local clergy a few weeks ago to learn more about Virginia Blood Services. We are exploring the possibility of mobilizing churches in Suffolk for a donor drive. One of our craziest ideas, which will have to wait at least until next year, is to organize a Good Friday blood drive. Who could say no to giving blood on the day we remember Jesus shed his blood for us! I think the author of the Letter to the Hebrews would applaud such an effort. Can you imagine forty or fifty or more Christians coming together over the course of a day to do something so vitally necessary for our community.
So, this day we move from numbness to direction:
Let us approach God with confidence.
Let us hold fast to the hope of the faith.
Let us gather together, encourage one another, and do good things for our community.
This is the path we are to walk after hearing the Passion of our Lord.