Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
March 25, 2016, Good Friday
1 Corinthians 1:17-25

“…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block
to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…”
1 Corinthians 1:23

“TGIF — Thank God it’s Friday!”

How many times have you heard that? TGIF means “Thank God the working week is over! Thank God we can relax and do what we want.” It’s not true for everyone, of course — with all the businesses open weekends (or even 24/7) — but it still means, for many, that Fridays are good. Fridays are something worth looking forward to.

But not this Friday. Not today. It’s called “Good Friday,” but it seems anything but good. It’s the day God died: Bad Friday.

That is, if we believe what Christian theology says about who Jesus is. He’s the son of God, second person of the Trinity, “of one being with the Father” (as the Nicene Creed puts it). So, when Jesus, drained of several pints of blood and gasping for breath, groaned out the words “It is finished,” it was God who died on that Friday we now call “good.”

There are some who say the day is called Good Friday because of the benefits that accrue to us because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. It’s good because Jesus purchased salvation from sin, for all who turn to him in faith.

There’s no questioning the fact that such an outcome is good for penitent sinners like you and me, but that’s not the reason we call the day good. My brother Dave, who’s a scholar of the English language and who’s published a book on word origins, explains that the “good” in Good Friday doesn’t mean good at all — not in the sense we use the word today. It means “holy.”

In Old English and Middle English, the word “god” (lower-case “g”) is an adjective that means “pious, devout, morally perfect.” Originally this day was called not Good Friday, but “God Friday.” What the people of that time meant by those words was that this is “Holy Friday.” Over the centuries, as the language shifted and people no longer understood “god” to be a common adjective meaning “holy,” they began calling it Good Friday.

Paul writes, in the 1 Corinthians passage we just read, that “…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…” The word “good,” in Good Friday, is likewise a sort of stumbling block. It can distract us from understanding the true meaning of what happened on Calvary.

What Paul means, of course, is that the very notion of the cross is a stumbling block for the best minds of both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture. The Jews could not imagine that the almighty, most-high God — a God so holy, his divine name could never be spoken — would take on human form, let alone die a human death. And the Romans — who’d lately taken to going down to the Temple of Augustus, to offer burnt sacrifices to their divine Emperor — could not conceive of a divine being who could be arrested, tried, tortured and executed in the most hideous way imaginable. For the Jews, God was inscrutable mystery. For the Romans, “god” was synonymous with raw power. No matter who you talk to, Paul’s saying, death on a cross makes no sense for one who is supposed to be God’s son.

But what if the day is not meant to be good, after all — and not bad, either? What if the day is meant to be holy?

The word “holy” means set apart, or separated from the things of this world for divine purposes. When the ancient Israelites brought a flawless sheep or goat or pigeon to the Temple for sacrifice, the animal came to be known as holy. The same was true of the showbread, a perfect, symmetrical loaf of bread that was displayed in the Temple as an offering. These ordinary food items, the best Jewish agriculture had to offer, were transformed for holy purposes.

Yet, the Hebrew scriptures are quite clear that no one is to bring an animal for the sacrifice that is flawed or blemished — that is in any way less than perfect. That goat must be perfectly white over every part of its body. If it has the smallest of black spots on its hindquarter, it does not measure up to the Temple standard.

But what about a death on the cross? It is, on the very face of it, the polar opposite of holiness. First of all, from the Jewish standpoint, it has nothing to do with their religious faith. Crucifixion is a Roman punishment, a dreadful tool of persecution. Remember, in the story, how the Sanhedrin had to turn to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, to pronounce the sentence. Their faith did not permit such a terrible torture. For the pagan Romans, it was business as usual.

Second, crucifixion is an especially cruel and heartless instrument of justice (if you can call it that). Of all possible means of execution, the cross is designed to stretch the pain out as long as possible, sometimes for days on end. Victims of crucifixion — most of whom were merely tied to the cross with rope, not pierced with nails as Jesus was — died from asphyxiation, dehydration, pulmonary embolism, heart failure, or what the source I consulted delicately refers to as “animal predation.” (I’ll leave that one to your imagination.) For those who were nailed to the cross, or pierced with a spear as Jesus was, you can add loss of blood and sepsis (or infection) as other possible causes of death. Death by crucifixion sometimes took so long, in fact, that even the sadistic Roman soldiers grew tired of waiting. When their commanding officers permitted it, they would break their semiconscious victims’ legs, to return them to screaming consciousness just before they died.

Third, crucifixion is public humiliation. When the Romans put down the famous slave revolt led by Spartacus in 71 BC, they crucified six thousand of the rebel fighters along the Appian Way, the famous road that runs southeastward from Rome. Six thousand — can you imagine it? They left their naked bodies hanging there for some considerable time, food for vultures. All this was to serve as a humiliating example to any who dared question the might of the Roman Senate and its generals.

So, death on a cross is pagan, cruel and supremely humiliating. Far from being good in any sense, it is a veritable trifecta of bad. And this is what the Old and Middle English language calls holy?

Yes, it is. And here’s the wonder of it. If God can enter into such an unholy situation and make it holy, then is there anything — or anyone — in this world that is immune to the transformative power of God?

You know the story, I expect, of how one of our greatest hymns, Amazing Grace, came to be written. Its author is an Englishman named John Newton. In the mid-1700s, Newton was captured by a press gang and forced into service in the Royal Navy, rising to the rank of midshipman. After he tried to escape, he was sentenced to eighty lashes and broken to the rank of ordinary seaman. His captain handed him over to the captain of a passing slave ship, who tried to make him part of his crew. That didn’t work out well. On the coast of Africa, the slave-ship captain turned him over to a slave trader, who treated him cruelly, making him a slave. If it weren’t for the fact that his father sent a ship captain to rescue him, that would have been the end of the story of John Newton.

Newton’s soul was twisted by the abuse he received. How else to explain the fact that, upon his return to England, he took up positions on the crews of various slave ships, eventually becoming captain? This miserable man, who had himself spent time as a slave, inflicted that same horror on others. He did it again and again.

But then John Newton encountered Jesus Christ. During a storm off the coast of Ireland, when it seemed certain his ship was going to sink, Newton offered his life to Christ in a desperate prayer. It was the beginning of a great change in his life. He continued in the slave trade a while longer, but eventually gave it up altogether. He studied for the Anglican priesthood, eventually becoming pastor of a country church.

It was during that time that he wrote a hymn called “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” It wasn’t a very good title. People came to know it by its first two words:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.

Truly, John Newton had been a wretch at the time he became a Christian. He’d lived a life of loathsome selfishness and violence. He was a man who had been a slave, but had been so spiritually blind, he turned around and enslaved others. Could there be any lower form of humanity? Yet, this miserable excuse for a human being — this wretch — is the very man Christ saved and transformed!

Only the son of God could do such a thing: because only the son of God could transform the cross – the ultimate profanity — into an image so holy that it hangs both in the sanctuaries of churches and around the necks of little girls.

That’s what Good Friday — Holy Friday — is all about. It’s about the turning of an instrument of torture to holy purposes. It’s about the turning of even our sinful hearts from the ways of selfishness to true devotion to God.

So, listen tonight to the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Marvel at this tale of a journey to the lowest, most despised place in this world. But know that even such a place is not godforsaken. There is no place to which you or I can descend in this world that is beyond the power of God to bless and transform!

Let us pray:
Lord, take us as we are.
Make us what you would have us be.
Do it by the power of your son Jesus,
who journeyed for our sake to the darkest place of this world,
only to be raised up to the highest heaven. Amen.

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.