For all of my experience, for all of my education, for all of my reading and research, I still find death to be a confounding and confusing thing. I find the way we speak about death to be fascinating. We use euphemisms to attempt in softening the blow of what has really happened: someone we care for or love is no longer living. Breath has ceased to exist in their lungs. Their heart has stopped beating. But, we use phrases like “passed on, entered the heavenly kingdom” or the very well meaning but theologically inappropriate “God needed another angel” phrases. And no matter how hard we try and sugar coat it, death is death. When someone dies, they no longer exist in our physical presence. Part of my training to become a pastor included Clinical Pastoral Education (or CPE) where I was a hospital chaplain for a summer. We often had to be the ones to share the sad and unfortunate news with loved ones arriving at the hospital that their family member had died. And we were instructed to use that language exactly “say they died” we were told. “We don’t want there to be any confusion over what happened.”
That did lead to confusion at times, no matter how hard we tried. Like when I went to visit a patient and was told “he went home” and I had to clarify “did he actually go home or did he die?” I have found that we talk about death the way we do because we really are unclear what happens. And I often have said “we really don’t know on this side of heaven” what happens after death. Scientists have been attempting to research this for years, but I doubt we are any closer to an answer than we were before. I think we also talk about death the way we do because it can be a scary or just plain unpleasant.
But we should not kid ourselves, brothers and sisters, about what happened that day on the cross. Jesus died. It was not some kind of euphemism. He was tortured via crucifixion and died. The air left his very human lungs. His human heart stopped beating. His brain stopped functioning. And those who loved him grieved. Even the temple curtain was torn open as he took his last gasping breath. There should be no question as to whether or not Jesus’ death was real because there is no question that his resurrection was real.
Those who have trouble believing in the resurrection struggle with this idea. And I get it, I really do. It’s hard to believe that a man who has been dead for three days would actually rise again. So some who question this idea might soften up the idea of Jesus’ death. They may say things like “he wasn’t really dead or didn’t really die” or maybe “he was just in a comatose state.” Friends, Jesus died. There’s no way around this, he died. He’s dead. And it would be easy, all too easy, for us to look away from the cross, to shield our eyes, to focus instead on the ground, or the sky, or anything else but our suffering savior.
“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” This is not language used to describe someone who maybe didn’t die. He carried our diseases, was struck down, afflicted, wounded, crushed, and bruised. And if that’s not bad enough we hear this “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The “we” here, brothers and sisters, is us. We have gone astray. Sure, we may not have meant to go astray, but it happened. We lost focus of what is important in life. We wanted more, more, more. We took from people who have less. We stepped on those beneath us just to get ahead. We have shown little to no mercy and now we pay the price of watching a man be tortured for us.
It hardly seems fair. We are the ones who have gone astray. We are the ones who have sinned. We are the one with infirmities and diseases. Yet, here is this man; struggling, one foot after another, to carry a cross that would be where he would spend his final moments of life. And for us, it means so much more. It means that when we talk about death, we talk about it in very real and very tangible ways. But in the death of Jesus, we somehow are given life. It is one of the only times I can think of when something so tragic turns into something so beautiful. In the cross we are given freedom. In the cross we are granted forgiveness. In the cross we have someone who proclaims to love us even during the times when the world or the voices in our heads tell us differently.
On the cross, Jesus didn’t say much. But how many times can you tell a person that you love them. He had to show us love instead. It was offensive. It didn’t make sense. It’s not how a king and messiah would or should die. Some may wonder what makes a day like this so “good.” How can something good come out of something so horrible? The same way that life comes out of death. It’s the same way that green blades pop out of brown land every year. What makes Good Friday so good, is death. A for real, all the way dead, death. Never has there been more of an outpouring of love than this.