Good Friday

Admittedly, the narrative of the Gospel for this day is so compelling, with its familiar biblical personages and themes of suffering, and human intrigue that parishioners generally expect a sermon on the Gospel (especially if that has been the liturgical and parish custom). 

"Crucifixion," Paulo Soleko.  Used by permission from the artist. Image © by Paulo Soleko.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

March 29, 2013

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 10:16-25

Admittedly, the narrative of the Gospel for this day is so compelling, with its familiar biblical personages and themes of suffering, and human intrigue that parishioners generally expect a sermon on the Gospel (especially if that has been the liturgical and parish custom). 

This Epistle text, however offers rich theological possibilities to proclaim Good Friday so that the listeners will not feel that somehow they have biblically “missed” Good Friday.

The preacher might want to consider answering the following question to guide sermon preparation if the Epistle is preached: On this Good Friday, what might this Epistle text inform us about the multiple meanings of Jesus’ death?

In proclaiming the divine reasons for the cross, many details in this Epistle text can offer a sermonic direction for Good Friday. Behind the details are many varied expressions of Christ’s presence and work and God’s divine desire, through Jesus Christ, to offer salvation to a needy humanity.

The Pericope’s Overall Structural and Theological Concerns
Through studying the pericope’s overall structure, list of topics and theological context, several questions arise, like what is the nature of the biblical book entitled “The Letter to the Hebrews?” Who wrote this letter and to whom? These questions have many possible historical, theological, structural and authorship answers. There is little agreement on these issues academically. Many choose Paul as the author of this work, but some of the wording and images used in it are at odds with Paul’s own theology and other writings.

Before preaching this text, it would be prudent to read all of chapter 10 as well as the entire book of Hebrews in order to contextualize this Epistle reading within the whole book. This section of Hebrews (and the entire book) is deeply imbued with Old Testament references: implied typologies and historical references to Jewish worship practices and theological issues.

For example, the Epistle text signals its links with the Old Testament by referring to such topics as “sanctuary” (verse 19), “a great high priest over the house of God” (verse 21) and “covenant” (verse 15). Two immediate homiletical questions posed by these words are how each term is understood in the passage and the shared theological links among their meanings. Other questions preachers should consider with all these terms are how much time can be devoted to defining them in the sermon and, furthermore, how the use of these terms in the text situates Jesus within the broad scope of Israel’s salvation history.

This text should further signal to the preacher that there are critical concerns bordering this text, including the relationship between Jesus and the contents of the Old Testament, and the relationship of the New Testament to Judaism today. The preacher will need to consider how to avoid preaching anything that implies anti-Judaism and, by extension, anti-Semitism.

While it is useful to know the structural background of this text, care should be taken to formulate a sermon structure reflecting the text structure but not in such a way as to focus on sermonic form to the exclusion of a primary focus on the content. Given the entire book of Hebrews with its sophisticated forms of argumentation, preachers should devote some preliminary research time to studying the rhetorical and theological import of these textual forms.

This letter offers a sacrificial Christology through the use of historical, Hebraic argumentative structures. To get a grasp of the writer’s use of these sometimes complicated structures, it is wise to consult commentaries on Hebrews that specifically address this central and critical literary feature of the letter.

Crafting the Sermon
Any sermon preparation should be founded on the central intention of the Letter to the Hebrews: an extended doctrine of the atonement. This Epistle passage is part of a book-long Christology. The heart of any Christology includes some discussion of Christology’s central reality: the atonement. That is, what does Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross mean for sinful humanity? It is important to regard textual details as preparing listeners to hear the contours of a clear Good Friday Christology based on the Epistle.

How does Jesus’ humanity and divinity affect the way we think of the Cross? How will the sermon on Good Friday address both the larger framework of Christology and its core of atonement? Which of the Epistle’s details relate to elements of the atonement?

Whatever the preacher’s perspective on atonement, in these Epistle verses, they will generally depend on the preacher’s denominational background, which may or may not contain traditional theological materials reflecting Good Friday themes.

There are many doctrines of the atonement available for study and the preacher may well seek these out in the work of sermon preparation. In preaching this text, consider which doctrine of the atonement is being preached and which elements of other doctrines might be helpful to the congregation.

A sermon on the Epistle could discuss varying views of Jesus and the meanings of his death on the cross. This Epistle identifies some of these topics that the traditional Gospel text does not. As a result, this affords the preacher new ways to proclaim the Cross event. For example, this text alludes to the different aspects of God’s work in the salvation of humanity and how the community of believers can respond to those (10:23-25). There is also reference to judgment language in this passage (10:16-18) which needs to be addressed in relationship to the meanings of atonement and the Good Friday cross as well.

One major linguistic feature of this text, which can be used to frame a sermon in a variety of ways, is the language of promise. The passage contains many statements of such on the part of God for the salvation of humanity: “All is not lost!” This passage testifies in the spirit of Good Friday that our salvation is in Christ.