A Good Friday sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on April 2, 2010
Just last week we passed the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Monsignor Oscar Romero, the Roman Catholic archbishop of El Salvador, in 1980. In a sermon at Westminster Abbey marking that anniversary, Rowan Williams noted the words “sentir con la iglesia” that were written on the mitre of the fallen archbishop. He said this:
Sentir con la Iglesia: 'feeling with the Church'. This was Oscar Romero's motto as a bishop – you'll see it in many photographs inscribed on the episcopal mitre he wore. It is in fact an ancient phrase, very often used to express the ideal state of mind for a loyal Catholic Christian… But the life and death of Monseñor Romero take us to a far deeper level of meaning. Here was a man who was by no means a temperamental revolutionary. For all his compassion and pastoral dedication, for all the intensity of his personal spirituality as a young priest and later as a bishop, he seems originally to have been one of those who would have interpreted sentir con la Iglesia essentially in terms of loyalty to the teaching and good order of the Church. And for all the affection he inspired, many remembered him in his earlier ministry as a priest who was a true friend to the poor - but also a friend of the rich. In the mordant phrase of one observer, 'His thinking was that the sheep and the wolves should eat from the same dish'.
His breakthrough into a more complete and more demanding vision came, of course, as a result of seeing at close quarters what the wolves were capable of, and so realising the responsibility of the shepherd in such a situation. The conversion that began with the vicious slaughter of innocent peasants by the Salvadorean National Guard in 1974 and 1975 came to its decisive climax with the murder of his Jesuit friend Rutilio Grande in March 1977, a few weeks after Romero's installation as Archbishop. From that moment on, sentir con la Iglesia had a new meaning and a deeply biblical one. 'The poor broke his heart', said Jon Sobrino, 'and the wound never closed.'
'Feeling with the Church' meant, more and more clearly, sharing the agony of Christ's Body, the Body that was being oppressed, raped, abused and crucified over and over again by one of the most ruthless governments in the western hemisphere. In the early summer of the same year, 1977, in the wake of the atrocities committed by government forces at Aguilares, he spoke to the people in plain terms: 'You are the image of the divine victim...You are Christ today, suffering in history'. These words were uttered in a town where the soldiers had shot open the tabernacle in the church and left the floor littered with consecrated hosts. There could be no more powerful a sign of what was going on in terms of the war of the state against the Body of Christ.
Archbishop Romero’s assassination was followed by thousands of murders, many of them anonymous or known only to their closest family and neighbours, others of higher profile, including the six Jesuit priests and their housekeepers and four American nuns working in El Salvador who all died brutal deaths at the hands of Salvadoran death squads during the 1980s. These deaths have come to symbolize the horrific civil war that spanned over a decade in that tiny country and the price that the vulnerable poor and those who speak for them always seem to pay.
Good Friday is for many Christians very often a time of focused introspection – a time to reflect on the meaning of the cross for oneself in light of one’s personal salvation. There is, without question, a deeply personal and spiritual reality in the experience of Jesus’ death on the cross; but we miss the point of the cross if we insist on seeing these events only as something that took place once in the far distant past, or events whose consequences we understand only in very personal terms. Romero’s assassination is a reminder of the human condition into which Jesus came, and of the continuing reality of the suffering of Christ’s body in our world today. And personal as it may be, there is no avoiding the social and yes even political realities, just as on that first Good Friday.
Witness the political machinations we have just heard in the telling of the Passion in John’s Gospel – of the Roman imperial and the occupied Jewish temple authorities, whose competing interests keep them passing this hot potato back and forth, until finally, and fatefully, Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified. The scapegoating of the innocent poor by political and religious elites – the “powers of this world” as Walter Wink (and the apostle Paul) calls them – is an all-too-familiar modus operendum bred into the fabric of the kingdoms of this world.
But in Jesus, we witness something unexpected – and transformative. Instead of the expected ascent to power, as even his closest disciples seemed to expect, Jesus carries us in a different direction – downward.
On Palm Sunday we heard those words from the letter to the Philippians, where Paul quotes an ancient hymn about Jesus:
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8).
Richard Rohr writes that
[This] hymn artistically, honestly, but boldly describes that “secret hour” when God in Christ reversed [that great parabolic movement of descent and ascent], when the upward movement preferred by humans became the downward movement preferred by Jesus. It starts with the great self-emptying or kenosis, that we call the Incarnation in Bethlehem, and ends with the Crucifixion in Jerusalem.
It brilliantly connects the two mysteries as one movement: down, down, down into the enfleshment of creation, into humanity’s depths and sadness, and finally into identification with those at the very bottom (“[taking] the form of a slave”) on the cross. Jesus represents God’s total solidarity with, and even love of, the human situation, as if to say, “Nothing human is abhorrent to me.”
“Down, down, down,” he says. That is where Jesus goes, to experience and to identify with the deepest, darkest places in our humanity.
I can’t help but think of one of my own descents into the deepest and darkest places of our humanity, nearly two years ago now. I traveled to the city of Goma in the Eastern Congo where for the past ten years a civil war has been taking place that has taken over 4 million lives. And if that weren’t bad enough, Goma was also the victim of a volcanic eruption that left 40% of the city covered with hot molten lava in 2002.
One particular day each place I went seemed to take me to a new depth of the human experience – first to the home of a destitute young widow whose husband had been killed, then a family that had taken in five orphaned children to raise them with their own three children, in a house built on top of the lava flow – then the home of a widowed man who was raising five children by himself – and then, when I thought I had seen the worst, we ventured outside the city into a camp for internally displaced persons – refugees in their own country. Tiny hovels strewn across a muddy landscape as far as you could see. The picture of human misery. I wondered where God was in all of this.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Down, down, down.
Coming back into the city after dark, driving past the multitudes of people on the darkened streets, not knowing what lurked in their shadows, my heart was as heavy as it had ever been.
Just as I was ready to be anywhere else other than where I was, we ventured down another dark lane through crowds of people; finally, stopping at a place I was told was a church. I could just read its sign in the dark. We got out and I was introduced to the pastor and his wife – Apostle Petros, of one of the many Pentecostal churches in the city. I could tell he was a gentle and wise man when he shook my hand. We went inside, and as my hosts were speaking with the pastor I sat and listened as a group of 10 or 15 young people sang in the front of the church. It was a Saturday night choir rehearsal for the next morning’s service. I watched through the darkness to see upraised arms, and listened as some of the sweetest voices I have ever heard offered up their praise to God. These were young people who lived amidst the chaos and depravity of this city day in and day out, year in and year out – and yet, their mouths were filled with praise to God.
I sat there, moved to tears, and deeply aware of God’s presence in this dark place.
There is no human situation that is abhorrent to God. In fact, as Archbishop Romero discovered, it was in his own downward movement among the poor of El Salvador that he discovered the meaning and the power of the gospel. Predicting his own death he said, “A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish."
Down, down, down he went, to discover the place where God already was.
Jesus’ own descent, through his tortured death on a cross, and even into the very reaches of hell itself, represents God’s total solidarity with us human beings. Sentir con la humanidad. Feeling with all humanity. Nothing that you or I can experience, no matter how dark or how desperate, falls outside the realm of God’s love. It is that kind of downward-trending love, shown to us on the cross, that has the power to transform us and our world.
I love one of the prayers for mission in the Morning Prayer service. I’ll leave you with it this evening.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.
 Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation: When have I consciously chosen to move downward in my life? Palm Sunday, Mar 28, 2010.