Preaching on Good Friday and Easter is Challenging
I have fellow preachers in mind with this post. Although others may want to “listen in.”
Those of you in the non-preacher, listening-in category might imagine that preaching on Easter and during Holy Week is something we preachers live for. The pageantry, the symbolism, the crowds (more on Easter than Good Friday), the music, the flowers and festivity.
But actually these are some of the toughest sermons to prepare.
Partly it’s the pressure of expectations. This week, these days, are arguably the pinnacle of the church calendar, the heart of the faith. You want to do well. You want to deliver in the clutch, to be inspiring, etc.
Another factor is that you are dealing with more or less well-known stories and Scripture texts. A preacher may find herself wondering, “What can I say that hasn’t already been said before — and probably better?”
There’s also just the quick turn around from Good Friday darkness and sorrow to Easter light and joy. Talk about depths and heights. I’ve never been able to write my Easter sermon until after Good Friday was complete. Thank heavens for “holy Saturday.”
So, my fellow preachers, take a few deep breaths, stay on top of the basics: good rest, exercise, and good food. And live into the story. Yes, it has been said before. But originality is not the point. (Note how content children are to hear the same story told or read over and over again). The point is sharing the story of what God has done and is doing. The point is telling the truth.
The Passion story, i.e. the story of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, torture and mocking, suffering and death, is narrated at length and in detail in each of the four gospels. But note this. None dwell on, draw out, belabor the pain, blood and gore. The gruesomeness is, if anything, downplayed. That is one of the reasons that Mel Gibson’s movie of a decade ago was off. Gibson has some kind of sado-masacistic love of extreme brutality, blood, pain and suffering. That isn’t what the Gospel writers give us.
Their accounts seem more interested in dramatic interactions — Jesus and Peter, Jesus and Judas, a young servant woman and Peter, Pilate and Jesus, Mary and a disciple. There are also so many symbolic actions and words — breaking the bread, a crown of thorns, carrying the cross. A true symbol does not say “this means that” (that would be an allegory). Good symbols are multi-layered and open to different meanings.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Only a suffering God can help.” This is at the heart of Good Friday. The story incorporates and does not deny suffering and evil. We live a culture where optimism is our official religion and some at least think those who experience suffering are “losers.” The gospel delivers us from such pretense and smugness.
Some preachers will pretty much side-step the story and its detail to give us a pre-packaged interpretation: “Jesus died for our sins,” or “Jesus paid the price.” There’s some element of truth in those familiar words, but preachers should beware of glib formulas.
When we turn to the Easter sermon, I again advise staying close to the text. It’s remarkable how much variance there is between Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The point is not that they couldn’t get their story straight, but that each rendering intends to convey different points and emphases. This is a many-faceted jewel.
Whichever gospel you are preaching from this year, pay attention to its uniqueness, to the elements it incorporates or highlights that others don’t. These are clues to the evangelist’s message to people then, and now.
But it is true of all four of the Easter stories that not a one looks like unmitigated, sound-the-trumpets triumph. There’s more silence, more mystery, surprise and consternation in these narratives than we may imagine. They do have this in common: God is the acting subject. When we have come to the end of our rope, God is just getting going. When we’re ready to pay our final respects, the tomb in empty. When we’re set to go back to business as usual, “He’s gone ahead of you, to Galilee, there you’ll find him.”
One final comment. Conventional understandings of the whole thing reduce it to personal immortality, to what happens to each of us after we die. I really don’t think that’s the focus of the Easter narratives. It’s less about our personal fate and much more about God’s encounter with Death and Sin as the twin binding powers that stalk the land and so often hold us in their thrall and grasp. The Easter message is that these terrible powers have been met and defeated in the cross and resurrection.
Along that line here’s a bit from theologian Harvey Cox that strikes the right note:
“How Jesus died has to be important, and that he did not die a natural death. In the biblical texts Jesus is not just described as ‘dead’ but as ‘crucified.’ There is a difference. To restore a dead person to life might be seen to strike a blow against mortality. But to restore a crucified man to life means to strike an equally decisive blow against the system that caused his wrongful death.”
I might re-write that last sentence as, “to restore a crucified man to life means to strike an equally decisive blow against the evil powers that believe they are ultimate and in control.”
So, fellow preachers, I hope you find some encouragement here. Remember you don’t have to raise Jesus from the dead. God does that. You have only to point in his direction and be amazed.