Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” – Matthew 16:21-25
Growing up there were two things I absolutely detested: Brussels Sprouts and a certain type of medicine for a certain type of embarrassing infection for which the treatment was – from my 6-year old perspective – worse than the symptoms! Fortunately, my mother was a saint and taught me to eventually savor the Sprouts and mind the medicine. Gotta love moms.
For some Christians, Good Friday is a bit like that. Or, as another pastor once put it, asking followers to embrace Good Friday is little bit like asking them embrace torture – or nails on a chalkboard!
Truth is, Good Friday is perhaps the most curiously circumspect day in Christendom’s Liturgical Year (fancy term meaning “calendar”). It doesn’t have an entire season of shopping, “bracket” holidays, and mangers with wise men surrounding it like Christmas; it doesn’t have the Joy and Celebration of its big brother Easter just two days later; nor does it have the sacrificial appeal of Lent, where we get to give up something for 40 days (but nothing too hard, of course).
To be sure, nowhere in Scripture are we instructed to build sacraments around the Friday before Easter. Early Christians remembered it as a day of sorrow, penance, and fasting, which is represented in the modern German tradition of Karfreitag (“Sorrowful Friday”). But Jesus never said as he was being led off to trial “Remember this day whenever you gather.”
Still, from my perspective Good Friday is a profound day of revelation, of contemplation, and while dreadful in how it ends, portentous in what it foretells.
This Good Friday, here are four things that come to mind when I reflect on this day and what it represents.
1. Good Friday is the narrow gateway to Easter Sunday.
For most of us, Good Friday is about the crucifixion of Jesus – pure and simple: black-draped crosses, somber faces of mourning, even Good Friday services with sound effects recreating the hammering of nails into the wrists and feet of Eternal God incarnate.
As followers, we are called not to the tomb, but to the Cross.
Yet it strikes me that we often focus too much on the end of the scene rather than the backstory, the full narrative.
As followers, we are called not to the tomb, but to the Cross. Remember, Mary is asked by the messengers at the empty tomb: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen!”
We rush to the tomb, to Easter morning, to the Resurrection without fully embracing that without Good Friday there is no Easter Sunday. The pathway to redemption runs straight through the one-way road of what happens on that fateful Friday.
Consider how much of the story of God and man occurs on that single day. The second-guessing of God’s sovereignty and kingdom plans, the interplay of temptation vs. submission, the secularized mocking of Jesus as the Living Word, the rejection of salvation in favor of personal gain … the list is virtually endless.
Simply put, the entire Biblical story is replayed in the hours before the main event (the Crucifixion), and the most compelling and redeeming aspect of Good Friday is how faithful Jesus stayed to his calling, even in the hours of praying in Gethsemane, even as he was paraded before the Sanhedrin for a sham trial, even as Herod goaded him to provide a single miracle for entertainment value, even as Pilate debated him on the nature of Truth, even as he hung on the Cross.
The story of Easter is the story of perseverance and trust. There can be no Easter Sunday without Good Friday and overcoming the spiritual warfare of that pivotal moment. Without the Cross, and the devotion to walking through the narrow gateway leading there, there is no resurrection. Good Friday is our only path to Easter Sunday.
2. The Cross is still a problem.
How must Jesus’ arrest and execution have been seen through the eyes of his followers? In less than 12 hours, his entire 42 months of ministry, perhaps even the whole of Messianic prophecy appeared to collapse, to be proven false. Where was the Kingdom? Where was the triumphal Messiah? The power he used to help others completely failed him during these dire hours. He was, it seemed, outwitted, outplayed. How could that happen?
Yet both Jesus’ followers and his accusers completely missed the real message of his life, as Jesus himself told Andrew and Philip in John 12:24: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone, but if it dies, it produces many.” In deed as well as word, Jesus lived out the very parables he taught.
Even today, some Christians have a problem with the Cross. To have meaning, the Cross must show us miracles and power. It must demonstrate right now the ability of God to take away our pain and suffering. It must reveal wisdom and truth.
Ultimately, God first offers us the Cross through Jesus, the road of surrender, then salvation. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul calls this “the power of and the wisdom of God.” (I Corinthians 1:24). It is the power and wisdom of Jesus in surrendering his will to God that leads him directly to the Cross.
Many Christians today prefer not to think about suffering. In fact, entire ministries are built on the concept of God as a force of comfort, with no sacrifice or suffering required. According to this view, the Cross was not actually necessary, just a prop used to wake up the knuckleheads too dim-witted to see the God in all of us.
The real meaning of the Cross is that our own power or reason or abilities are never enough to earn our way to salvation. Jesus relinquished his will, and so, too, must we.
3. Good Friday is the beginning, not the end.
It’s been said that all change happens in an instant – only our agonizing over the decision takes time. This is no truer than the events taking place on Good Friday and culminating at the Cross.
From the moment of man’s fall in the first garden, our history unfolded as a long, slow, tortuous dialogue with our own consciences, with each other, and with God over how we should respond. We warred, we railed against God’s plea to turn from iniquity, we excused and rationalized our brokenness.
On Good Friday, God stepped into His creation and offered the “instant” change we could not find in ourselves. The Cross is that change. God allows us to put His sovereignty over our lives on trial. He allows us to mock Him. He allows us to beat and debase Him. And yes, He even allows us to hang Him from the Cross of our own imperfections.
Yet, through all of this He remains faithful, inviting us to join Him at the very Cross we created, the very Cross to which He was nailed that we might be free. He compels us to see the broken and bloodied body of His Son. And to see our own broken and bloodied lives hanging with him.
Good Friday is the moment of that change. It is the Beginning of a Redeemed Life. This is the meaning of Jesus’ death, and of the rending of the Temple veil described in Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, and Luke 23:44. God is no longer separated from Man, the price of our falling away has been paid.
In our rush to celebrate the empty tomb of Easter, we cannot overlook our own complicity in the agony and cost of the Cross. Good Friday is the beginning of the change within each of us.
4. Faith always prevails, even when we doubt.
Finally, there is a moment – a crucial moment – at the Cross; a moment unlike any other in Scripture. Throughout his ministry, Jesus had been tempted and tested. Obstacles and roadblocks had been thrown in his path. In Gethsemane he asked God if there was another way. Yet through all of that his faith never wavered.
Then came these four words: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” meaning “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” – the one and only time in the New Testament where Jesus does not refer to God as his father. Yes, he was quoting Psalm 22:1, perhaps reminding those gathered at his feet of the foretelling of this very moment. But deeper than that, it was the one moment in his entire earthly existence where he truly become just like us – separated from God, alone in the sea of a sinful world, filled with the desolation of being unconscious of His Father’s presence.
And yet, a few mere breaths and heartbeats later the isolation passes and just as the Psalm 22 ends with hope and praise, Jesus utters these words “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Even in death, Jesus shows us how faith triumphs. What his disciples failed to grasp time and again about his ultimate destiny, Jesus finally demonstrated – literally – in the flesh. And all through faith.
Jesus knew what lay before him. The comfort of a promised resurrection did not calm the fear of a painful, humiliating death. Yet in his death as in his life, Jesus models for us what faith and trust in God’s plan really means.
On this Good Friday, pause and consider what God is asking you to surrender so that His love might heal you. Perhaps you’ll find your own way to “savor the Sprouts and mind the medicine!”