One Maundy Thursday I wished a good friend of mine a happy Easter break. He hesitated however to return my good wishes because, he said, that he understood that Good Friday was a day for Christians like me to be miserable. It got me thinking to what extent he was he right.
Paul, writing in his second letter to the Corinthians, describes Christians as, ‘Sorrowful yet always rejoicing’ [2 Corinthians 6:10]. If such a paradoxical existence was the reality for Christians back in Paul’s day, it is surely no less true a reality for Christians living the 21st Century. ‘Good Friday’, the name we give today, is itself a paradox – for how can we apply the adjective ‘good’ to describe the day of Christ’s crucifixion? For sure, it is a day on which Christians should grieve over their sin and what it was that Jesus had to suffer in order to secure their redemption, but, at the same time, it is a day for rejoicing in the triumph of his sacrifice as we anticipate and remember his subsequent resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday.
‘Sorrowful yet always rejoicing’ – it was the experience of Paul and it was also the experience of Jesus himself. For he was himself ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ [Isaiah 53:5]. Matthew recalls the words of Jesus to Peter, James and John, in the Garden of Gethsemane:
“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” [Matthew 26:38].
And yet the writer to the Hebrews has it that Jesus, ‘for the joy that was set before him endured the cross’ [Hebrews 12:2].
Suffering, then, is not the end of joy – it can even be the passage to joy. Again this is not a contradiction – but it is a paradox! A paradox that the second thief, even as he was being crucified alongside Jesus, understood. There he was, in just about as bad a position as it is possible for a person to be in, minutes away from an excruciating death, when he, nonetheless, made his remarkable request:
‘Jesus,’, he said, ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom’ [Luke 23:42].
Like everybody else that day, the second thief saw Jesus suffering and dying on a cross. But unlike the religious rulers, the Roman soldiers and the other thief who was also being crucified that day, he didn’t see defeat. He continued to speak of Jesus as one who was coming into his kingdom. For him Jesus’ death didn’t mean an end to all the kingdom and salvation talk. Whilst all those others, those who mocked Jesus as they watched him die, were looking for a salvation FROM death, the second thief saw that the salvation Jesus was bringing about was a salvation THROUGH death.
Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of Christ kingdom, on the contrary, his death was its beginning.
This is a profound truth – one we do well to try and grasp some understanding of.
Far from a simple faith, the second thief’s faith was remarkable. And it is on account of his wonderful faith that we should not be surprised by Jesus when he responds to him with these words:
‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise’ [Luke 23:43].
Jesus saw in the second thief somebody who got it! Somebody who trusted the power of God despite seeing that which to unspiritual eyes was nothing but weakness. Somebody who saw victory where most saw only defeat. Somebody, indeed, who understood the paradox of Good Friday.
That suffering is not irredeemable,
That sorrow is not incompatible with joy,
That even the darkest nights can be followed by the brightest days.
‘Sorrowful yet always rejoicing’? It was the experience of Paul. It was the experience of Jesus. It was the experience of the second thief.
And it will be our experience too.
Some of us are sick? Some of us mourn the loss of loved ones? Some of us worry over our future? Some of us have experienced great tragedy in our lives – some recently, some longer ago but who nonetheless still feel the pain just as keenly as if it were yesterday.
There is indeed much today for us to be sorrowful over. Some Christian types can sometimes well meaningly suggest we should always be happy. ‘Smile’, they say, ‘Jesus loves you’. But though they are right to proclaim the truth that God really does love us, they are wrong to suggest that we should never be sad, for even the eternally happy God knows what it is to cry. [1 Timothy 1:11, Luke 22:62]. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, his grief no less intense for knowing that he would soon bring him back to life. [John 11:35].
Perhaps, then, even God knows what it is to be sorrowful yet always rejoicing.
So it’s not wrong to be sad, it’s simply normal. The Bible never tells us to masochistically rejoice about our suffering. But it does tell us to rejoice in our suffering.
Because despite our sorrow – there is much to rejoice over! We truly are loved with an everlasting love, a love that transcends our current struggle, a love that means that we too can be sorrowful yet always rejoicing.
As we suffer we can rejoice because of the Gospel. The good news is that Good Friday was followed by Easter Day, that Jesus died for our sins, bearing the punishment we deserve, and that when he rose from the dead Jesus proved the sufficiency of his sacrifice. By it we are justified, counted righteous, declared to be ‘not guilty’.
Some of us grieve over our unrighteousness and can not even lift our eyes to heaven. We beat our breasts and cry out, ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner’ [Luke 18:13] But because of Jesus’ work on the cross on our behalf we are made right with God – regardless of our current situation.
Not because of our worth – but because of his grace.
Not because of what we do – but because of what he did.
Not because we are lovely – but because he is loving.
So, if you’re sorrowful today, remember you’re not alone, God weeps with you. And know that, because of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, ‘Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.’ [Psalm 30:5].
It’s Good Friday – but Easter Sunday is coming. Because of what took place over those two days nearly 2000 years ago, we can know real forgiveness for all those sins that we so bitterly regret, no matter how great they are.
But if that were not enough to rejoice over this Eastertide, we can also look to the future with a certain hope. Suffering is all too real today but the day is coming when God ‘will wipe away every tear form [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things [will] have passed away.’ [Revelation 21:4]
‘So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal’. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18]
It’s Good Friday – but Easter Sunday is coming.
So may we all know happiness this Eastertide – even those of us who are sorrowful.
Especially those who are sorrowful.
To read, ‘Luther and the Global Pandemic – on becoming a theologian of the cross’, click here
To read, ‘T.S. Eliot, Jesus, and the paradox of the Christian Life’, click here
To read, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people? – a tentative suggestion’, click here
To read, ‘Suffering – a personal view’, click here
To read, ‘The “Already” and the “Not Yet”‘, click here
To read, ‘Hope comes from believing the promises of God’, click here
To read, ‘Faith in the time of Coronavirus 1’, click here