URC Daily Devotions Good Friday Service 2021 – The Revd. Ruth Whitehead

Daily Devotions from the URC
Service for Good Friday 2021
 

 
The Rev’d Ruth Whitehead

Introduction

 
Welcome to this service, where we take time to reflect on the awful reality of Good Friday: a day of solemn worship, inspired by the reality of what it means to see God-made-flesh die on a cross of pain.
 
My name is Ruth Whitehead and I am a minister of the United Reformed Church. I currently serve as Moderator of the South Western Synod, based in Taunton in Somerset.
 
This is a reflective service, and I invite you, when you are listening, to press ‘pause’ at any point and give yourself time to reflect deeply and to receive God’s grace in this day.
 
We begin our worship using the hymn ‘There is a green hill, far away’, written by Cecil Frances Alexander. She was born in Dublin, and lived for many years in Derry, where her grave lies. I once stood on the walls of the city of Derry and was shown a green hill, beyond the walls, which it is claimed inspired Alexander in her simple hymn. Her use of ‘us’ and ‘we’ throughout the hymn makes us reflect on both the cost and the meaning of the cross. She sums this up in the last verse with the repetition of ‘dearly’ – O dearly, dearly has he loved… reminding us both that Christ paid dearly on the cross and that Christ loves us dearly. There can be no better thought to begin our worship.
 
Hymn       There is A Green Hill Far Away
Cecil Francis Alexander

 

There is a green hill far away, 
without a city wall, 
where the dear Lord was crucified 
who died to save us all.

2: We may not know,
we cannot tell, 
what pains he had to bear, 
but we believe it was for us 
he hung and suffered there.

3: He died that we might
be forgiven, 
he died to make us good, 
that we might go at last to heaven, 
saved by his precious blood.

4: O dearly, dearly has he loved,
And we must love him too, 
and trust in his redeeming blood, 
and try his works to do.

 

Prayer of Adoration
 
Let us pray:
Holy God, who is eternally Father Son and Spirit,
We take this time to pause in our lives to wonder at the Cross.
We wonder how you, heavenly Father,
could bear to send the Son to die out of love for the world.
We wonder how you, Jesus the Son of God,
could bear to suffer at the hands of those who hated you,
and yet forgive.
We wonder how you, the Holy Spirit,
could move in the lives and the hearts of those who feared so deeply.
As we wonder, so surround us with your love, we pray,
that we may bear to look again at the Cross
And know how dearly we are loved.  Amen
 
Prayer of Confession
 
Our prayer of confession is based on the ‘Reproaches’ from the Roman Catholic veneration of the cross on Good Friday. The prayers are presented as Christ crying out to us, His people, against the injustice we have done after all the wonders God has performed for us.
 
Let us pray:
 
O my people, what have I done to you?
How have I wearied you?  Answer me!
For I brought you out of the land of Egypt,
and led you to a good land,
but you led your Saviour to a cross.
 
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
 
I parted the sea before you: but with a spear you parted my side.
I took you through the desert with a pillar of cloud,
but you took me to the judgment hall of Pilate.
 
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
 
I rained down manna for you to eat,
and gave you water to drink from the rock
but you rained blows on my head, and gave me vinegar to drink.
 
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
 
I made you a royal people, crowned with honour
and lifted to a place of greatness,
But you crowned my head with thorns and lifted me up on a cross
 
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
 
Hebrews 10:16-24
 
The Holy Spirit testifies saying,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”
he also adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 
 
Words of Forgiveness
 
May the almighty love of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit –
Hold you, forgive you, and make you holy. Amen.
 
The account of Jesus’ crucifixion: John 19: 16b-27
 
They took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
 
“They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”
 
And that is what the soldiers did.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
 
Reflection
 
We are used to thinking of Mary, the mother of Jesus, ‘pondering things in her heart’ at Jesus’ birth. In Alison Robertson’s hymn we hear Mary’s ponderings at the foot of the cross:
 
Hymn       While Mary was Watching
Alison M Robertson
 
While Mary was watching, they hung Jesus high.
His feet hung beyond her, his hands reached the sky.
His blood and his sweat soaked and matted his hair,
She wished she could touch him, and show him her care.
 
2: She wished he could hear her; not even her shout
would carry; the hubbub was shutting her out.
His friends kept safe distance, away from the scorn;
but she stood there rueing the day he was born.
 
