“I thirst,” by the Reverend Dr. Jack Sullivan, Jr. A Good Friday Homily. Text: John 19.28.
Three years ago, I preached a sermon while using crutches. Be assured, they were not props! They were honest to goodness crutches. You see, my wife and I had been in a car accident nearly three weeks before. Our car was totaled but miraculously, we were not. We escaped with no broken bones or cuts, only bruises. In fact, a bruise to my left knee was significant enough to require me to use crutches.
The interesting thing about crutches is that when using them, people cannot hide the fact that somehow, they cannot move forward without the assistance that such equipment provides. The presence of crutches robs us of our ability to play along with America’s most thrilling and captivating reality show called, “Let’s Pretend I’m Perfect!”
Before the wreck, people could extend to me our well-worn cultural greeting/question, “How are you?”, and I could respond with the well-worn cultural response, “I’m well, thanks…and how are you?”, even though I may not have been feeling well at all. Days after the automobile accident, someone asked me “How are you today?” With my crutches being visible for all to see, I had to take the risk of honest disclosure and admit that not all was well with me. This left me feeling vulnerable.
We live by an unwritten and unspoken social contract that calls adherents to project images of strength and self-reliance, and thus avoid at all costs, any public signs of weakness, pain, and vulnerability. All of this makes me wonder about our society’s portrayal of Jesus. While I continue to be amazed and somewhat amused that Jesus and other biblical characters with African and Mediterranean roots are almost always cast as European in art and in film, what makes me shake my head even more are the ways Jesus is presented as being accepting and uncritical of patterns of discrimination, racial privilege, poverty, and greed that make visible the deep fissures that divide the human family, fissures that seem to announce that we think our ways of living are above critique.
The sincere spiritual attentiveness of many Christians during Lenten and Holy Week observances indicate that we know our ways of living are not above critique. Lent set the stage for us as for 40 days, we live our lives under the intense inspection of a Holy God and our faith communities, while seeking to align ourselves more closely with Jesus. Then, on Good Friday, we contemplate his public death/crucifixion/execution. How interesting it is that Jesus, the one we call Savior of the World or Immanuel “God-With-Us,” with all the power he possessed and had access to, had the audacity to allow himself to show what we dislike the most: vulnerability, being at-risk, feeling pain, experiencing humiliation, and being assigned a cruel and unusual public death on a rugged cross.
As the life force slowly exited his body, Jesus had the nerve to show a sure sign of his humanness and vulnerability by admitting to people whose job was to destroy him, that he was dehydrated, weak, and dying as he issued these words: I thirst. He who had the power to quench humanity’s thirst for life, dignity and worth with the living water of love, was signaling his own thirst to those who had already signaled their intent to carry out the state-sponsored cancellation of his life.
The request just opened him to more ridicule for in no way would the soldiers give him water. Instead, they would give him drops of sour wine from hyssop branches. Yet, no one in the crowd had any idea that God’s subversive conspiracy for human wholeness was unfolding right before their eyes.
On April 15, 2017, one day before the glorious Easter or Resurrection Sunday, Major League Baseball will once more celebrate Jackie Robinson Day. Management, players, and fans will take time to remember that on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson, living a life of vulnerability, shattered the ill-conceived apartheid system in baseball by becoming the first African American to play in the Major Leagues. He endured vicious name calling, segregation in accommodations, threats on his life, just to name a few of his obstacles. Even so, he displayed dignity, grace, and skill, and would not let the often baptized, unrepentant hate of his era consume him.
During baseball games set for April 15, every player on every team will wear a jersey with the number that Jackie Robinson wore as a player, Number 42. In this act, Major League Baseball players will identify with a man who through being vulnerable, forever removed the asterisk of racist illegitimacy that had tainted the game, while transforming a nation, and thus enabling Major League Baseball to truly be major.
When Jesus allowed himself to be hoisted up on that cross, in effect he put on our number. He identified with broken, hurting, and disgraced humanity, and all past, present and future lives disrupted by self-inflicted wounds of arrogance or by private and systemic attacks rooted malice and grounded in contempt. Jesus put on our number, and thus, embodied God’s subversive conspiracy for human wholeness.
Through the public vulnerability of his execution, punctuated by his admittance of thirst, Jesus gave a clear and compelling message that would ripple across the oceans, echo from mountains to the plains and sweep through every valley, announcing that we need not live in fear and isolation in our homes or in our schools or in our nation. No longer must we project the veneer of wellness with a make-believe sense of perfection. We need not live by the spear nor depend on the “mother of all bombs.” Instead, the cross tweets out to us that we must take the risk of being vulnerable, and admit that no matter how rugged our individualism may be, it is not enough. We need God and we need each other. We thirst.
When we, the body of Christ, can admit that we thirst, that will be the time when we claim our God-given power to break free from the limitations of party politics, to dismantle oppressive practices carried out under the guise of religious freedom, and to replace the disabling policies of self-interest with liberating concern for all of God’s children. When we can admit that we thirst, we will be able to allow God’s transforming love to not only tweak us but transform us, and help us live more authentically Christian lives, where we put on the number of those who have been held hostage to hate and hopelessness, and pushed to the sidelines and margins of society.
As we embark upon this grand course, we will simultaneously be fitted with a new number, Christ’s number. We will then declare on Public Square in every city and town, every county and every precinct that we will find true and lasting security not in arms designed to kill and maim, but arms designed to hold our neighbors, all of them, and thus heal our land.
Then we can sing with renewed hope for the present, with our eyes on the prize of on a stronger and more faithful future, words made immortal by Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride. Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Amen.
The Reverend Dr. Jack Sullivan, Jr. is Senior Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Findlay, Ohio