The Cross’s Question

The Rev. Matthew I. Potts, Maundy Thursday, 2022The Rev. Matthew I. Potts. File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript of the service audio)

The temptation for the preacher today is to say too much, refer to the events that constituted the last moments of Jesus' life, and the temptation for the preacher, and maybe for all of us, is to make some meaning of them, to make a meaningful container in which to hold these things so we can box them up tightly and manage the tragedy and the sadness of what we have heard.

The spiritual task, this day, I think, is to forestall that temptation and to address the sadness, the tragedy. The spiritual task is to refuse to look away, to refuse to turn away from the agony in the garden, and the trial before the Sanhedrin, and Peter's denial in the courtyard, and the flight of the disciples, and the examination by Pilate, and the flogging, and the crucifixion, and the death.

In some ways, these sufferings seem so singular, but we also know that this suffering was commonplace in Jesus' day. He was one of thousands upon thousands who were crucified in like manner. And we know that sufferings like this remain familiar in our world. The fact that the suffering, the fact that this injustice, is commonplace makes our spiritual task that much more demanding and difficult.

As I was preparing these remarks, I was reading and reviewing the passion from the Gospel of Mark that we just heard, and I stopped at what's known as The Cry of Dereliction, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This haunting line as Jesus cries out, abject lines of abandonment, they come from Psalm 22, which we read today. If you look in the commentaries, all kinds of ways that different people thought of what Jesus was doing here. Was He quoting the Psalms to invoke the end which remains unspoken, the victorious end to the Psalm? Was He making some theological point about His relationship to God, the Father?

And I read around these questions, but then, I realized I was doing exactly what I warned us against in the beginning of this sermon, and so were they. I was trying to figure out why He cried out so that I wouldn't have to just listen to that cry, so I wouldn't have to listen to the man I reverence as the Son of God screaming up to God, asking why He had been abandoned.

But this was true even on that day. The on-lookers did the same. They cried out in response to Him, "Listen, He's calling for Elijah. Wait. Let's see if Elijah shows up." This man's death became a curiosity to them, a test, "Let's see what happens?" And so, they looked to the sky to see if Elijah would arrive instead of looking at the man dying before them.

Even what we would call, or what I would call, the corrupt theological claim that comes from the Centurion, "Truly, this man was God's Son." I want to honor the Centurion for what he said, what he saw that so many that day failed to see, and part of me wants to know what about this death persuaded him, persuaded him, this unlikely one, to know that this was the Son of God.

But then, I have to reflect that the fact of that recognition didn't prevent the Centurion from participating in the crucifixion. Being theologically correct didn't put him in the right. Of course, what is right is no real mystery to us, even if the meaning of this suffering must remain mysterious to us always because Jesus told us, throughout His life, what is right and what we ought to do.

And the night before He died, before He was taken, and beaten, and flayed, and skewered, and murdered, Jesus gave us a commandment, His last commandment: "Love one another," He said. "Love one another to the end," He said. "Whatever happens, whatever they do to me, whatever they do to you, love one another."

Suffering. Suffering like this, suffering which is so commonplace in our world, beggars sense. We cannot know why, and we want to make meaning of it, but meaning well is worth so much less than doing good. This day, Good Friday, does challenge us, but the question, the demanding question it asks us, is not, "What does this mean?" It is, "What will you do when you see suffering like this? What will you do?"


See also: Sermon, Holy Week