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A Good Friday sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus at the community service on April 6, 2007 at Broad St. Christian Church,

Dedicated to The Rev. Dr. LaTonya Bynum and The Rev. Dr. David Van Dyke as they are called to ministries beyond Broad St. In thanksgiving for all they have done for our downtown churches and Columbus, and always to the glory of God!
Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9, John 18:1-19:42

Today marks my eighth Good Friday service with the Broad St. Churches and clergy. When I arrived on Broad St, Drs. David Van Dyke and LaTonya Bynum were already here faithfully serving God’s people in the heart of Columbus. Today marks our last time in this worship leadership together. David has been called to serve as Sr. Pastor of House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, MN. LaTonya has been called to become the Associate Regional Minister for the Christian Church Disciples of Christ in Ohio.

We will all miss both of you. None will miss you more than the beloved congregations you have served faithfully and well. All our prayers, blessings and gratitude to God for your meaningful and profound ministries among us will accompany each of you and your beloved ones as you take the amazing gifts God has given you to new places of ministry and service in Christ’s name.

David and Latonya , for you and your ministries - Thanks be to God!

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.

From the cross of suffering, we know that Jesus spoke seven last words. Close to the end of his crucifixion, In the King James Version, John’s Gospel tells us that “standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and disciple who he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold thy son!” To the disciple standing there he said, “Behold thy mother!” (KJV, John 19:25-27).

“Behold” is a word used throughout the scriptures to catch our attention. Primarily used in the King James Version of the Bible, when we hear, “Behold,” we need to pay attention to what comes next. While it can mean, “See,” or “Lo!” - “behold” always calls to our attention the power and significance of the present moment.

At the Annunciation, the angel declares to Mary, “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy!” Later, the angels tells Joseph to stand by Mary because she is bearing God’s son and still later Joseph is told to flee to Egypt with his new family with the word, “Behold” grabbing his attention. Jesus begins parables with, “Behold.” “Behold, a sower from afar . . . ” Once we enter the passion narratives, the word “behold” takes on a darker meaning: “Behold, the son of man betrayed,” (Mark 14:41), “Behold, my hands and feet,” (Luke 24:39), “Behold, the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6).

As Jesus hangs on the cross, facing his final moments of life, we see him raising his head amidst the suffocating pain of death. To look up and to see anyone or anything outside of his own suffering and pain - through all the sweat and blood and tears - is almost inconceivable. Yet, behold, our savior! He sees his mother. He sees the one disciple who does not abandon him at the cross - his beloved disciple - John. And to them he declares that their lives will be forever intertwined. They are charged to care for one another. So that neither will feel the pain of loneliness in his death, Jesus calls them to see one another and embrace each other.

I can’t help but think that Jesus’ “behold” from the cross connects him to his mother at the clearest point of contact. As child, he must have heard her tell the story of his annunciation and birth. Now at the end, as in the very beginning, “behold” binds mother to son.

As a young pastor, the first member of my church in Cleveland, Ohio who died in my arms was Dale Tilburg. Dale and I were both 28 years old when he died shortly after Easter in 1986. As he died, with his mother and father beside him, I was aware that he, like Jesus, had witnessed the disappearance of all his friends in the end. As Dale’s cancer advanced, all his softball and steelworker friends left his side. His parents never wavered in their love and presence. As Dale lay dying, he said to me, “Rev. Tim look after my mom and dad for me.” Like Jesus, he knew that the pain of his death would not end when his heart finally stopped beating. He knew the pain yet to come for his beloved ones. He knew that abiding in faith is the calling of love in Christ.

There is so much suffering in this world. And in the passion narratives found in all four gospels, it is difficult to find some hope in the face of senseless suffering. In our texts, it is only when Jesus is able to speak that a beam of hope breaks through the darkness of this day. But our search for hope is more than biblical in nature. Each day when we rise, we behold a world which creates senseless suffering - as in the case of war, and murder, and prisoners put to death, and policies and practices which rob children of childhood, and humans of their humanity.

How can hope be expressed in the face of senseless suffering?

