Long, long ago I wrote to the congregation I was serving as pastor and stated my mission among them by quoting the Apostle Paul: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." It may have been an overstatement of youthful idealism (or unreality); but I'll stand by it for then, and also for now.
Don't misread me... please... once you get beyond these opening lines and next paragraph.
I do love life. I cherish the moments cuddling with my bichon in the recliner following an exercise session, and she, the bichon, reciprocates with an affectionate lick on my cheek. It may not seem possible, but it does get better than this. As when grandchildren come into their own, can converse with you and even dispute you (gently, of course) and no longer seem to be bored beyond yawning as soon as a gray hair opens his mouth. I can say the advertising slogan without a hint of sarcasm, "Life Is Good." Well, mostly, as you will see, if you continue down the page. Still life is sweet. I made a mango meringue pie last night; and though it was a little sloppy, it was tasty. Marryin' Bob is also Bob the Pieman whose sweet tooth populates the fridge with whatever fruity concoction I fancy. My ears too are frequently pleasured. Tonight we hear the symphony orchestra and a community chorus sing Mozart's Requiem. Last week it was Bach's B Minor Mass. Every morning at breakfast the CD player serenades us with Dvorak, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. And for a change of pace there is my buddy from the pool, Jeff, the soprano saxophonist and his mellow melodies. Now into my ninth decade I look back on where I've been, what I've done, and with whom I've done it and, very appropriately, I am overwhelmed with the thought of how lucky (graced?) I am, way, way beyond any deserving.
Let Barbara say Amen and savor a wedge of mango meringue pie.
Still, the longer I live the surer I know that this world is not only not the best of all possible ones, but that deep down in it there is something terribly wrong. I offer a few nouns as evidence: holocaust, My Lai, Boston Marathon, 9/11, Hiroshima, Jim Jones, Columbine, Pol Pot, Abu Ghraib, gulag, Sandy Hook, Pearl Harbor, Dresden. And these markers are just in my lifetime. The page and your patience aren't long enough to list the human race's evil since the dawn of recorded history. No institution, certainly not the church, is blameless. Individually we may make our way through life without offense; but we are swept along, like everyone else, in the relentless tide of human experience and are culpable, even if unwitting, in the ravages of the larger world.
I chuckled at the repeated TV ad during March Madness, though the subject matter was anything but funny. Alyssa Milano, once a charmer teen in the TV series "Who's the Boss," narrated with occasional shots of her soulful face, the plight of hungry swollen-bellied, hollow-eyed children in Third World countries. She pled for contributions. Just as earlier in the season (and here is the reason for my chuckling) she pled on behalf of abandoned puppies. Not a good casting sequence, I thought to myself and Barbara, while watching the Huskies triumph. But the children in Alyssa's stint stick in my mind and wound my heart, especially as they were contrasted so sharply with the strong, athletic robust men and women playing roundball on championship courts. There is food enough for all, every last one of us, in this modern world, more than enough, enough to make us all obese. Still babies starve.
Human evil, intentional or inadvertent, yet almost always self-justifying, is the primary reason the cross is raised. It is raised as diagnosis and cure to the evil around us and, I confess, in us.
What, after all, conspires to nail Jesus to those crossed beams of wood on Calvary? Take your pick of ordinary human shortcomings. Indifference, crowd mentality, expediency, cowardice, idealistic fervor gone sour, ignorance... all the petty and sometimes grotesque attitudes which continue to plague us two thousand years later... and all of it dressed up in self-righteousness. The nails in hands and feet are the surrogates of human failures. Worse, the best of our institutions in that early moment in human history, the Roman legal system and the Jewish religious tradition, convicted him and sentenced him to death, the one for treason, the other for blasphemy. And each was right, even as it was horribly wrong: Jesus would and did establish a new kingdom; he did acknowledge he was the Son of God.
See the cross of Good Friday: we did that to him. And our co-conspirator was God. Jesus does not go to his crucifixion the way most walk the last mile, insisting on their innocence. From the start of his ministry in Galilee he is shadowed by the cross. Even the Sermon on the Mount, with its insistence on the steep cost of discipleship, never says it but certainly hints at it, that a cross is the eventuality of a loving life. Calvary was ordained by heaven. Which does not absolve us as the agents of Jesus' death, but gloriously hints that God, the ever resourceful, can and does, in the words of the Psalmist, make the wrath of men to praise him. The instrument of humanity's greatest crime, the cross, becomes the hope of the world's salvation.
No, not as if by some heavenly wand waved to make it all right. That would make the cross a stroke of magic, which it absolutely isn't. The grace, the overwhelming, unrelenting mercy of God, that enters and claims this fallen world does so through you, and others like you caught up in the healing, compassionate, just, and peaceful countercurrents Jesus brings into this world. Two thousand years later and the redemptive job still isn't done. And before you and I shut our eyes for ever we'll not be able to say a final "Amen" on the new creation. But it has begun, nourished on the blood and tears of Calvary, and the thousands of blessed imitators since, not always dramatic but always consequential. No need to provide another list of nouns. Just look to your own life and those along the way through whom the kingdom of love and light became a reality for you, parents, pastors, priests, teachers, neighbors, siblings, sometimes even the high and mighty; those whose lives, having touched yours, have left on your years a gentle impression of the One who gives us reason to call this Friday good.
The Bible, from beginning to end, the full sweep of it, Genesis to Revelation, tells what is finally a hopeful story: how we are, as we have prayed a thousand times we might be, delivered from evil.