This Good Friday sermon (preached 2014) was born of the theological struggles our congregations has engaged in over the past few years. It mirrors our theological journey. This year members and friends of our congregation engaged in an “Atheism for Lent” study and so the sermon begins with a parable from an atheist critique of Christianity. I am grateful to the members and friends of Holy Cross Lutheran Church for the courage and wisdom they have shared with one another as together we seek to know the unknowable. You can listen to the audio of the sermon or read the manuscript.
Jesus of Nazareth taught using parables. So, in the shadows of the horrors of the cross, let us turn to a parable; not one of Jesus’ parables, but a modern parable. This parable was first told in 1887. It was reprinted in 1969, in the Time Magazine that bore the iconic “Is God Dead?” cover.
“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!” As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed.
The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances. “Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling – it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”
It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered various churches and there sang a requiem. Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time: “what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”
This parable first printed in 1882, is known as The Parable of the Mad Man.” It was written by Friderich Nietzsche. One of the characteristics of a parable is that it surprises us with a truth that we already know. God is dead and we have killed him!
Over the years, many of us have been taught to believe that the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the death of God. For those who bore witness to the execution of the Jesus it was a pain to incredible to bear. They had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah; the one anointed to be the heir to King David’s throne, the one who would lead them to victory against the oppressive regime of the Romans. All their hopes and dreams for a future free from the injustices of Roman oppression hung upon that dreadful cross.
In the generations that followed, those who heard the stories of Jesus life and death and saw what Jesus friends and followers had seen in him, recognized that in Jesus they had met someone so open to the spirit of God, that in him they could actually see God. Jesus of Nazareth was for his followers the embodiment of God; or as our friend Dom Crossan insists, to the early followers of the Way, Jesus was what God looked like in a pair of sandals.
It didn’t take long for the leaders of this fledgling movement to develop what we now know as the doctrine of the incarnation and so; most of us learned that upon the cross, God sacrificed himself for us. Sure we learned various versions of this doctrine, but as Western Christians we learned that Jesus was a sacrifice for our sin; or that God in Christ died for our sin. Some of us learned that Jesus was a sacrifice because someone needed to be punished for our sinfulness and Jesus being God’s only Son, was the only one special enough, the only one without sin, who could pay the price for us, so that justice or God could be satisfied. Some of us learned this particular theory of atonement in a kinder and gentler way. Some of us learned that yes indeed we are sinful, and that God had every right to demand justice, but that God is so loving and so kind that God was willing to sacrifice God’s self for us.
So, for years, and years and years, we went to church on Good Friday, and we wept; standing in the shadow of the cross we wept, knowing that we are either wicked or fallen creatures, in bondage to sin, who cannot free ourselves, and that upon that cross Christ died to save us from our sinful nature, or that God himself died for us. For generations, Christians have gathered on Good Friday to mourn the death of Jesus, confident that upon the cross God died for us and for our salvation.
As biblical scholarship began to challenge our assumptions and more and more of us began to learn about the history of the events of the execution of Jesus of Nazareth, the various doctrines of atonement began to sound hollow to some, and downright sadomasochistic to many. How could a God whose name is love, demand such an awful price?
Over the past few decades preachers and theologians began to relieve God of the awful blame for this sacrifice as we used what we were learning about the matrix of history that give rise to that cross. So, Good Friday sermons began to turn to the historically based notion that Jesus died upon the cross not as a sacrifice for our sinfulness but as a result of our violent nature. We looked to the death of Jesus of Nazareth to move us beyond violence so that we might begin to achieve our salvation by enacting justice as a means to peace. So, we gathered beneath the shadows of the cross to remember the horrible consequences of our violence and to give thanks for the life and death of Jesus in whom we saw the power of God’s love to put an end to violence. That Jesus was willing to live into God’s love in such powerful ways as to embody that love, and live that love even if it meant dying for that love, opened us to a new way of living in which we too might begin to embody the love of God.
So, where the first mourners saw their hoped for Messiah dying up there on the Cross and generations to come saw the Son of God being sacrificed for sin, or God himself graciously dying on our behalf, for the past few decades many of us have come to church on Good Friday and seen the power of God embodied in a life that would risk everything, even death on a cross, rather than take up arms against another, so that love might be demonstrated to be more powerful than death. Regardless of our theologies, somebody died up there on that cross and so we wept.
Recently, it has become more and more difficult for many of us to come to church on Good Friday; or on any day for that matter. For so many of our neighbours, friends and families, God is indeed dead; killed not upon the cross but sacrificed upon the altars of reality. Some of us have experienced this death of God as our knowledge of the creation has taken us to places our ancestors never dreamed possible. God is dead.
