Friday, April 7, 2023
Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE
watch this service online
I had the honor of being invited to preach at Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church in Omaha at their Tre Ore service, which is a service traditionally held on Good Friday from noon to 3pm, commemorating the final hours of Christ on the cross. Seven preachers from different denominations gave sermons on each of the seven last words of Jesus. The word I preached on was “Woman, behold your son.”
23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
“They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”
25 And that is what the soldiers did.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
This is the day that Mary has been dreading – ever since the days when her beloved son was still small enough that she could cradle him in her arms. She has known for a long time that his path would one day lead them here.
As she stands there in the shadow of the cross, I imagine that her ears still burn with the words that Simeon spoke to her as she brought baby Jesus to the temple for the first time: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
Mary knew that there would be a price to pay – and she knew it not only because of what Simeon had said to her, but because Mary herself was a prophet. Even before Jesus was born, Mary sang about the wondrous things that God would accomplish through him, about the power of God that would turn the whole world upside down.
She believed in that promise, and in her son, with all her heart. And so even though she knew there would be a heavy cost, Mary follows her son right to the bitter end.
And by all appearances, this is undoubtedly the end. The body of her son, Jesus, hangs broken and bruised and bloody on a cross. The most powerful empire on earth has arrested him and sentenced him to die. He has been brutally beaten, publicly mocked and humiliated. The crowds that once raucously welcomed him into Jerusalem now clamor for his death. Even his inner circle of followers has abandoned him and fled. Now the soldiers who pounded iron nails into his living flesh casually gamble for his clothing as Jesus endures the last few agonizing hours of his life.
It is a cruel scene of unimaginable violence. And what makes the violence of it all the starker is how sharply it contrasts with the attitude and actions of Jesus himself. On the eve of his arrest, Jesus gathers for a last meal with his disciples; he tenderly kneels before them and washes their feet and teaches them to love each other as he has loved them – even though he already knows full well that they will soon betray him and desert him. He peacefully submits himself to the authorities and even rebukes his own followers when they resort to violence. To the very end, Jesus shows compassion even for the people who are killing him; he forgives them and prays for them that they may be reconciled with God. He willingly lays down his own life to show them that nothing, not even putting him to death on a cross — nothing – can separate God’s people from God’s love.
Jesus would have been too young to remember the words of Simeon, but as he looks down from the cross and sees his mother’s devastated face, he knows the pain and grief that are tearing her apart. Standing beside her is one of the few disciples who did not run away when he was arrested. And so Jesus cries to to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple, he says, “Here is your mother.”
Read in one way, this story is a touching moment of Jesus caring for his grieving mother. Ever the good son, Jesus wants to make sure that someone will be there to care for her even after he is gone. It is a moment of tenderness in the midst of unrelenting tragedy.
But read in a deeper way, this is the story of how – even in this bleak moment – the powers of death and discord and destruction that lay claim to this world have already lost.
Because not even the reality of dying a slow and torturous death can deter Jesus from carrying out his mission of love. In these seven last words that we remember today, we see that even from the cross Jesus continues to scatter words of love and grace like seeds. And even as he draws his final breaths, all over Judea and Galilee and even Samaria, those seeds he has sown have already begun to take root. Love has sprouted up behind him everywhere that he has gone, pushing its way up through the cracks, rising up as stubborn and enduring as weeds.
These words Jesus speaks to his mother and this disciple are words of comfort. And at the same time, they are also words of invitation – of invitation into this new movement of love. Jesus’ words invite these two disciples – and every disciple who will read these words after them – into relationships of radical solidarity and love, into community that is bound together not by traditional family ties or social boundaries, but instead by the everlasting love of Christ.
The words of love and compassion Jesus speaks from the cross are a foretaste of the feast to come. His life and ministry have set in motion a revolution of love that cannot be stopped, not even by death. The powers of this world may declare victory in having killed Christ’s body — but they cannot crucify his love. It lives on, evergreen, in the heart of every person touched by the life of Jesus, and it is much, much too late to try and rein it in now. Because the goodness and good news of this love will spill out into the world through lips and pens, pushing back the gloom of despair with the light of hope. This love will be carried by the very roads of Rome to the farthest corners of the earth. Slowly, but surely as the sun rises, this love will turn the world upside down, just as Mary sang.
For this reason, even before Easter morning dawns, Christ has already triumphed over the powers of sin and death. His powerful love will live on, far beyond the grave. And while Christ will indeed be raised from the dead (spoilers), this good news is already so good that it almost makes actually rising from the dead look like God’s just showing off. The resurrection of Christ is the exclamation point to the declaration that God’s love triumphs over all.
But today, in many ways, is still Good Friday – and we still haven’t made it to the end of that sentence just yet. We are still waiting for the fullness of Christ’s victory to be realized, still waiting for God’s promised kingdom to come, still waiting for the waiting to be over.
And in the meanwhile, we find ourselves still living in the shadow of the cross. This world we have inherited is still claimed by powers of death and discord and destruction. The empires have changed, but the violence is still very much the same. And these seeds of love we are called to plant can sometimes seem so small and insignificant when faced with the enormity of the world’s suffering. When despots are insistently dragging the world into war, when lawmakers are stripping away the rights of the most vulnerable among us in hope of political gain, when the climate crisis devastates communities again and again because those with the power to make change refuse to act, sometimes our love just doesn’t feel like enough.
But just as the seeds of Christ’s love flourished in the unlikely soil of the first century Roman Empire — uniting believers in communities of gentleness and compassion that stood in witness against the violence of the world — so too will the seeds of love that we plant sprout and grow and bear fruit that we can’t yet even imagine.
Today we still sing Mary’s song of hope and faith in the power of God to turn the world upside down. And though our hearts may be pierced by the pain and grief of this world, we live in hope and expectation that the unstoppable love of Christ – even now – is making all things new.