Faith Matters

Were You There?


I have prepared this message using readings from the appointed texts for Good Friday in the Episcopal Church1 and the hymn Were You There2 as performed by Chris Rice.3
Often Good Friday services end without a benediction. I will keep to this custom, by giving one now: “let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, … encouraging each other”.4
Stay well.

In the name of Jesus.

Palm Sunday

… the large crowd that had come to the [Passover] feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him. They began to shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, “Do not be afraid, people of Zion; look, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt!”5
I stood in the crowd, waving my palm branch, shouting with the rest. Hosana! Praise God. Jesus, save us! I cheered and cheered and then I saw Jesus, riding on a donkey. Yes! Yes! Jesus was coming to restore the kingdom of Israel. The Romans would finally be driven away, and all would be well.
Ride on! ride on in majesty!6

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Then Pilate handed [Jesus] over to them to be crucified. So [the soldiers] took Jesus, and carrying his own cross he went out to the place called “The Place of the Skull”7 (called in Aramaic Golgotha). There they crucified him along with two others, one on each side, with Jesus in the middle. Pilate also had a notice written and fastened to the cross, which read: “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.” Thus many of the Jewish residents of Jerusalem read this notice, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the notice was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek.8
I had stayed inside all week as much as possible to avoid contact with the unprecedented number of Roman soldiers Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, had brought into Jerusalem, fearing all the pilgrims who were here to celebrate the Passover. Once, long ago, God brought our ancestors out of Egypt with tremendous strength and power, as well as with great awe-inspiring signs and wonders.9 Every year we hoped God would raise up another leader so that we might overthrow our Roman oppressors. I hoped Jesus would be our new savior.
Then I heard the terrible news. Jesus had been arrested. He would be crucified.
I hurried to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull outside of the city.
My heart sank. There he was hanging between two others.
I trembled.
I always thought of Jesus as one of God’s gentle servants:
A crushed reed he will not break,
a dim wick he will not extinguish.10
Now Jesus was a different sort of servant:
he was so disfigured he no longer looked like a man;
his form was so marred he no longer looked human11
He was despised and rejected by people,
one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness.12
If I had not read his name above his head, I would not have recognized him.
Again, I trembled.

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Now standing beside Jesus’ cross were his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
… Jesus, realizing that by this time everything was completed, said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty!” A jar full of sour wine was there, so they put a sponge soaked in sour wine on a branch of hyssop and lifted it to his mouth. When he had received the sour wine, Jesus said, “It is completed!” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.13
Crucifixion is a slow and cruel way to die. I trembled every time I looked at Jesus struggling to breathe.
A group of women wept openly at a distance. No doubt they were relatives or close friends. I didn’t see any men with them. Near the crosses the soldiers lounged, throwing dice and laughing. The differences between these two groups of people could not be more profound. As I watched, they came to be a living painting, a _tableau vivant _with Jesus at the center. Although Jesus’ hands were nailed to the cross, I imagined them reaching out to the women on one side and the soldiers on the other, drawing them together, embracing them, uniting them, making them one people, not two. Then I understood why Jesus was nailed to the tree.14 I remembered Jesus saying, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”15
After all, he had drawn me in, healed me and invited me to trust him always.
Again, I trembled.
As the afternoon wore on, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” The soldiers aroused themselves to put a sponge of cheap sour wine to his lips. I remembered the psalm which said: “and to quench my thirst they give me vinegar to drink.”16
It was getting late. The Sabbath would be upon us soon.
Again Jesus spoke. “It is completed.”
The soldiers moved among the crosses, prepared to hasten the deaths of the condemned, but Jesus was already dead.
The work Jesus came among us to do was finished.
With the enormity of that reality, I trembled.

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

After this, Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus (but secretly, because he feared the Jewish leaders), asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission, so he went and took the body away. Nicodemus, the man who had previously come to Jesus at night, accompanied Joseph, carrying a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about seventy-five pounds. Then they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it, with the aromatic spices, in strips of linen cloth according to Jewish burial customs. Now at the place where Jesus was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden was a new tomb where no one had yet been buried. And so, because it was the Jewish day of preparation and the tomb was nearby, they placed Jesus’ body there.17
I stood in a stand of fruit trees in the quiet garden. I wondered if the garden of Eden had been like this. I couldn’t tell that three men had been crucified and died nearby.
I watched as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea prepared Jesus’ body for burial. I wondered where Nicodemus had purchased so much myrrh and aloes. The shops I frequent don’t have anything near that kind of inventory
I trembled.
Nicodemus and Joseph were preparing Jesus’ body for a royal burial.
His cross was his throne. It was lifted up to glorify him.
Again, I trembled.
In the fading light, I remembered Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world! The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”18
Jesus’ kingdom is life itself. His saving work was not overthrowing the Romans but making it possible for me to live freely in his name now and forever.
Again, I trembled.

Were you there when they rolled away the stone?

No, I was not there when Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty.19 No, I was not in the upper room either time when Jesus appeared.20 Jesus never appeared to me.21
What I can tell you is that I not so much heard the stone rolled away than I sensed it. There was a crack and then a sustained rumble so low in pitch I felt it more than heard it,22 surging in wave after wave,23 spilling out into the universe24—God’s unconditional love making all Creation new25 and setting it free.26
Every year, on the anniversary of Jesus’ crucifixion, I come to Calvary. I stand at the foot of Jesus’ cross.
I remember the events of that day. When the shadows begin to lengthen I recite this psalm:

Let all the people of the earth acknowledge the Lord and turn to him.
Let all the nations worship you.
For the Lord is king
and rules over the nations.
All the thriving people of the earth will join the celebration and worship;
all those who are descending into the grave will bow before him,
including those who cannot preserve their lives.
A whole generation will serve him;
they will tell the next generation about the Lord.
They will come and tell about his saving deeds;
they will tell a future generation what he has accomplished.27
And then I tremble, tremble, tremble.

  4. Hebrews 10:23b-25a NET 
  5. John 12:12-15 NET 
  6. Ride on! ride on in majesty! By Henry Hart Milman 
  7. the Latin word for skull is Calvaria; hence “Calvary.” 
  8. John 19:16-20 NET 
  9. Deuteronomy 26:8 
  10. Isaiah 42:3 
  11. Isaiah 52:14b 
  12. Isaiah 53:3a 
  13. John 19:25, 28-30 NET 
  14. Athanasius wrote on why Jesus had to die on a cross. Consult section 25 Athanasius is a doctor of the church. See his Wikipedia page, 
  15. John 12:32 
  16. Psalm 69:21 
  17. John 19:38-42 NET 
  18. John 8:12 NET 
  19. John 20:1-2 
  20. Upper room meetings described beginning at John 20:19 and v. 26 
  21. 1 Corinthians 1:55-8 
  22. When I was sleeping in a tent in Jackson, NJ sometime in the mid 80’s, I heard a sound at dawn so low it almost didn’t seem to be sound. Later I learned I probably was hearing the lions at Great Adventure’s safari park, ten miles away, roaring. 
  24. Romans 8:20-22 
  25. Revelation 21:1 
  26. Revelation 1:5 NET 
  27. Psalm 22:27-31 NET