3: She thought of the angel, before he began.
She thought of the song of the faithful old man.
She thought of the day she delighted to find
her boy in the temple, with God in his mind.
 
4: She gazed at the Son, whom the Father had sent;
and looking, and thinking, she saw what he meant.
Lord Jesus, our Saviour, with Mary we bow
to honour the death which gives life to us now.
 
The word incarnation is used a lot in our celebration of Christmas. We hear the story of God’s love made flesh in Jesus, born from Mary’s body, and we might wonder what it means to say that God is one of us, with us, among us.
 
We are used to thinking, too, of the bodily ministry of Jesus – the living breathing human doing the work of God’s kingdom and revealing his divine nature through teaching, healing and miracles.
 
On Good Friday we contemplate the incarnation in a new way.
As Jesus suffers and dies we cannot deny his human nature – real flesh, real blood, real pain. But we see more than just the suffering of an innocent man – we see the true depths to which God’s love will go for us, as Jesus, God made flesh, allows human beings to do their worst to him.
 
Hymn       O Sacred Head Sore Wounded
Paul Gerhard

 

O sacred Head, sore wounded,
with grief & shame weighed down;
O royal head surrounded
with thorns, thy only crown;
O Lod of life and glory,
what bliss till now was thine!
I read the wondrous story
I joy to call thee mine.
 
2: What thou, my Lord,
hast suffered
was all for sinner’s gain;
mine, mine was the transgression,
but thine the deadly pain.
By this, thy bitter passion,
Good Shepherd, think on me;
vouchsafe to me compassion,
unworthy though I be.

3: For this, thy dying sorrow,
O Jesus, dearest Friend,
what language shall I borrow
to thank thee without end?
O make me thine for ever,
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love to thee.
 
4: Be near when I am dying,
and, show thy cross to me
that I, for succour flying,
may rest my eyes on thee.
My Lord, thy grace receiving,
let faith my fears dispel,
that I may die believing.
and in thee, Lord, die well.

 
Reflection 2
 
The genius of this translation of Paul Gerhardt’s hymn, which we have just heard, is in the use of the words ‘thine’ and ‘mine’. It reflects on the divine and human nature of Jesus, the suffering of Jesus, and the love of Jesus…and then it makes them personal to each one of us.
 
I call Jesus ‘mine’, I admit that sin is ‘mine’, I ask the Good Shepherd to think on ‘me’ and make me ‘thine’. And so, in the final verse, I move from reflection on the death of Jesus to my own death that I may die believing, in thee, Lord die well.
 
The death of Jesus on the cross is for me – for you – for each one of the human race who cannot help being wrong and broken, but who sees on the cross the incarnate love of God broken to make things right for us.

This kind of reflection is nothing new: John Wesley describes it in his account of his ‘Aldersgate experience’, when his heart was strangely warmed  “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death”.
 
Jesus dies: John 19: 28 – 42
 
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
 
Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
 
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
 
Reflection 3
 
Jesus shows us the depths of God’s love for us in his suffering: but pain and death have neither the first word nor the last word in the story of created life.
 
Throughout this next hymn about the cross, Alan Gaunt uses the name Love (with a capital L), in a way that might remind us of the use of ‘logos’ or The Word at the start of John’s gospel.
 
Hymn       The Love That Clothes Itself in Light
Alan Gaunt
 

The Love that clothes itself in light stands naked now, despised, betrayed
receiving blows to face and head from hands that love itself has made.
 
2: The Love that lifts the stars and sun collapses, spent, beneath the Cross;
the Love that fills the universe, goes on to death and total loss.

3: Love, helpless, comes to Calvary, rejected, scorned and crucified;
Love hangs in shame, and dies alone, but Love abased, is glorified.
 

4: Extinguished with the sun at noon, Love’s light transcends all history;
Love wrapped in linen, Love entombed, still wraps all heaven in mystery.

 

5: Though Love is lost, Love finds us here; though Love is absent, Love remains;
where Love is finished, Love begins; where Love is dead, Love lives and reigns!
 
Alan Gaunt’s hymn beautifully seesaws between the divinity of the Love that in the timeless Godhead was present at creation and the humanity of Christ who is naked, despised and betrayed. Here is the mystery and the glory of the cross – that the creator accepts suffering from the creatures Love itself has made; that the one whose glory fills the universe is emptied to the point of death.
 
But when we hold these two opposites in tension we find, right in the heart of this hymn, that Love, abased, is glorified.
 