In his book Night, 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner (and soon to be a speaker at Congregation Tifereth Israel), Dr. Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, tells this story that he witnessed as a 13 year old boy:

The SS hung two Jewish men and a boy before the assembled inhabitants of the camp. The men died quickly but the death struggle of the boy lasted half an hour. “Where is God? Where is he?” a man behind me asked. As the boy, after a long time, was still in agony on the rope, I heard the man cry again, “Where is God now?” and I heard a voice within me answer, “Here he is - he is hanging here on the gallows . . . ”

As difficult as it is to speak about this experience, we find two meanings in the phrase “God is hanging here on the gallows.”

First, it is an assertion about God. God is no executioner and God is no almighty spectator. God is not a mighty tyrant. Between the sufferer and the one who causes the suffering, between the victim and executioner, God is on the side of the sufferer. God is on the side of the victim. God is hanged. God is crucified. God is given the lethal injection.

Second, there is an assertion about the boy. Great German theologian Dorothee Soelle writes this of the boy:

If we do not see the assertion about the boy, than the story is false and we can forget the first assertion about God. But, how can the assertion about the boy be made without cynicism? “He is with God, he has been raised, he is in heaven.” Such traditional phrases are almost always clerical cynicism with a high apathy content. What language can preserve what is affirmed in classical theology and yet be translated into a message of liberation?

We have to learn to hear the confession of the Roman Centurion (at the cross), “truly this was God’s son,” in the phrase “Here is God - he is hanging here on this gallows.” Every single one of the six million murdered in the Holocaust was God’s beloved son. Were anything else the case, resurrection would not have occurred, even in Jesus’ case. (Dorothee Soelle, from “On the Gallows” in Suffering, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1975).

Behold, our God in the intensity and immensity of God’s suffering in each one throughout history who is hung on the gallows. Each one who suffers so, rises so. If we cannot “behold” the Christ in the six million, then we should not have crosses in any of our sanctuaries. If we cannot “behold” the Suffering One in the faces of the poor in our homes, in our churches, in our schools, on our streets, in our prisons, in New Orleans, in Iraq, in Darfur and the Sudan then we should not go to Easter because we cannot see the hope of resurrection in any of these places and faces which reflect God to us.

When the women and John stood at the foot of the cross and witnessed the slow death of their son and beloved one, they witnessed no less than the execution of God. There on the cross, all who bothered to show up, saw the pouring out of love - a love for the lost and broken ones of the earth. As Jesus looked down and saw his mother and friends, his heart must have been torn in two to see them there. Each of us knows that it is harder to behold the faces of our loved ones witnessing our suffering than to bear our suffering. Nevertheless, there was no bitterness and no remorse in that moment in time - just love.

What he was really saying to those at the foot of the cross was, “I have cared for you both, just as you have cared for me. Carry on our love for one another. So that my love is not lost in this world, love one another. You will be the bearers of my love, now.” While the other words from the cross are directed to the ones being crucified at his right and left and to God his Father, Jesus leaves us with hope when he leaves his admonition to love one another with in the hearts and minds of John and Mary. He gives his message of unconditional love to those who remain behind and will give life to these words.

In The Signature of Jesus, Brennan Manning writes that more than a hundred years ago, a phrase we hear overused in Christian culture, “Born Again,” was seldom used at all in the south. Rather, the words used to describe a breakthrough into a personal relationship with Jesus were: “I was seized by the power of a great affection.” This was a profoundly moving way to indicate both the initiative of Almighty God and the explosion within the human heart when Jesus became Lord. “Seized by the power of a great affection” was a visceral description of a Holy Spirit conversion.

The crucified Christ is not an abstraction but God’s ultimate answer to how far God is willing to God to reveal his love for us. Christ crucified is the power of God’s great affection for us, seeking to seize our attention and grasp our hearts and our very lives.

Seized by a power of a great affection and deeply touched by unconditional love for the whole world Jesus said to his mother and then to his beloved disciple: “Woman, behold thy son! ...Behold thy mother!”

If you cannot fully comprehend the power of Christ’s crucifixion and God’s call to you to follow Jesus, then hear these two closing admonitions that come to us from the scriptures of resurrection: “Behold,” the day is coming when God will tell us a mystery (I Corinthians 15:50) and “Behold,” God will make all things new (Revelation 21:5). Amen.

Copyright 2007, The First Congregational Church