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Sermon for Good Friday

Fr. Ian Wetmore

St. Mary's Church, Fredericton, New Brunswick

                                                             21 March AD 2008

 Hebrews 10:1f     John 18:33f


Save me, O God, for thy Name’s sake.  In the Name of...


A friend of mine was entertaining a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses on her doorstep years ago when one of them asked her, “When were you saved?”  She said, “At 3:00 on Good Friday.”  Growing up in the Bible Belt of the Southern US, that was not an unfamiliar question to me. But being a typical Episcopalian, I never knew what to say.  I could have said the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 1962 – for that’s the day I was baptized – then my questioners would have attacked infant baptism.  But then baptism is only the beginning of salvation.  That is the moment of our justification, when we are made righteous by having all our sinfulness washed away.  There are yet two more stages in the long process of salvation, the second of which takes the whole of this life and then some.  That stage is one of sanctification, of becoming holy, by far the most arduous of the three because of the constant battle that rages on within us between good and evil, choosing to sin or to reject it.  The third stage is glorification, which happens when finally we hear our Lord calling us out of our graves, saying, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”


But none of that would satisfy my evangelical friends or the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the doorstep.  “When were you saved?”  To say that it happened at 3:00 on Good Friday – the moment when our Lord gave up the ghost – doesn’t quite cover it.  But neither does saying, The moment when I made my decision for Christ, which is what my evangelical friends wanted to hear about.  You can’t nail it down to a particular time or date.  Besides that, evangelical Christians have a rather different vocabulary and understanding with regard to these things than catholic Christians do.  All this begs the question, What do we mean by salvation?  What does it mean to be saved, and how does it happen?  Obviously it has quite a lot to do with our Lord’s death on the cross for our sins.  But how does his death save us from our sins?  And how does each of us  know for sure that I have been saved?  Well, the Church has had 2,000 years and tens of thousands of prayerful theologians to figure it out.


The word comes from Latin, to make safe.  And in Christian usage it implies, furthermore, what it is we are made safe, or saved from, which is spelled out to Joseph by the archangel Gabriel as he told Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy: “That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1.20.21). ‘ Jesus’ means ‘God saves.’  That brings us back to the question, How does he do it?  Is it his death at 3:00 on Good Friday?  Well, that’s certainly at the centre of it.  But to say that Christ died for me and that’s all there is to it isn’t quite true, for that’s not all there is to it.  Yes he died as the sacrifice for my sins; but my salvation isn’t assured – the process of salvation isn’t even begun – unless and until I do something with that sacrifice.


St John Chrysostom says, “If we wish to understand the power of Christ’s blood, we should go back to the ancient account of its prefiguration in Egypt. ‘Sacrifice a lamb without blemish,’ commanded Moses, ‘and sprinkle its blood on your doors.’”  Those of you who were here last night will recall me explaining that the first Passover was intended by God to point to, and to prepare his people for, this day – Good Friday – just as Chrysostom says (a prefiguration).  The Israelites had to do something with the sacrifice.  They had to smear its blood on their doorposts and to roast what was left of the lamb with bitter herbs and eat every last bit of it.  They appropriate the sacrifice to themselves by obeying God’s command to smear the blood on their doorposts and to eat the lamb.


Chrysostom continues, “If we were to ask him [Moses] what he meant, and how the blood of an irrational beast could possibly save men endowed with reason, his answer would be that the saving power lies not in the blood itself, but in the fact that it is a sign of the Lords blood.  In those days, when the destroying angel saw the blood on the doors he did not dare to enter, so how much less will the devil approach now when he sees, not that figurative blood on the doors, but the true blood on the lips of believers, the doors of the temple of Christ.”  And do you remember what our Lord himself says about this?  We hear it every Sunday: “Take, eat; this is my Body which is given for you... Drink this, all of you; for this is my Blood of the new Covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins: Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”


So you see, the death of Christ on the cross avails each of us nothing unless we appropriate it in the way he laid it out for us.  He is the sacrificed Lamb of God, whose Body we eat and whose Blood is on our lips, as on the doors of his temple.  (Remember that each one of us is a temple of the living God.)  And we who have been so nurtured in the faith of the Church as to discern his true presence in the consecrated bread and wine, which is where he said on Maundy Thursday that he would be, we come in repentance, pleading this eternal sacrifice for our sins, knowing that his life-giving Body and Blood will strengthen and nourish us for life in his kingdom.  St Paul urges us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2.12), and this is how we do it – by returning to the source of our eternal strength and nourishment.  Because contrary to the notion implied in that question, “When were you saved,” it’s not a momentary event that carries an eternal reward.  It is instead a lifelong process that entails our never straying very far from our Lord’s pierced side.


“If you desire further proof of the power of this blood,” St John Chrysostom says, “remember where it came from, how it ran down from the cross, flowing from the Master’s side.”  As we read earlier, rather than breaking his legs, since he was already dead, the soldier drove his spear into the side of Jesus, and out of his heart flowed both water and blood.  This was the foundation of the Church, for the water and the blood symbolize the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.  Chrysostom says, “‘There flowed from his side water and blood.’  Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought... From these two sacraments the Church is born: from Baptism, ‘the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit,’ and from the Holy Eucharist.  Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam... As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church.”


So you see, simply to believe that he died on the cross for my sins and to leave it at that just isn’t enough.  The death of the Son of God for the sins of the world demands action, not just idle belief and sentimental expression.  It places some significant demands on us – on our time as well as our lifestyle and our attitudes. It requires of us first to worship the Lord around his altar in penitence and loving adoration, culminating in our eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  Else we will have no life in us, as he has said (Jn 6.53).  This is exactly what is meant in today’s epistle when it warns us not to forsake the “assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is.”  We have to jettison that absurd notion that “I don’t need to go to church to be a good Christian or to have a relationship with Jesus.”  Yes, he can be with us wherever we are, but he is most assuredly present among us when we gather around the altar remembering his death and proclaiming his resurrection.


It demands also that we die daily to sin, which we do when we continually reject sin in whatever way it presents itself to us, knowing that whenever we do fall into sin – and we always do – we have only to return to the altar in penitent adoration, seeking more of the strength and the nourishment that only the crucified and risen Lord can give by means of the Holy Eucharist, as he taught.


The last words belong to St John Chrysostom: “The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own.  So also with the lamb: the Jews sacrificed the victim and I have been saved by it... Do you understand, then, how Christ has united his bride to himself and what food he gives us all to eat?  By one and the same food we are both brought into being and nourished.  As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life.  In the Name of...Amen.


Ian C. Wetmore