A sermon for Good Friday 2021

Who is Jesus to you?

Our diocese had an online Bible study this Lent, led by Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales. “Who is Jesus to you?” is a question she asked over and over again as we worked our way through the Gospel readings for the season.

“Who do you say that I am?” That’s the same question Jesus once asked Peter, and Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”[1] Of course he was right, but each one of us ought to be able to answer that question in our own words.

Of course he was a teacher, a friend. He was Mary’s son. He was a man who set an example through his own life of how to lead a life of principal.

Churchgoers might think of the formulas we use in church: Son of God, Redeemer. We say that he died “for us.”

But the Jesus we see tonight is a suffering man. A man condemned to a horrible death in an unjust trial because powerful men wanted him out of the way. And they were willing to sell their souls to accomplish that.

In every generation we have come to understand this story through the lens of our own times. It’s not that Jesus’ basic identity changes, but to live as people of faith we have to be able to say what Jesus means to us in our lives. In our world.

We have to keep asking ourselves that question: Who do you say Jesus is?

I’m going to speak very personally here. I can’t answer for you.

But speaking for myself, I find it impossible, after the year that we’ve been through, to turn away from the truth that Jesus was, as the theologian Howard Thurman says,[2] a poor man. A poor Jew. A member of minority group in the Roman Empire. He was one of the disinherited. A man whose life never mattered to the powers that be.

Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited was a profound influence on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and King is said to have carried with him through all his travels in the 1950s and ‘60s. And Thurman has been an important influence for me as well.

And I credit another African-American theologian, James H. Cone, with changing forever the way I think about the meaning of the cross.

Please bear with me; I want to quote a paragraph from his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. In it, Cone says,

The cross is the most empowering symbol of God’s loving solidarity with the “least of these,” the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices. Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation.  But we cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualizing it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering, and death. The cross … is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power. The religious authorities of Jesus’ time were threatened by his teachings about the reign of God’s justice and love, and the state authorities executed him as an insurrectionist—one who “perverts the nation” and “stirs up the people” (Lk 23:2, 5). [3]

Who is Jesus to me?

Speaking for myself, I do find spiritual comfort in what Jesus taught about the reign of God’s love. But I remember what the scholar and theologian Cornel West has said again and again (which I’ve probably quoted to you at least once already): Justice is what love looks like in public. The love that Jesus taught has implications.

Again, speaking for myself, I want to hold the challenge before myself daily not to turn away from “the least of these” in our society, and not to let myself settle back again into being “comfortable with the way things are.”

As a priest, I’ve tried to comfort people in times of trouble with the reminder that Jesus is with us in our suffering. And I have to remember that this means all of those who are suffering, as Jesus suffered.

So who is Jesus to you?

I’m putting that question out there, but I can’t answer it for you. It’s something each one of us must answer for ourselves, understanding that we can’t begin to talk about the resurrected Jesus of Easter Sunday unless we start with Good Friday.


[1] Luke 9:20

[2] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 1949, 1996.

[3] James H. Cone. The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 2011, Kindle version Loc 4488.

Preached for Church of the Ascension in Parkesburg PA.