At the foot of the Cross

Preached by Brenda Holden on 19 April 2019: Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13 – 53: end;  Passion reading from John

Today, Good Friday, we have reached the climax of the Passion narrative. We have arrived at Golgotha and we stand once again with those gathered at the foot of the cross bearing Jesus. We stand in the crowd alongside the Roman soldiers, representatives of the Jewish religious leaders and a selection of Jesus’ followers and family.

Jesus has been lifted up. Isaiah’s prophecy saw this as Jesus being exalted. This is the enthronement of the King of the Jews which was acknowledged by the inscription above Jesus’ head. Pilate had insisted that the sign was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek for all to see and understand. Pilate may have been coerced by the mob against his better judgement into allowing a sentence of crucifixion to be passed, but Pilate had the last word. He wanted all the nations represented at the crucifixion to understand that what was happening was a sacrificial death of their King. Pilate felt that this death was an injustice – Jesus was stricken down for the transgressions of his people.

At the foot of the cross we see the soldiers having done what they were trained to do. For them it was just one more crucifixion of a criminal according to Roman law. They had done their dreadful deed and they were having to stay around on duty until they received their next command. In order to pass the time they sorted through the clothes to share them out, but the seamless tunic was too good to tear up for cloth so they cast lots for the garment. They had several hours of potential boredom ahead of them waiting for the criminals to die – their job was to prevent friends coming and taking the person down in order to save their life before it was too late.

The following day was a special day of Preparation for the Jews and being sensitive to the wishes of the Jews and to prevent any unrest they were given instructions from Pilate to hasten the death of the criminals by breaking their legs so that the bodies could be removed before the solemn sabbath. When the soldiers came to Jesus they discovered that Jesus was already dead – when they pierced his side with a spear blood and water emerged.

We are not told that representatives of the Jewish religious authorities were present. However, in the circumstances, with such a high profile crucifixion that had been orchestrated by themselves when they forced the hand of Pilate,  it would have been surprising if they were not there to check that their demands had been fully carried out.

Of Jesus’ disciples only one was present at the foot of the cross, the ‘beloved disciple’, who was thought to be John. We are not told where the rest of Jesus’ close male friends were – we can imagine that they were overcome with fear and were hiding away out of sight of the authorities to avoid arrest. Alongside John were Jesus’ mother and several women followers including Mary Magdalene, the forgiven sinner. They were probably as fearful as the other disciples, but they wanted to be there to support Jesus through his ordeal – perhaps they also didn’t want the authorities taking charge of Jesus’ dead body.

John’s Gospel deliberately mentions episodes not found in the other gospels. One of these is Jesus’ words to his mother and the beloved disciple – words that would bring comfort and support to both of them in the future. To his mother, Jesus said. ‘Woman, here is your son’ and to John he said, ‘Here is your mother’. 

The arrangement between John and Mary would not be legally binding but they could be united in their deep love of Jesus and in their shock and grief. The significance of this event was that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – we who believe are bound together as one new family united by the cross.

Those present at the foot of the cross were witnesses to Jesus’ final words after having moistened his dry mouth with the soured wine delivered to him on a sponge attached to a twig of hyssop.

Jesus’ triumphal words ‘It is finished’ were not to be whispered. Jesus wanted all those present to hear clearly that the job that His Father had given him had been completed. It was not a cry of defeat or despair. Jesus’ sacrifice – his vocation was completed – he had offered to His Father on behalf of the world a life of perfect love and obedience. 

As we stand at the foot of the cross we may wonder why the day that Christ died is called Good Friday. John’s Gospel shows us that Christ’s death is a victory and the seeds of new life would come from the cross. We need to be still in the presence of the cross today to appreciate the true significance of Good Friday.