The Father-god, the Sky-god, God the grand puppeteer in the sky, who watches over us like a kindly shepherd, and listens to us, and interferes on our behalf, and judges us, forgives us and longs to welcome us into heaven, but is willing to let us languish in hell if need be. God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth is dead. And so a few of us come to church on Good Friday grieving the loss of the God we had personified, worshipped and adored. But many more of us stay away from church because we just can’t bear to be dragged back into that old, old story because we have long since stopped believing that God is a person up there, or out there, sure we can manage to deal with church on the average Sunday, but all that talk of sacrifice and the images of the blood spilt and the guilt that is inflicted, well Good Friday is just too much. And millions more of us, couldn’t care less because that old guy in the sky has long since died in our hearts and in our minds. God is dead and we have killed him!!! “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
For those of us gathered here in this place, on this particular Good Friday, the death of the personified god is all too familiar. I don’t know about you, but as I look upon the cross today, tears come, because in so many ways I really miss the personified god who used to walk, with me and talk with me, and tell me I was his own. I long to return to the garden alone. I long to embrace the God of grace, the God of love that did indeed save me. So, today, on this Good Friday as I gaze upon the cross, I see what the first followers of Jesus saw, I see the death of the long hoped for Messiah, I see the death of Jesus, the one who sounded like he knew how to save us from oppression and usher in God’s reign of peace through justice.
I also see upon the cross, my own sinful nature. Oh, I don’t believe that I was created or born sinful. I know that I am an evolving creature, incomplete and I look to Jesus to see a way of evolving into a creature who put love above all else. But I can see upon the cross my own incompleteness, and my own willfulness, my own selfishness, and I can also see my own violent urges, and I can see all that multiplied as my sisters and brothers, neighbours, friends and enemies in their incompleteness lash out at one another, or choose greed, hatred and violence over love. So, I look upon the cross and I see the death of Love.
But I also look upon the cross and see the death of the god we have personified and there is pain in that particular death; pain I am only beginning to see the contours of. God is dead; the Father God, the Sky God, the kindly Shepherd that I was counting on to make me lie down in green pastures, is dead. So, on this Good Friday in addition to the horror of Jesus execution, on top of all the suffering of my sisters and brothers, and for the violence that we cannot seem to escape, in addition to all of that I weep for the death of the god we have personified. The Father God, the Sky God, God Almighty is dead and we have killed him; sacrificed him on the altars of reality. Our science, technology, philosophy, history, and our theologies have killed this personified deity that we both feared and adored. The Roman legions have been replaced by Niectzche, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Dom Crossan, Jack Spong and a whole host of others who have hammered nails into the grand puppeteer in the sky. And so, gazing upon the cross, I weep, because we have lost something that we loved so dearly.
We have moved on to a more enlightened understanding of reality that does not include a person up there or out there . God is dead and we have killed him. The pain of that death is almost too much for me to bear. But I look upon that cross knowing that death will not have the final word. Death could not take Jesus from us. We know that despite humanity’s most violent efforts, the cross could not take Jesus from us and that death did not win. Jesus lives.
So, if death could not take Jesus from us, death cannot take God from us. Just because we have outgrown believing that our personification of God is actually God does not meant that the reality that we personified can be overcome by death. We personify all sorts of things, and just because we stop personifying them doesn’t mean they disappear. We personify hurricanes but whether we think of them as Katrina or Andrew, we cannot destroy them simply by refusing to personify them; the force of a hurricane lives beyond our personification of that force. And while we grieve the loss of our Father, we know that death cannot take God from us anymore than death could hold Jesus captive in the grave. Jesus lives beyond death in ways that his first followers could never have dreamed or imagined.
Our God, the One who lies at the very heart of reality will not be destroyed by the death of our various personifications of God which have always fallen short of who and what God IS. Let our lament of the loss of the one we personified, worshipped, feared and adored, let that lament move us beyond our grief over the loss of the God we thought we knew, so that we can open ourselves to encounters with the One WHO IS WAS AND EVER MORE SHALL BE, the HOLY ONE who lives and moves and has Being in, with, through, and beyond us. Let our lament move us beyond the grave, which will prove to be empty. Gazing upon the cross, we weep for all the pain and sorrow that this evolving life in the world brings. Gazing upon the cross, we weep for the loss of innocence that comes to us all. Gazing upon the cross, we weep for the deaths of all those who came in the name of the ONE who is Love. Gazing upon the cross, we weep to mourn the death of God.
But we do not grieve as ones without hope. For we know that death will not have the final word. We know that when all is said and done, the grave can never, ever keep our God who is Love from us. God is dead for we have killed him. But what is death? We know that in Christ, death is not the end. Our God waits to burst forth from the tomb.
So, let us grieve as ones who have hope. Let us keep watch and wait, wait for the one who is beyond our abilities to imagine. Let us open ourselves to the endless possibilities of the ONE who lives beyond life, beyond death, beyond us. Let us open ourselves trusting that the One who lives beyond us will once again move, in, with, through, and among us as we too live into LOVE. Amen.
Parable of the Madman, Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.]