Grace Presbyterian Church
April 14, 2017, Good Friday A
The Accomplished Apocalypse
While we tend to think of this as a familiar story, what is actually “familiar” to us is, first of all, the basic concept – Jesus was crucified – and, thereafter, a mashup of details or accounts from the four different gospels that all run together in our minds. For example, the “seven last words” spoken by Jesus on the cross are taken from across all four gospels; no one gospel includes such a narrative, and Matthew only includes one “word” spoken by Jesus on the cross. I invite you today to hear, specifically and distinctly, how Matthew describes the event of the death of the Son of God.
The reading we have just heard comes, as do all of the gospel accounts, at the end of an extended narrative of Jesus’s final days, beginning with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem we commemorated on Sunday, and continuing through events happening while Jesus and his followers were in and near Jerusalem that week. Matthew’s account includes the story of Jesus clearing the temple, an incident with an unproductive fig tree, and one last great burst of teaching, covering most of four chapters. Once the plot to eliminate Jesus is set in motion, we experience what was heard in the extended gospel reading Sunday, of Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s denial, hearings before the religious leaders and the Roman authorities, and finally the conviction and condemnation and processional to Golgotha, where Jesus is nailed to the cross, and soldiers gamble for his clothing. Jesus has not spoken since he was before Pilate.
As the skies all around give way to darkness, Jesus cries out. Not just a random cry, but “Eli, eli, lema sabachtani?” As you might have noticed, this directly echoes the psalm heard in our responsive reading. For the most part we modern readers probably remember that first verse of the psalm – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – and little if anything else. Matthew’s hearers and readers, though, would be more likely to remember the whole psalm – not just the agonizing lament of isolation and separation with which it begins, but also the verses about the holiness of God, the protection of God, and ultimately the trust of God that is not thwarted or put aside in the moment of terror and isolation. Matthew clues his readers here: all is not lost.
The bystanders, though, mistake the psalm for a call for Elijah. One fetches some sour wine and offers it to Jesus, while others wait for Elijah, popularly believed to come to the aid of those in trouble. Jesus cried out again (we don’t know what he said this time or if he simply cried out), and, as the NRSV translates the Greek, “breathed his last.”
Of course, you may know that the same word used for “breath” might also have been used for “spirit.” What you might not know is that in this sentence, there is no possessive pronoun here; only an article that we might just as easily translate as “the.” That final phrase might just as easily be translated as “breathed out” or “yielded” or “gave up the spirit”, or maybe “Spirit” with a capital “S”? Is Jesus’s death unleashing the Holy Spirit in the world?
It definitely unleashes something. Beyond the darkness already noted Matthew gives us quite a list of out-of-the-ordinary things happening. The curtain of the temple being torn is reported in other gospels, but the earthquake and rocks splitting, and especially those tombs opening, are all unique to Matthew’s story, and might leave us modern readers at a loss. Matthew’s readers, though, would have recognized those signs. A few of them were echoed back in chapter 24, and they would have been familiar from other sources in their tradition.
These are signs of the Apocalypse. The end of time, if you prefer.
Matthew is practically grabbing us by the collar and shaking us and saying “look what is happening here! This is it! That old world is conquered; it has no power here. This is God’s moment of triumph!”
It does not feel to us like that old world is conquered. Just this week, the week we call Holy, the world witnessed Christians blown up celebrating Palm Sunday in Egypt, and on Maundy Thursday we dropped what is actually called the “Mother of All Bombs” – the largest non-atomic bomb ever used – in Afghanistan. The old world, the world of vengeance and hatred and fear and destruction, will not admit that it is already defeated.
But in that moment on the cross its end was written, as Matthew describes it. Too bad most of Jesus’s followers weren’t around to see it. Remember, Judas betrayed him, and had by this time hung himself; Peter had denied him three times and gone away weeping bitterly; and the other disciples, well, they just fled. Thus it was left to a centurion to draw the conclusion from all this apocalyptic action that this man hanging and dying on this cross was not just innocent, but divine – “God’s Son!” And so at the last, the witnesses to the apocalypse were a few bystanders and some shocked centurions.
And the women.
Matthew names three of them, indicating there were more. Mary Magdalene (who hasn’t appeared in this gospel before now), another Mary, and the mother of James and John. Though Matthew has not drawn attention to them before, here he points out that they not only followed, but actually supported Jesus – “provided for him” as verse 55 tells us, probably financially.
These women are the last witnesses to the end of the world, and they will be the first witnesses to the miracle yet to come.
But that story is for another day.
For today, we are at the tomb, witnessing the Apocalypse.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): “My Song is Love Unknown” (#209), “Ah, Holy Jesus” (#218)