April 10, 2020 / Good Friday/ Richard Holmer
In his final hours Jesus seems so very isolated – a most solitary man, separated from the community of those he loves. We see him praying alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. His closest friends can’t even stay awake to watch with him. Jesus is arrested and put on trial alone before the High Priest. No one speaks on his behalf. Peter lingers outside in the courtyard, but when asked if he is one of the disciples of Jesus he denies it. He will not admit to any relationship with Jesus. Then Jesus stands alone before Pilate, and the crowd shouts with one voice: “Crucify him!” Jesus is condemned and carries the cross by himself. The soldiers nail Jesus to the cross – imposing on him a terribly painful and final form of isolation: Jesus is now unable to move – hung there to die.
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These past weeks we all have had our own experiences of isolation. Staying at home, sheltering in place, and social distancing have changed the pattern of our lives. We miss all the usual social interaction that we had taken for granted until now. This time is much harder for those who live alone and those confined to nursing homes. It’s hardest of all for those who are hospitalized unable to be visited by those who love them. Sadly, some have died alone – unaccompanied in their final hours. This pandemic has brought unwelcome solitude and loneliness. Many are feeling the stress and strain of isolation.
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There is an element in John’s Passion narrative that is unique – a piece of the story to which I had never given much thought. In John’s telling, Jesus is not utterly alone. As he hangs on the cross in agony, at the foot of the cross there is a small group of family and friends. Gathered there are his mother, his aunt, Mary, the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, and his disciple, John. There is great pathos in this scene: a mother watching her son suffer and die. In Franco Zefferelli’s film, Jesus of Nazareth, the portrayal of this scene is truly heartbreaking.
The only thing that would have been worse for Mary than watching Jesus die would have been not being there: knowing he was dying alone, surrounded only by executioners, scoffers, despisers and strangers. In that awful and painful moment, Jesus was not alone. There was a small community gathered at the foot of the cross.
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Jesus had a unique and personal mission. No one else could do what Jesus came to accomplish. Yet Jesus did not fulfill his mission alone. Throughout his ministry, Jesus lived and worked in community – surrounded by his 12 disciples and many faithful followers. His mission was personal, but it was not private. Earlier Jesus had said this: “I know my own and my own know me.” The shepherd knows his sheep by name, and they know and trust his voice.
Jesus said that he came so that we may have life and have it abundantly. He demonstrates that abundant life is life lived together in trust and love – life in community. Even in his dying agony, Jesus shows his care for the community of his followers. Seeing the five who are gathered at the cross, he instructs his mother to think of John as her son, and for John to consider Mary his mother. Jesus wants no one to be left alone. And we are assured that John followed through, taking Mary into his home, his family, from that day forward.
The authorities had imagined that by killing Jesus they would quickly put an end to the movement that Jesus had inspired. “Kill the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter” – that is what they intended. But the crucifixion could not stop Christ’s compassion. At the very end, as he draws his final tortured breaths, Jesus looks to the needs of those he loves. And as he had said, his life is not taken from him. Jesus freely lays down his life. The shepherd gives his life for the sake of the sheep.
Remember that at the Last Supper Jesus prayed that his followers might be together as one – even as he and his Father are one. His dying instruction was for those he loved to care for one another.
God said at the very beginning, at the creation, that it is not good for man to be alone. We are made for community. Most of us have come to a fresh appreciation of this fundamental truth. These days we feel the pain of separation. We long for the warmth of fellowship and community. We miss being able to come together with friends and extended family. There will be no large gatherings for Easter Dinner. And of course we long to join with one another for worship and holy communion.
The good news is that we are not alone. For a time we may be separated – but we are not scattered. We are still the family of God, bound together by the love of Jesus Christ. Christ calls us to care for one another, and so we will. The worst that men can do was no match for the goodness of God: God’s gracious mercy and love in Jesus Christ. The crucifixion was intended to put an end to the fledgling Christian community. Instead it was a beginning.
Shortly before his arrest, Jesus had indicated the kind of death he was to die. He said: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) And so he has. At the cross we stand together as one people, one family of faith and hope and love.
Thanks be to God.