Harrowing Of Hell
April 10, 2020

Good Friday 2020 – How Has God Offended Us?

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Tonight, as we kneel before the cross, we will hear the choir incant, over and over again these words: How have I offended you?  How have I offended you? This is the refrain in the Reproaches… written as if a letter from God to us; as if God is wondering: “What did I do to deserve this crucifixion?”

This is the question before us today: What has God done to deserve crucifixion? How can God, who is love, who is perfect, who is good, cause offense enough to warrant death on a cross?

It started with a lie; a lie that was believed and then got bigger. It begins as a metaphor in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent gave Eve the forbidden fruit and said: “If you eat this you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen3:5). And she believed this. And Adam believed this.

And like any good lie it was, in part, true. We are like God (Gen 1:27); made in God’s image and likeness. And we can distinguish between good and bad. But, and this is the lie, that being like God and being able to distinguish between good and bad does not make us God.

Here is how our offense plays out on Good Friday. If God is gone, if God is dead, if the coup succeeds, then we move from being people who can distinguish between good and bad, to being people who decide what is good and bad…and then we ascend from being like God to being God, now that God is gone.

It is offensive to come to a moment of choice, confronted by a decision that is good or bad, or good and less good; and we know the right choice, yet still, choose the less noble way, because in that moment it seems best for us. And that is offensive, because if forces us into elaborate contortions of self-justification to defend our choice twisting our spirit and polluting our soul.

Choosing the bad is offensive to us because even though we made the choice, it strikes against our self-perception as being good; as a person who does the right thing. What would solve this internal discontinuity is if we were the ones who defined what was good and what was bad.

And the definition would be something like this: if I do it, it is by definition the good and right and best and most beautiful thing. And so, it is offensive to us when Jesus says: “No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18).

When God asks: “What have I done to offend you?” We answer: “You have allowed us to know what is good and what is bad, without allowing us to define what is good and what is bad; you have made us like God, but not God…and this is offensive to us.

And the question is why did God do that? And I can’t help but think of that question in the context of COVID-19. Tonight, we do not gather as we always gather on Good Friday. Tonight, we hear this sermon from our homes, where we sit in quarantine, placed upon us by the Governor. It is for our own good, and the good of our neighbor. And so, we are forced to join one another from a distance. 

I do my best to bridge that distance through my daily videos. I use reflections on the Gospel of John as my pretense to tell you I love you and that you are in my prayers. And I hear back from many of you…and, like with the internet, this surge of traffic has caused my response times to lag, and I apologize. 

But what I hear often, from all ages, is irritation and frustration at being told what they can and cannot do. I hear people say, it is not that they mind staying inside on a Saturday night. Netflix is great. It is just that I don’t have the choice to go out and that really bugs me.

It is not the “not doing stuff” that seems to get under people’s skin; it is the being told they can’t do stuff that is getting under people’s skin… everyone’s skin, because that is how we were all made-freedom is core to what it means to be human.

Now freedom at its best is expressed as love in action. I am seeing this all over the place during this coronavirus crisis. I hear it in the prayers you give to me, and this congregation, to people on our prayer list; prayers for people in this city and around the world. I see it in the way you are reaching out to one another and connecting. And then there is the spirit to serve. WOW!  The mask making: 3D and hand sewn. The brown sack meals for the homeless, and our continued housing those in need.

Love in action was God’s intent when God made humanity to be free…I want to repeat that: Love in action was God’s intent when God made humanity with the capacity to exercise free choice. God did this because there is no love if there is no freedom. Love cannot be true love, if there is no freedom to choose it. Here is the paradox we understand as followers of Jesus: God’s love is most clearly revealed when we give our freedom up in service of someone else.

It is like a parent to a newborn infant. I remember when we brought our first child, Margaret, home from the hospital. I fed her and changed her and held her and rocked her. I’d sleep on the floor next to her crib…I was her attendant. I was her servant. And there was nothing I wouldn’t sacrifice to meet one of her needs. And yet, caring for an infant is a choice. A parent could choose not to, though it would go against their very being.

Some of you might wonder: What is the difference between love in action and simply choosing to spend my time in a particular way? Why does love in action require the subjugation of personal freedom? And the simple distinction is this: Love in action is action that is determined by the will, and preference, and priority of someone else. It is not about what I like to do, or whether or not it fits into my agenda, it is about giving away my choice, my freedom, and setting someone else’s needs above my own; like a parent’s for their infant. The child dictates the need. The parent freely chooses to serve, and in this service God’s love radiates through them.

Let me give you another example of love in action drawn from the life of Richard Wurmbrand. He was a Lutheran pastor, who, in the 1950’s was arrested by the Government of Romania and imprisoned because of his faith and for refusing to submit to the Communist party. He was imprisoned for fourteen years, of which three were spent in solitary confinement. 

Wurmbrand tells how he was often hung upside down and blindfolded.  His jailor would repeatedly beat him, but would vary the timing of the blows, so that he would never know when or from where the next blow was coming. It might be to his head; it might be to his feet. It might come in seconds or minutes. Sometimes the torturer wouldn’t even hit him, but just let him hang there for hours, wondering when the blow would come.

Before and after each of these sessions he would be presented with papers to sign which denounced his Christian faith and embraced the Communist party. He always refused. One time, after a torture session ended, Wurmbrand’s jailor looked at him in puzzlement and said: “I don’t get it. Why don’t you just sign? You can walk out of here today if you want to.” Wurmbrand answered him: “I remain here for you, because if I am released who will witness to you the love of God?”

You see what is happening here is that Wurmbrand refused to deny the jailor his freedom to beat him. Signing the paper would have done that. Instead he chose to accept the beatings in hope that someday his jailor would make a different choice…to freely choose love. And on that day he did. And from that day forward the beatings stopped and the jailor became a follower of Jesus, even though this later ended him up in jail.

It is love in action that we witness in Jesus as he freely walks to the cross. It was his love for us that allowed us, humanity, to be our very worst; our most selfish; offended by the fact that there is a God; offended that we are like God, but not God; offended that we know good and bad, and yet sometimes choose the bed, even though we see our self as all good. It is offensive to us, and we blame God for making us free, capable of love, and yet a little lower than God.

“How have I offended you?” Jesus cries. You can imagine this heart-wrenching scream careening from the heart of God, like the cry of a parent for their infant who chose to abandon them. It is unimaginable, as unimaginable as our rejection of God.

And yet, every Good Friday we mark in our memory the moment we sought collectively be rid of God. With God gone it is all good, as long as it is good for me. Jesus’s offense was that he loved us. Jesus’s offense was that he honored our freedom. Jesus’s offense was that he was God.