A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on Good Friday, April 6, 2012
Sermon for Good Friday
April 6, 2012
Christ Church Andover
The Rev. Jeffrey Gill
Passion Gospel: John 19:1-37
Many Good Friday meditations have focused on the traditional seven last words of Jesus as he hung on the cross, taken from all four Gospels and the various accounts of the cross:
From Luke’s gospel where he says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34), just after the soldiers have just driven nails through his hands and feet; and from Matthew, as he cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46); to the tender and compassionate words to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” and then to his disciple, John, “Behold your mother!” (John 19:26-27) – all the way through to his dying words from the cross: “It is finished!” (John 19:30) On another occasion, we might want to do meditations on all of these last words during a service such as this, and in fact, you’ll find many churches doing just that today.
The fifth of these seven last words of Jesus from the cross is the shortest and in some ways the most provocative and intriguing to me. “I thirst.” “I thirst.” Two short words. So short. So to the point.
Each year as we hear again the words of Jesus from the cross, we mine these sayings for yet one more nugget of truth, one more clue to the eternal purposes of God, one more glimpse into God’s incarnate life lived among us and enlightening our own lives. What about the human condition is illuminated for us? How are we to think of suffering and evil? What do these words tell us about death and dying and how to do it well? What does it mean for Jesus to feel abandoned by God, and how do we deal with those feelings in our own lives? How can we, like Jesus, live more giving and forgiving lives?
And then we come to the fifth word: “I thirst.” It is such a short statement. What more could we possibly hear in it? Preachers have gone to great lengths to draw out the meaning of “thirst,” and perhaps we have all felt the dryness in our mouths and throats as we sat and heard this theme played upon. But as I think about these words this Good Friday, I find myself hearing the “I” more than the “thirst.” “I thirst.”
Who is this “I?” What is the meaning of this “I?”
“I thirst,” says something more than “thirstiness happens.” It is specific. It is personal. It is not spoken here in the passive voice. Jesus is not even saying that something “makes him thirsty,” or that he wants something to quench his thirst. There is a very clear and definite subject of this sentence, and it is “I.”
What makes this short statement so powerful is not so much the parched throat of a suffering person, as it is the “I.” This “I” jumps out and grabs us – Jesus, the one the crowds only days before had hailed as their king; the one confessed by his disciples as the Christ; the one whom Thomas only a few days later will refer to as “My Lord and my God,” – thirsty. I thirst.
We’ve all seen the images. Nomads on a parched desert landscape; refugees in a squalid camp with no running water; a drought stricken farm in West Texas where the animals can find no water – these all conjure up images of thirst for us. But the Lord of all creation, who separated the waters from the dry land?! The one who put the firmament in the heavens?! The one who created the rivers and streams and ponds and lakes and aquifers?! Thirsty?! How can this be?!
It can, finally, be only about one thing – compassion. Cum passio. Suffering with.
About a decade ago James Carroll wrote a column in the Boston Globe about the difference between pity and compassion. He wrote it at a time you might remember when politicians were talking a lot about “compassionate conservatism.” Pity, he says, maintains the status difference between the one who gives and the one who receives. To be the object of pity is a derogatory thing. “Dignity,” he says, “belongs only to the one who pities, never to the one being pitied.” It is done from a distance and from above. It keeps the world divided “between rescuers and victims.” And while pity is perhaps a more noble response to suffering than indifference, it is still very different from the alternative: compassion. Our English word, compassion, comes from Latin roots meaning, “to suffer with.”
James Carroll says in his article that “in the realm of compassion, there are only subjects [i.e. no objects]. ‘To suffer with’ is not only to enter empathetically into the reality of another’s distress, but it is to accept that changing the conditions of that distress requires a partnership of suffering.”
Pity stands apart and says, “Isn’t that just awful?!” Compassion cannot stand apart, but enters into the suffering and asks, “What can I do to share the burden of this person’s suffering?”
I thought of Jesus on the cross when I read those words: A partnership of suffering; Jesus, the image of the invisible God, partnering with us in the experience of human suffering. We Christians talk about Christ’s divinity, which on Good Friday especially seems like an awful paradox at best, as we see him nailed to a tree. Some would be just as content to dismiss the whole idea as an abstract and ultimately not very useful theological statement that modern people could do just as well without. But, it turns out, the whole idea of Christ’s divinity is a statement about the very nature of God – what kind of God God is. If we have imagined God to be one who has pity on us, but ultimately remains distant and above our condition, one intent on preserving the distinction between the human and the divine, between God and us, then this would be a troubling picture indeed.
Jesus offers us a picture, though, not of a pitying God, but of a compassionate God, one for whom there is no human pain or injury that is not known and felt in the very heart of God.
This is not only a theological statement, but it is an ethical one as well. In other words, it is about how we should live if the pattern of God’s own life is truly the image in which we have been created, but from which we have strayed. If God has compassion enough to meet us in our most desperate human need – to say “I” thirst – then we who are made in the image of God ought also to do so for others.
A teenager told me some time ago that he was going to skip lunch at school the next day and fast. He had been very moved by a video they saw in his social studies class that dealt with poverty in Brazil and the problem of street children in the cities. He was going to fast, and the money he saved from not eating lunch he would give to some organization that helped those children. He realized that the money alone would not make very much of a difference, but he said to me that he would be thinking of those children while he was experiencing the hunger of his fast. I thought, how right his instincts were! To give the money alone would be pity, but would probably do more to give the giver a good feeling about himself than it would to actually relieve the suffering of another. “Pity,” Carroll says, “is satisfied with an edifying set of feelings aimed sentimentally at the overtly troubled one, but compassion requires mutual action that lessens suffering, even at some real cost of otherwise avoidable suffering to be borne by the ‘compassionate’ one.”
The implications of this for our lives are enormous. At an individual level it may be the choice to be an inner city math or science teacher instead of taking the high paying job in the private sector. In the public arena it might mean we work as hard for public funding of education in poor communities as we do in our own, or that we care as much about the rights of recent immigrants to live their lives with dignity as we seek for ourselves. On the global scene, perhaps it means that AIDS in Africa or extreme poverty become not just problems we ignore, or that we give money to try to make a difference, but situations that actually compel us to make some sacrifice of ourselves, our time, our gifts, in order to truly enter into the experience of suffering with others.
Our engagement with the world’s ills must begin not with what extra help we can offer (while not impacting our own lifestyles) – but it must begin with the reality of what the needs are. Compassion begins not with the giver, but with the suffering of the other.
There is a powerful shift that takes place between “isn’t it terrible how much suffering there is in the world?” “Isn’t it too bad that thirst happens?” – to “I thirst.” “I know what you are experiencing, because I too am experiencing it right alongside you.”
St. Paul quotes a beautiful and ancient hymn in his letter to the Philippians when he writes these words about Jesus: the one who “though in the form of God… did not grasp at equality with God, but took upon himself the form of a servant, and humbled himself to death, even the death of the cross.” The one who did not grasp at equality with God, but who uttered from the cross, “I thirst.”
When we look upon him this day and when we behold his suffering, we see the face of the compassionate God – the God in whose image we are made, but from whom we have strayed; the One who is calling us more deeply into God’s own life; calling us from indifference and self-interest, to not just pity, but compassion, and mutual self-giving love – for our neighbor, for the whole human family, for the whole of creation. As we stop to look once again at him on this day, we not only see him but we hear him say, “I thirst. I’m here right alongside you, Learn to do the same for one another.” And if we really do not only gaze, but also listen, it will transform our lives and the life of our world.