Washington D.C. is a city built on memories. Monuments to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln dominate the skyline as visitors approach the Potomac River. Museums of American history and memorials to America’s wars line the National Mall. Statues of America’s heroes populate the city like an army of ghosts.
Christianity, too, is built on memory. It’s not primarily through statues and monuments, however, that the most important Christian memories are passed from one generation to the next. Rather, it is through telling the story of Jesus Christ when we gather to worship that our memory comes alive. And this week, with its story of Jesus’ final hours in earthly flesh, offers us the most important memory of all.
Once, when I was a child, my church had a special Sunday night program that I still recall. In a darkened auditorium, an artist began to draw in chalk on a large canvas positioned at the front of the sanctuary. As he drew, he began to tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Spotlights illuminated the canvas as the picture of Calvary began to emerge. It was a beautiful and moving experience that helped me grasp something of Christ’s sacrifice.
Week in and week out, the church continues to tell the story of Jesus, perhaps not as well, and perhaps not capturing the imagination of the world in the way that the chalk artist captured mine. Over the last 60 years, it’s not been primarily in great moments of high emotion that the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection have done their work in my life. Rather, it is in much more ordinary moments: listening to the scriptures being read and proclaimed, singing hymns and praying prayers, and gathering at the table where the Apostle Paul says we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
The story of Christ’s life and death are like a seed that grows within us every time we hear it. The more we listen, the more we gaze on him, the more our lives are transformed.
Whether or not the world pays attention, this is the week that Christ’s church should intentionally stop whatever it is doing and simply remember what Christ has done for us. Before we try to interpret it and theologize about it, before we try to draw lessons from it, before we try to apply it to our lives, we simply need to stop and listen. This is the story that defines who we are as Christians.
Today we remember one great day in which Jesus gathered with his disciples to eat the Passover, and one of his closest friends betrayed him.
He prayed in anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane: If possible, let this cup pass from me. Not my will, but thine.
He was arrested and put on trial before the Jewish high council, where lies were told about him and where his captors beat him and spit on him. His disciples abandoned him and his closest confidant denied him.
He was taken to Pilate where he was accused and rejected by his own people. He was tortured and condemned to die.
The Roman soldiers used a lead tipped whip to tear his flesh. They shoved a thorn of crowns on his head and a purple robe on bloody back. A whole regiment beat him with clubs, spit on him and made sport of him. And when they got tired of abusing him, they crucified him.
They made him carry the cross of his own execution, and then they nailed him to it like a common criminal, exposed to the world as he struggled for breath.
And for those who did these things he prayed, “Father, forgive them.”
Father forgive them.
Religious leaders, government bureaucrats and uniformed soldiers were guilty of murdering Jesus. Even Christ’s own disciples forsook him. And I am all of these things. Did Jesus look down from the cross and see me in the crowd? Did he see my sin and my unfaithfulness? Is he praying about me?
Father, forgive them.
One of the guilty criminals crucified with Jesus turned to him and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.
This is the most important story ever told. Long after the monuments that surround us have fallen into dust, this story will remain.
This is the story of the one who saves us from sin and death. This is the story of the one who for our sake took on the powers of hell. This is the story of the one who established a new covenant by water and the spirit through his own body and blood. This is the story of the one who reconciled people from every nation to God through his cross and made them citizens of heaven’s one kingdom. This is the story that tells those who belong to Christ who they are, because it tells us who Jesus is.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, the only thing that Jesus asked from his disciples was to watch and pray.
On this Friday we call Good, he simply asks us to do the same. To remember him in his dying hours, to remember his love, his faithfulness, his mercy, and to know that he did these things for us and for our salvation.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.