The question took me by surprise. “Ross, what’s so good about Good Friday?” the funeral director asked as we made our way along Highway 2 toward the cemetery. It was the middle of Holy Week, and I was on my fourth funeral in five days. As most clergy will tell you, the relationship you build with the local funeral director is unique — one part professional and the other playful. This particular funeral director and I shared a similar sense of humour. In fact, he claimed working together helped put the “fun” back in funerals. That’s why his serious question on the way to a graveside committal took me by surprise.
“What’s so good about Good Friday?” Before I could collect my thoughts, the director added, “We do good work together, but I doubt most families would call the day they bury their loved ones ‘good.’ So why is the church’s biggest funeral of the year — for Jesus — called good?” The budding trees whipped past the window as we continued down the road, their blur of new life giving me time to think. Good. Friday.
“Well, I’ve always been a bit puzzled by that too,” I said, leaning against the window and looking across at the director. “From what I’ve read, the etymology of the phrase is kind of fuzzy. Some people think ‘Good Friday’ evolved from ‘God’s Friday,’ just like ‘goodbye’ evolved from ‘God be with you.’ The ‘goodness’ of Jesus’ grappling with sin and death on the cross was more a witness of humble holiness than a hoarse-voiced hallelujah.”
“Yeah, but what does it mean for you?” the director asked pointedly. I mulled over this new query as I watched several vehicles pull to the side, respectfully allowing our funeral hearse to carry on down the highway. My mind drifted to one of my favourite sermons from John Wesley, our scholarly evangelist ancestor in the Methodist tradition. Recalling his arguments in the 1760 sermon “The New Birth,” I said, “I suppose the goodness of Good Friday for me is the definitive statement that what God has done in Jesus is for us. God risked being in relationship with humankind knowing that rejection was always possible. The pain, betrayal and rejection on Good Friday is awful, but the Trinity is revealed in that moment as being for us and not against us.”
I paused for a moment, watching the director nod in agreement. “As Christians,” I said, “or at least as people trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus, we know that the good in Good Friday lies in what God has done for us. But that’s only half of it. Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘You have to be born again; you have to be born of the water and the Spirit.’ The goodness of Good Friday is only complete when we experience not just what God has done for us, but what God does in us through the new birth of the Holy Spirit.” I saw the director subtly raise an eyebrow at that comment. “Call it what you will — new birth, born again, Spirit washed — but the goodness of Good Friday is complete when we know and trust both what God has done for us in Jesus and in us by the Holy Spirit.” The director chewed on this awhile as we whipped along the highway.
“If that’s true, then why don’t I see more Spirit-filled folks in the church?” he asked flatly. Ouch. Returning to Wesley’s witness, I said, “Well, maybe we’ve got a whole lot of church people who are born of the water but not of the Spirit. You know, the folks who think the church exists to take nice people and make them nicer. John Wesley had a phrase for folks like that: ‘the almost Christians.’”
The funeral coach turned off the highway and drove through the cemetery, a long line of cars behind us giving the appearance of a black snake winding its way through the grass. I reached for my Bible and the director for his vial of sand, the two of us assuming our roles again for the sake of the grieving family. As I stepped outside, I wondered, in the week the church calls Holy, whether we might lean once more toward that Friday, trusting that on the cross we encounter a God whose Son is for us, and in an empty tomb a God whose Spirit is at work in us. If God were to see us leaning, loving and living into that new birth, might God bless that new creation, the body of Christ, broken yet beautiful, with the same affirmation as that first day long ago, by calling it Good.
Rev. Ross Lockhart is a minister at West Vancouver (B.C.) United.
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