Even as we reflect on the agony of the cross, we still call this Friday ‘Good’ – because we know this is not just another injustice in a broken world, it is the means of bringing healing to the broken and life to the world.  The triumphant final verse of this hymn reminds us that Love which is lost, absent, finished and dead is the Love which finds us, remains with us, and begins again, to live and reign, and to bring all people hope.
 
Prayer for the World
 
As we prepare ourselves to pray for the world, we sing a hymn based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words ‘We turn to God when we are sorely pressed’

Hymn       We Turn to God When We Are Sorely Pressed
Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945
 
We turn to God when we are sorely pressed;
we pray for help, and ask for peace and bread;
we seek release from illness, guilt, and death:
all people do, in faith or unbelief.
 
2: We turn to God when he is sorely pressed,
and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread,
bowed under weight of weakness, sin, and death:
faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.
 
3: God turns to us when we are sorely pressed,
and feeds our souls and bodies with his bread;
for one and all Christ gives himself in death:
through his forgiveness sin will find relief.
 
Loving God,
Even as Jesus is abused and scorned, his cross speaks to us of your love for all.
In Jesus, ‘sorely pressed’, yet still forgiving, we glimpse your healing for human bodies and souls. And so we bring to you our prayers for ourselves and our world.
 
You know our need for release from illness, guilt and death. We pray for the millions affected by the spread of Covid-19, for a greater equality in healthcare and vaccine availability, and for all who care for others,
that they may know healing.
 
Loving God we turn to you.. and we know you hear us
 
You know our need to be fed in body, mind and soul. We pray for those in desperate poverty, or who scrape an existence,
that they may know life in all its fulness.
 
Loving God we turn to you.. and we know you hear us
 
You know our need for peace and wholeness of mind. We pray for those battling injustice or facing danger and hatred,
that those with power may use it wisely.
 
Loving God we turn to you.. and we know you hear us
 
You know our need for security and a loving home. We pray for those driven out as refugees by poverty, violence, or human wickedness,
that they may find a safe place.
 
Loving God we turn to you.. and we know you hear us
 
Loving God, as we turn to you, you find that you have turned to us –
with forgiveness, grace, healing and new life.
Thanks be to you. Amen.
 
Blessing
 
As we near the end of our time of worship and prepare ourselves to return to whatever our daily routine looks like, we sing or listen to Isaac Watts’ wonderful hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’.
   
Hymn       When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
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.
 
2: Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ my God;
all the vain things, that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

3: See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
 
4: His dying crimson, like a robe,
spreads o’er his body on the tree;
then I am dead to all the globe,
and all the globe is dead to me.

 

5: 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.
 
If we want to take one word into the rest of our day this Good Friday – perhaps ‘wondrous’ is the best one – a word we will hear again in our closing music.
 
May the wondrous love of God be with you
May the wondrous glory of Jesus on the cross go with you
May the wondrous peace of the Spirit stay with you,
Today and forever. Amen.
 
Closing Music           What wondrous love is this
                                    James Christopher
 
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul?
 
When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
when I was sinking down, sinking down,
when I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul.
 
To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing,
to God and to the Lamb I will sing,
to God and to the Lamb who is the great I Am,
while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing,
while millions join the theme, I will sing.
 
And when from death I’m free I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on,
and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be,
and through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
and through eternity I’ll sing on.
 
Sources and Thanks
 
There is A Green Hill Far Away – Cecil Francis Alexander – sung by the choir of King’s College Cambridge.
While Mary was Watching – © Alison M Robertson (SCM Press) – Sung by Phil &Lythan Nevard, Susan Durber and Ruth Whitehead
O Sacred Head Sore Wounded – Paul Gerhard – sung by Phil and Lythan Nevard, Susan Durber and Ruth Whitehead.



The Love That Clothes Itself in Light – © Alan Gaunt – sung by Phil and Lythan Nevard, Susan Durber and Ruth Whitehead
We Turn to God When We Are Sorely Pressed – Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945 – sung by Edinburgh University Singers, Ian McCrorie (Conductor), John Kitchen (Organ)
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross – Isaac Watts – sung by the choir of King’s College Cambridge
What wondrous love is this – James Christopher 1840 sung at the Pittsburgh Regional All-Day Sacred Harp Singing March 2014
 
Thanks to Marion Thomas, John Marsh, Mandy Hibbert, Sue Cresswell and Claire Ette for reading various spoken parts of the service.
 

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