Friday, April 6, 2012

Free at Last

   Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord   

A month or so ago,
I was at a meeting of the North Franklin Ministerial Association—
a regular gathering of pastors and church staff
representing a number of the Christian congregations of our area.
The topic was a common Good Friday service.
It was taken for granted that us Roman Catholics
would be observing the day according to our own tradition…
…although I was sure to extend a friendly invitation
to everyone to join us here this afternoon.
But as the other local pastors tried together to recall
who had led the shared time of prayer in the recent past, 
one of them piped up and offered,
“I’d be happy to host the service this year…
…it would just be kind of hard to get everybody through the gate.”
You see, he’s the Protestant chaplain at one of the local state prisons.
We joked around a bit about what sort of Good Friday service
he’d prepare for his congregation of inmates.
“I suspect you’d preach about the good thief,” I piped up,
feeling—I confess—pretty smart.
“Oh, no,” he rather quickly replied.
“The good thief was still convicted and sentenced to death.
I’d preach instead about Barabbas…”

All four of the gospels mention 
that Pontius Pilate,
the Roman governor of Jerusalem,
had a yearly custom 
of releasing a prisoner
as the feast of Passover drew near—
a good-will gesture made on the part 
of an oppressive regime.
And all four gospels also relate
that, in custody at the same time as Jesus, 
was a man named Barabbas.
He is variously described as “notorious,”
a “thief,” a “murder,” 
one guilty of inciting riotous rebellion.
Whatever his actual crimes, 
he’s clearly not a very savory character.
Behind bars is where 
this man rightly belongs;
he’s getting the punishment he deserves.

And yet, on Good Friday,
I propose that we all should feel a certain affinity with Barabbas.

Because when Jesus is condemned to die,
Barabbas—through no merit of his own—is set free.

Only with difficulty, Saint Paul writes to the Romans,
does one die for a just person,
though perhaps for a good person
one might even find courage to die. 
But God proves his love for us
in that while we were still sinners
Christ died for us. (5:7-8)

Likewise, the Church will exultantly sing tomorrow
as she keeps her night vigil:
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!

We call this Friday “good”
because Christ has traded places with us sinners—
not at our choosing, as by the angry demands of a fickle crowd,
but at his own deliberate choice,
as one who silently submits like a lamb to the slaughter,
freely giving his life as an offering,
commending his spirit into the Father’s hands.
Oppressed and condemned, bearing our guilt,
blameless and yet counted among the wicked,
crying out and dying in our stead,
the Lord’s servant—by one sacrifice—justifies many.
By his wounds, we are healed.

What a tremendous exchange!
What astonishing, wondrous love!
Indeed, it has proved far better
that one man should die rather than the people.

It was because they had reached out
to the branch of a forbidden tree
that our first parents—and us with them—
were banished from Eden’s lush garden,
justly sentenced to suffering in this life and doomed to die.
And it is because the Lord Jesus,
with arms outstretched as if to embrace all of heaven and earth,
is obediently nailed to the tree of the Cross—
where he does not belong,
where he gets the punishment we deserve—
that the gates of paradise are again thrown open,
winning us God’s pardon and restoring us to life.

And so, in but a few moments’ time,
we will tenderly embrace and adoringly bow down
before that most precious wood
upon which hung the world’s salvation.
Notoriously robbing the fruit of one tree—
and continuing in rebellion ever since—
we had been rightly condemned for our sins;
yet if we receive with thanksgiving the noble fruit of this tree,
and by it permit ourselves to be made perfect,
our death sentence is graciously lifted,
and God’s loving purpose in Christ
is finished, is accomplished, is consummated.

We may not be under arrest,
we may not be physically imprisoned or in chains,
but we do well to identify ourselves today with Barabbas.
The perfectly Innocent One has taken the place of the guilty,
and we—quite undeservedly—go free.

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