Sermon - Good Friday
Jesus said he would be lifted up high and draw all men to himself, but, the Cross was as high as he got. Indeed, by any geographical measure, the Cross is nothing more than a couple of toothpicks and Golgotha a pebble on the face of the earth.
As Christ hung on this pebble, the tallest structure known to Man was the Great Pyramid of Giza – 481 feet high and composed of over 2 million stone blocks. By the time of Christ, it was already so ancient that its original builders had been forgotten by the people who adopted it as their symbol of afterlife.
Just what this afterlife meant to Egyptian religion was vividly understood in 1922 when the expedition of Howard Carter and Lord Caernarvon uncovered the tomb of an unimportant nephew of Queen Nefertiti. There, encased in gold, crowned with wreaths, adorned with jewels, the mummified youth Tutankhamen was found staring into the cool darkness as unchanged as he had been for over three millennia. Indeed, his glass eyes had been set in a serene and placid countenance over a thousand years before a young man crowned with thorns had writhed with suffering eyes under a blazing noonday sun.
The Egyptian obsession which was sealed in tombs was not, however, a reverence for life. It was a neurosis for not dying. Pharaoh did not die in order to live. He just wanted to keep living when he died. The elaborate embalming of dead flesh was essential to that belief. Egyptians called the tomb an eternal home and filled it with all manner of household goods. And, contrary to the images of Hollywood, it was not slaves who laboured on these monuments, but, organized, we might even say unionized, armies of free workers who regarded their efforts would be rewarded by receiving some share in the Pharaoh’s afterlife.
This was their belief, and it was a belief which faced death with a stiff upper lip and hoped against hope. A stiff upper lip, though, produces only speechlessness. On the other hand, Jesus spoke and said that any who believed in him, even if they died, would live. He never promised an afterlife - only eternal life. Christianity, you see, does not merely hope to cheat death - it defies death.
For, Christ made no burial arrangements. The borrowed, then empty, tomb; the discarded grave clothes tossed aside in a pile; these were God's sign of contempt for human self-preservation. Pharaoh made burial arrangements. Jesus made dying arrangements. Survival is passive. Resurrection requires action. Pharaoh lay down. Christ got up.
That is why, although the Empty Tomb is an important symbol to Christians, it is the Cross and not the tomb which became the central Christian symbol, for, you cannot overcome death unless you go through it. Indeed, it is the Cross which guarantees that death, like everything else, must die.
This, then, is the moral geography which makes the Pyramids mere pebbles in the shadow of the Cross of Christ. The tomb of Pharaoh was meant to keep the remains of Pharaoh within it for all time. The tomb of Christ was empty only three days into the rest of time. Lord Caernarvon got his museum. The Lord of Life got his Church.
Pyramids and tombs, however, would have been of no interest whatsoever to the two men who were crucified with Jesus. The attention span of a man undergoing crucifixion is limited at best. Unremitting pain, dehydration, asphyxiation. All the more amazing then, that one man reasons, and reasons about the man beside him "This man has done nothing wrong." Nothing wrong. What an understatement. If only he understood the enormity of what he said.
The “nothing wrong” of Christ was nothing less than the eternal and divine perfection which came to Earth in human form. The sophisticated Pontius Pilate, had gazed into this “nothing wrong” for only a moment and weakly exclaimed "I find no fault in him." Pilate only said what the Good Thief would say, and had he gone the extra step, he too, might have entered Paradise, but, his lack of humility clouded what his reason told him.
For, while reason is a gift from God, humility is the guarantee that reason is used correctly. Look at the judges before whom Christ passed - Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate. Each rationalized their pride. Each broke their own laws. Jewish law did not permit evening trials. Herod lamely claimed lack of jurisdiction. Roman law forbade a judge to change his verdict. All three denied their responsibilities and chose to ignore anything that conflicted with their prejudices. For, humility deals in truth. Pride deals in lies.
In Poland, under the Communists, every schoolroom was required to display pictures of Marx and Lenin, the apostles, it was said, of the triumph of reason over religion. Many schoolteachers, however, would place a crucifix between the portraits to illustrate how Christ was indeed crucified between two thieves for, without religion, and the sense of humility it brings, then God’s gift of reason is robbed of its value.
How to enter paradise is no great secret. Secrets belong to pyramids and desert tombs. The way to paradise is advertised in the poster of Christ upon the Cross. It comes by living a holy life. Holiness is the presence of God and a holy life is a life that lives heroic virtues as the result of Christ's own presence within the soul.
It is a gift called grace, and as man is not born with it, he must be reborn to obtain it. Goodness belongs to God, and man must ask for it. It is the asking which requires humility and sets the Good Thief apart from every other character in the Passion story.
The Good Thief on the cross admitted he was nailed there for a good reason. The other Thief could have cared less. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” This cry of sarcasm has been echoed down the centuries as a classic mockery when proud men challenge the God from whom they are too proud to ask for favours.
On the other hand, the Good Thief has finished with pride. He has no more time for titles and debate and this is the only instance in the Gospel where Jesus is directly addressed by his name without some honorific such as Teacher, Lord, or Rabbi. "Jesus", the Thief gasps, "Jesus, remember me." He is a dying man and he turns in his agony to another man. He receives, however, more than any man could ever give and, in his final moments, this very good Thief manages to steal Paradise itself.
Today, the visitor to Egypt can still marvel at the massive ruins of a culture obsessed with survival, but, when the last hieroglyph on the last monument on the last Pharaonic tomb is translated one sentence will still not be found. "Today, you, you will be with me in paradise."