Each Good Friday, as preachers, we are faced with the question. “Is preaching the best way to proclaim this word? Would we be better off letting the text tell the story?” Perhaps something like a Tenebrae service makes more sense on this day. Click here a service on our website that you could use.
Some use the Tenebrae service on Holy Thursday; others on Good Friday. The purpose is to let the story tell itself without comment.
Some see Good Friday as a time for drama, whether it is a depiction of the crucifixion or the trial that led up to it, or perhaps it is an after-the-fact letting those who experienced it tell their stories with dramatic imagination. Others will say that it is time for music to tell the story. Whether there are words—a cantata or oratorio, or collections of hymns and songs and spirituals—or whether it is instrumental, music can carry a mood or tell a story in ways that move beyond the surface and move down into the soul. Or perhaps it is a time for silence. “Be still and know,” says the psalmist (Psalm 46:10). Create a visual space focused on the cross and then just sit in silence and contemplate this moment, this gift, this sacrifice. Maybe that is better than preaching.
The admission needed here is that words cannot contain this event. You cannot sum it up; you cannot explain it. It is beyond you, preacher, beyond all of us. At best, we can capture a slice, illumine a moment, direct attention to something that may not sum it all up but might highlight something that provides a point of access, an entry point into the whole.
So, you can’t preach the whole thing. You can read the whole story, but it would be hard to preach the whole story. You can focus down. Pick a moment upon which to focus, not because it covers everything, but because it emphasizes one thing.
Perhaps it is the trial that captures something of the inhumanity of systems of power and prominence or the dialog with Pilate that unpacks the essence of truth and an understanding of what it means to rule in this world. Some will focus on the historical details of the crucifixion, though I would be cautious with that. Others might want to examine Jesus’ own words, either from the cross or prior to the crucifixion.
One enduring tradition is to preach the seven words from the cross. Here is one such approach, though I confess I’m cheating and taking from Luke’s account rather than John’s for this specific word from the cross.
Luke 23:39-43: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Today. That is the word that has always jumped out at me in this Word. “Today.” I have wrestled with that word for years, I have jumped from meaning to meaning, from assumption to assumption, from one glimpse of understanding to another, trying to figure out what was being said in that moment. And I still don't know. That is my confession here in this space. I don't really know what was being said. And I suspect that the only one who really knew or really discovered was the thief, the criminal hanging there with Jesus on a cross that dark Friday afternoon.
One commentator wrote that this just might be the first Christian sermon—not the Word from Jesus, but the confession of the criminal:
"Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:40-43).
It is not a long sermon, but it is a sermon, nonetheless. The argument is that here is the first one who realized that Jesus, the man dying on a cross, was the Messiah because he was dying in innocence. His death was sacrificial; whereas, the thief's death was selfish—he died for his own deeds. And then having realized this, and having made the proclamation to his fellow criminal if to no one else, he then asked for something from the one he identified as his Lord.
What is amazing is what he didn't ask for. He didn't ask for rescue. “Get me down, get us down!” That is what was expected, and what the other asked. But this one asked to be remembered. “Remember me.” When you get where you are going, remember me. That's all. Maybe what he meant was, “Come and get me,” but that isn't what he said. So, maybe all he really meant was, “Remember me. Don't let my life be summed up by this death. Remember me as the one who recognized you. Remember me as someone who was more than the sum of his sins. Remember me.” That's what he asked for.
What he got was a whole lot more. “Today, you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Most folks hang their attention on the word, “Paradise”— the promise of joy unending, of completion, of wholeness—the green fields of heaven stretching out into forever waiting for the final breath of the one who claimed faith in a man he met while dying. It is a wonderful vision and certainly one worth clinging to.
Yet there seems like there should be more. There's that word "today." I know that given the fact that death was mere breaths away, at least for Jesus, he could have been referring to the fact that shortly Jesus and his new friend would be gamboling through those green fields. It was a sort of "hang on until we get through the messy bit right now and then we'll find our way to the garden”—which is the literal translation of paradise.
Even so, I think we are missing something if that is the interpretation we glean. That word "today" seems even more immediate. It carries the sense of right now, this very moment, not just within a twenty-four-hour time span. But how can that be? How can Jesus be inviting the thief, the criminal . . . (actually the word “thief” is never used. Mark calls them “bandits,” which is a term used for those who stir up trouble, often attacking foreigners. Luke calls them criminals. So maybe thief isn't accurate, and criminal is too vague. Perhaps terrorist would fit better in this context.). So, how can Jesus be inviting this terrorist into Paradise, even while they hang, dying on a cross?
Maybe the answer is in the other phrase of our second Word: "with me." There is a singer named Sara Groves who has become one of my favorites. She has a song titled "What Do I Know" on her album Conversations. In the song, she reveals that she has a friend who has just turned 88 and is afraid of dying. Her faith is still strong, she "grew up singing about the glory land, and she would testify how Jesus changed her life. It was easy to have faith when she was thirty-four, but now her friends are dying, and death is at her door." A not uncommon experience, we might say. And the singer, Sara, wonders how to comfort her, how to strengthen her for what is to come. And what strikes her first is what she doesn't know. Here is the refrain of "What Do I Know": I don't know that there are harps in heaven, / Or the process for earning your wings. / I don't know of bright lights at the ends of tunnels, / Or any of those things. (“What Do I Know” lyrics © Music Services, Inc.)
What we don't know about eternity is profound. And when we look at what Jesus told us, there isn't that much that we can add. Jesus didn't seem that interested in resolving our need to know exactly what was going to happen to us when we die.
In fact, we might argue that he wasn't that interested in resolving our need to know what was going to happen to us while we live, except in the most general of ways. We aren't told what works and what doesn't. Jesus doesn't give us the twelve steps to a better life or anything like that. What he offered us is a relationship. “Follow me,” he said. “Today you shall be with me in Paradise,” he said. “Where two or three are gathered . . . I am there” (Matthew 18: 20). “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Sara Groves resolves her dilemma this way: "But I know to be absent from this body / is to be present with the Lord, / and from what I know of him, / that must be pretty good." (“What Do I Know” lyrics © Music Services, Inc.)
“Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” Eternity is not about a place; it is about a person. It is about a relationship. And when Jesus spoke those words to that terrorist dying on a cross, he meant right now, right then. Paradise for that man was nothing like a green field or garden of delights; it was a cross that was robbing him of life. And yet in that moment, he found life, abundant and full life. Paradise begins when we enter into a relationship with Jesus. Eternity starts now, not just when we die, but right now when we reach out for the nail-scarred hand and realize that we are not alone.
Life is often hard, and death is a part of the life we know. But eternity breaks through the hardness and transcends the death today and every day that we claim Christ as Lord. That must be pretty good.
However you choose to preach this day, this event, this story, resist the temptation to explain. Lean into the invitation to join, to be with, to declare allegiance to the king who died on a cross. And let the story be the story.