A reflection, by Dr. Thomas Dickelman:
Fleming Rutledge in her 1991 Palm Sunday message entitled “New World Order” captures the awkward reality of Palm Sunday:
“Of all the days in the Christian year, this is certainly the most disconcerting. Even the most seasoned churchgoers tend to forget, each year, exactly what we are in for when we come to church for this occasion. We start out in gala mood, for Palm Sunday has always been a crowd-pleaser. The festivity of the triumphal procession, the stirring music, the palm branches, the repeated hosannas all suggest a general air of celebration. It comes as a shock to us, year after year, to find ourselves abruptly plunged into the solemn, (overwhelmingly long) dramatic reading of the Passion narrative. It’s a tough Sunday. It begins in triumph and ends in catastrophe. We come in prepared to party, and we leave as if we were going to a funeral. We come in joyful and we go out stricken. All in all, it is a most perplexing day.”
Rutledge continues, leading us to today – Good Friday:
“It would be tempting, on this day, to follow good American practice and tone down the depressing parts – “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” Many American congregations have attempted this. Were it not for the ancient liturgical wisdom given to the church, it would be perfectly possible to go to Sunday services two weekends in a row – Palm Sunday and Easter Day – without ever having to face the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was abandoned, condemned, and put to death as a common criminal on the Friday between. Our historic liturgy, however, guards against this fatal misunderstanding, (and) the church announces for all that hear that the Crucifixion of Jesus is the main event…” She concludes “There is no passage from Palm Sunday to Easter without Good Friday.”
And so here we are. It’s Good Friday. When Jesus was arrested. Betrayed. Interrogated. Sentenced. Then nailed to cross while churlish guards heckled him. It is the awkward passageway we must traverse if our journey to Easter is to be authentic. To sidestep the painful reality of Good Friday and jump straight to Easter is to be like a child getting a shiny trophy for no task greater than being on the team. A little empty, and devoid of the intended fullness of meaning. Though curious to you as it may be, Good Friday speaks to me like no other day. Simply put, Good Friday is for me the most powerful spiritual day of the year.
Now, if you’re saying, “Wait, you’re a minister, Tommy D! Easter should be the top of the charts for you! Hello? Are you home? What about Easter, dude! The resurrection day upon which the the door of Christianity swings!” I get it. If it doesn’t make sense to you that Good Friday for me is BIG, that’s OK. “Contrarian” is my middle name. But, there remain a few good reasons to call it Good Friday.
One reason Good Friday speaks in such a powerful way is as my faith has evolved, super-natural miracles no longer shout out to me as they once did. You know – walking on water. Feeding 5000. Bringing sight back to the blind man. And even the empty tomb. I don’t discount, disregard, or even question them. About 10 years ago I stopped trying to figure supernatural events out or answer why they occurred 2000 years ago, and don’t much today. And I am a healthier and happier guy with a far more honest faith. So, supernatural miracles are just not a big part of how I experience God through Jesus in 2020. His miracles are not a cornerstone in my faith.
You see, faith for me is a verb, an action word. So today the main course feeding my faith are the values, behaviors, and teachings of Jesus – which are all about action. I think it’s partly because the platform used to train faith leaders like me while in seminary is academic in nature, and not particularly spiritual. It’s about denominational and educational bureaucracies exercising human control, not the development and facilitation of spiritual freedom. There’s lots of time spent memorizing and demythologizing, and not so much time reflecting upon and understanding the spiritual, mystical, magical and super-natural. At least that’s how it was for me in seminary.
So, what remains for me as a person of faith in 2020 is a relationship to and with who the late Marcus Borg called the “Pre-Easter Jesus.” A Jewish peasant who became an enlightened wisdom teacher and prophet. Who, while fully human, did amazing things. And because of what he did and who he was, Good Friday is my day. I think it’s the key day in his entire ministry.
You know the story: Jesus was on a big-time roll, and gaining momentum everyday communicating the message of God’s Kingdom coming to this world. Yet the more popular and powerful he became, the more of a threat he was to the powers-that-be. And Jesus knew that if he went to Jerusalem for Passover, he would certainly die. Like a kamikaze pilot suiting up and taking off in a plane for a final mission that would end in an explosive death, Jesus’ final journey most certainly would end with his death on a cross. And so, he had a choice to make. “Do I go to Jerusalem and die for what I believe in, or do I turn my back but save my life?”
I cannot fathom a more challenging life decision. You know the decision Jesus made. As Rutledge writes “he was abandoned, condemned, and put to death as a common criminal.” And he did it, I believe, because it was the primary option available to him given his zeal to spread the message of how to bring God’s Kingdom to this earth.
And so on Good Friday, I pause, year in and year out, in ways that aren’t typical for my “got to be moving all the time” wiring. I don’t schedule anything. I don’t want to have to do anything. I just want to be outside. Alone. Maybe with a dog, or quietly with a family member, but that’s about it. Because in that space, that solitude, I am free to reflect on both what Jesus did, but also on the Kingdom of God that he died for trying to bring to this world.
And in that reflection, that meditation if you will, I get inspired, and feel Spirit brewing inside of me as few other times during the year. I dream about what it would be like if we all were as committed to peace and justice as Jesus was. And if we extended – as he did- healing to the broken, grace to those who fall short, and food to the hungry. What if we all loved as he loved? These are the miracles I’m thinking about this Good Friday. They’re the miracles WE can do…