Sermon preached at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea on April 18, 2014 during the Three Holy Hours liturgy for Good Friday. You can listen to the sermon here.
The thing I love most about reading, hearing, and studying Holy Scripture is the way that new insights are revealed each and every time I engage a passage. Even when I think I know the story inside and out something new still comes forth. However, I did not anticipate this happening with today’s Gospel passage. This is a Gospel that I, like I suspect many of you, know well. We hear this every year on Good Friday, I love listening to sung versions of it, and in the past several weeks I have regularly been rehearsing chanting this Gospel for our liturgy this evening. But here is the great thing about the Holy Spirit and Scripture, yesterday morning as I sat in prayer with this lesson, something new jumped out at me.
Remember it is the day of Preparation, and the Jews did not want bodies left on the crosses for this Sabbath of great solemnity. So the soldiers begin to break the bones of the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus. Then they get to Jesus, they see he is already dead, and they decide to do something different. Here is what struck me; chapter 19 verse 34 says, “Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.” At once blood and water came out.
In all the time I’ve spent with this passage in my life, I do not think I have ever given this verse a second look. I don’t know that I’ve ever paid this verse any attention whatsoever. Now maybe that is because I do not really understand the first thing about biology or anatomy; or because I am not a fan of blood and gore, but for whatever reason this time was different.
Blood and water are simple and ordinary things – yet they are so important. These two things literally make life. It should not be surprising then, that these two things are central symbols in our life of faith.
Thomas H. Troeger, Homiletics professor at Yale Divinity School, wrote about this connection in his book “Preaching While the Church is Under Reconstruction: The Visionary Role of Preachers in a Fragmented World” Listen to what Troeger has to say:
Years ago someone gave me a medical article that attempted to account for the flow of blood and water from the crucified Jesus on a purely physiological basis. As reasonable scientific speculation it might have been well founded, but as a piece of theology it was bankrupt. It depended upon a literalism that abrogates the imaginative accuracy of John’s community and the liberated slaves. The true cross is the tree that grows among the community of the suffering.
Connecting blood and water, the symbols of communion and baptism, with the crucifixion of Jesus was an act of theological construction that bonded John’s community to one another and to Christ . . . John’s community did not travel back to Jerusalem. They made their pilgrimage to the cross where they lived. They made their pilgrimage every time they broke bread and poured the wine, every time they welcomed a new disciple with the ritual sign of water in the name of God. Theirs was not an archaeological theology of the cross, an attempt to return to the originating event. Through their worship they fed on a living theology of the true cross.
Being struck by this verse gives the opportunity to shift our view of the cross; to shift our view from death and suffering to life and wholeness. Troeger illuminates the connection of our sacramental life with that of the cross. With this understanding, every time we participate in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, every time we baptize a new Christian we are bound to the cross. When we participate in these Sacraments we must know that we can only participate because of the cross.
Last night we remembered the Last Supper – a holy and sacred meal consisting of ordinary things turned extraordinary. It is when we are told that the blood of Christ pours out over the world as a sign of the relationship between God and us. When we participate in the Blessed Sacrament we allow Christ to penetrate our very being in a way unlike any other.
Tomorrow night and Sunday morning, new Christians will be baptized. They will be washed and made clean with water. In those waters they will die to an old way of life, they will die with Christ of the cross – and be raised into a new life, a life illumined by the glories of Christ’s resurrection. A resurrection that is only possible because of the cross.
We have the opportunity this day to stand in front of the cross, in front of the crucified Christ. We have the opportunity to stand and face the ways we have fallen short, the ways we are broken. We must stand beneath the cross and allowed ourselves to be washed clean by the blood and water that flows out of Christ, to be made new, to leave behind all that holds us in bondage – all that holds us in sin and death.
But we must not, we cannot, stop there. We must not allow the grace of God and the glories of the cross to end with us. In Troeger’s book, he quotes a Nicaraguan peasant named Oscar. Oscar understands the connection of the cross with our daily lives. Here is how he puts it:
Lots of people in Holy Week think only about the sufferings of Jesus, and they don’t think about the sufferings of so many Christs, of millions of Christs that exist. And Jesus didn’t want them to be wailing for him but to wail for the others that were going to suffer like him or worse than him.
As we stand at the foot of the cross of the crucified Christ, we also stand below the cross of so many – too many – persecuted and oppressed peoples. Our call in Baptism, our call in receiving the Blessed Sacrament of Bread and Wine; our call in being washed by Christ’s blood and water which flow forth from him is to not be caught up in the historical nature of these events, but to recognize how they still are working in our lives today – how the true cross is in our midst. We must allow the cross and our lives to join together so that the meaning of each is continuously expanded by the other. We must ask: Where is blood and water flowing in our community? Where is the cross now? Who is praying, “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” We must act to answer those questions, to stand with those who know nothing other than brokenness and death, to bring all people to the saving embrace of God so they know that the Savior and Redeemer of the world suffered as they suffer.
Blood and water are powerful things. They empowered John the Evangelist’s community in the face of violence at the hands of the Roman Empire; they empower millions of people suffering in the world to know they are not alone; they empower the Church to stand up to the corrupt powers of this world and say No to all that breaks down the people of God. They empower each one of us to know that we cannot fully celebrate the glorious Resurrection of our Lord and Savior without the Cross. This is not a day we can gloss over to more quickly get to the wonderful celebration of Easter morning. This is a day we must allow ourselves to sit with regularly. It is a place we must allow ourselves to dwell. If you are anything like me, we need more time to face our own brokenness and allow the loving embrace of God to make us whole again.
May we come before the cross this day and every day. May the blood and water of Christ pour out over us – make us clean and new, nourish and strengthen us. And may we take seriously our call to glory in the cross of Christ, to confront our own shortcomings and brokenness, to bring its restorative and healing power forth from Good Friday to the rest of our lives.