Good Friday sermon 2008
Pinelands Methodist Church
Good Friday 2008
There have been a number of things of significance that have happened on Good Friday throughout history. For example, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. Also, on Good Friday 10 April, 1998 the British and Irish governments signed the Good Friday Agreement, which has been a significant part of the Northern Ireland peace process. But on April 11, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama at the Gaston Motel, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, and Fred Shuttlesworth decided to lead a peaceful, non-violent demonstration the next day, Good Friday, against the racial injustices of the city. As in most southern US cities in those days bus-seating was segregated; schools, parks, lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains – they were almost all segregated. Some called Birmingham the most segregated city in the country. Its bombings and torchings of black churches and homes had given it the name, "Bombingham".
Rev. King and the others knew what they were up against. The sheriff had served Martin Luther King with a state-court injunction, which prohibited him and other movement leaders from conducting demonstrations. He had a wife and four children back home in Atlanta, but King decided to violate the injunction, pursue a peaceful, nonviolent demonstration, and willingly go to jail. On Good Friday, King led his fifty volunteers downtown, up to the police line, came face-to-face with Bull Connor, and knelt down with Ralph Abernathy in prayer. He and all the demonstrators were thrown into paddy wagons and put in jail.
On Tuesday, April 16, King was shown a copy of the Birmingham News, which contained a letter from eight Christian and Jewish clergyman of Alabama (all white), criticizing King for his demonstration. In response, King wrote what has come to be called "Letter From Birmingham Jail," and which one biographer described as "the most eloquent and learned expression of the goals and philosophy of the nonviolent movement ever written" (Stephen Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: the Life of Martin Luther King Jr. [New York: Penguin That, 1982], p. 222.).
What It Was Like
I would like us to hear the power and insight with which King spoke – enraging thousands and inspiring thousands. The white clergy had all said he should be more patient, wait, don't demonstrate. He wrote:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policeman curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she's told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "Nigger," your middle name becomes "Boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
(M. L. King, Letter from Birmingham Jail, with an introduction by Paul Chaim Schenck [no place, no date], p. 8-9.
The Letter may be read on many Internet web sites by simply entering the title in your search engine; one site, for example, is (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/libraries/subjects/afam/mlkjail.html)
To the charge that he was an extremist he responded like this:
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you"? Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll to down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream"? Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus"? Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God"? And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "Thus this nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? (Letter, p. 14)
Powerful Call to the Church
And finally he delivered a powerful call to the church, which rings as true today as it did forty-five years ago:
There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. . . . But the judgment of God is upon the church [today] as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th century. (Letter, p. 17)
This is Martin Luther King Jrs. prophetic voice ringing out of a Birmingham jail in 1963.
So here we are on Good Friday 45 years later in Pinelands and you may be trying to figure out what race relations in the US many years ago would have to do with us. Well, Dr. King presents 2 questions in his Birmingham jail response to 8 clergymen that I would like us to look at this morning. These questions don’t just speak into the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s in the US, but I think they continue to ring out around a world where justice is still just a dream for millions of people and the body of Christ seems powerless to make an impact.
1st Question: Will we be extremists for hate or for love?
Those of us who would call ourselves Christians this morning are following an extremist. Jesus was not a nice guy that got in a little bit over his head, didn’t realize that things were so far out of control and got himself executed. Jesus says in John 12:27 just before celebrating Passover for the last time with his disciples,
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”
There were no surprises—Jesus knew what was in store for him in living the way that he did. Hi living in such a way brought us light. Further on in v. 44 he explains his way of living as light, that believing in him is believing in his father:
‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.’ (Jn. 12:44-46)
This is who we have come to celebrate this morning—an extremist for love who, in bringing light to the world was brutally crucified by those who hated the light. Martin Luther King Jr. was trying as best he could to be an extremist in the same way that His Saviour was because I think he understood what Christ’s death on the cross brought for each of us who follow after him and that we must embrace what has been accomplished so that we don’t defame this marvellous grace that has been given us.
I think King understood that Christ’s death on the cross has reconciled us to each other and to God. There are no levels of superiority in Christ.
Ephesians 2:13-16 (NLT)
13 But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. 14 For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. 15 He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. 16 Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death.
There is no longer any barrier separating cultures or colours or any grouping we can think of.All barriers have been destroyed in Christ! We are presented as one new person to God, reconciled to each other and then reconciled to God.
In this new state as one person we have been given the message of reconciliation—we are ambassadors of reconciliation. The cross of Christ has made this a reality. Is this how we are living? Are we extremists for reconciliation, for bringing groups together and functioning as one within the body of Christ? This doesn’t mean that we lose our differences and become one boring culture with no distinctives. Instead it means that in the midst of our distinctives we are overwhelmingly united through Christ. Extreme love is the overwhelming bond in our relationships. When one of us hurts, we all hurt. When one of us is hungry, we step in to provide. Without this overarching love for each other, regardless of our cultural differences, we take what has been won for us at great cost on the cross and make it of no effect—worthless. This cannot be. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20(NIV)
18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
In our reconciled state to God and to each other, we have been given the message of reconciliation. We are ambassadors for this message, so that those in darkness can see the love that permeates our relationships, breaking through anything that would divide us. . . whether we’re from Pinelands or Langa or Manenburg, or Joe Slovo or Zimbabwe or the DRC or America. . .our extreme love for each other was purchased by the death of Our Saviour on the Cross. Have we embraced the tremendous gift of reconciliation that has been given us? Has Christ died in vain? Our status as reconciled believers is a down payment on God’s Kingdom in our midst. It must look differently than it does in the world. People noticed followers of ‘the Way’ as Christians were known in the early church. Historians remarked about how they loved each other, how they took care of each other, how there were no needs among them and how they took care of non-believers as well. Can we be extremists this morning, extremists for love, showing the world, or at least Cape Town that we have appropriated the miracle that Christ has accomplished for us. Jew and Gentile, slave and free, black and white are made one new person brought into relationship with God. Can we?
2. If we are willing to be extremists, maybe this is a non-point, but I will ask us this morning what Martin Luther King Jr. asked the church in America in 1963, which I think still needs to be asked in America in 2008 and needs to be asked of us as well. Has the church lost its authenticity and power because we are not willing to suffer for what we believe? Extremist is not a nice word—it catches in our throats when we say it and it conjures up all sorts of unpleasant images. But we must remember that we follow an extremist who loved us so much that he gave his life so that we might live. He also gave us the power that we might follow in his footsteps.
Acts 1:8 (NLT)
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus death brings reconciliation and the Holy Spirit gives us the power to love with an extreme love borne out of suffering and sacrifice. Are we willing to follow him? It will be difficult. It will require sacrifice and it will look like extremism. But there is a lost world wondering where hope will come from. We are facing problems and challenges as a country that to some seem overwhelming. People are anxious, discouraged, and angry. Many feel hopeless. It’s like Friday seemed 2000 years ago to a band of followers who watched Jesus die a brutal death on a cross. It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’.
The church of the resurrected Jesus can stand like a beacon in the midst of the darkness and discouragement of Friday and say, ‘follow me as I follow Jesus. I love you, I will walk with you, the way is dark but I have light. Join me on this journey as Jesus leads us.’
If you haven’t yet started a journey with Christ, you can decide to do that today and I would be happy to chat with you about that. We acknowledge his brutal execution today and what that has purchased for us, but I know the rest of the story and you can join us for that as we celebrate it together on Sunday.
Before we go, let’s look at a short video clip after which you are dismissed. Go in peace. It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Comin’