On his 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon by legendary singer-songwriter Paul Simon, there is a song entitled “American Tune”—which Sam Bush just played for us. Paul Simon played it during his 2011 induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Its melody is derived from one that Bach wrote and is the same melody from today’s sequence hymn, “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded.” On this Good Friday, I’m going to juxtapose these two pieces—“American Tune” articulates how all of us suffer in our lives, and “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded” articulates how Jesus suffers with us and for us.
In the first verse of “American Tune,” Paul Simon sings:
Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home
I would venture a guess that some of you here today can relate to those lyrics, that in one way or another you have found yourself in the past (or find yourself today) mistaken, confused, forsaken, or misused—or perhaps feeling in one way or another weary to your bones and so far away from home.
And of course, you are not alone, as Paul Simon continues:
I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it
I wonder what’s gone wrong
How many of you feel battered today…or ill at ease? How many of you have dreams that have been shattered or driven to their knees? How many of you look at your life or the world around you and wonder what went wrong?
Thirty years ago, Robert Duvall won an Oscar for his role in the 1983 film Tender Mercies, in which he portrays Mac Sledge, a country music singer and recovering alcoholic. Mac is taken in and cared for by a young widow named Rosa Lee (played by Tess Harper). Rosa Lee’s husband had been killed in Vietnam, and their young son goes by “Sonny.” Mac and Rosa Lee eventually marry and it is a story of redemption for both of them—but it is a story punctuated by suffering, as later in the film Mac receives word that his 18-year old daughter from a previous marriage has been killed in an auto accident.
Both Rosa Lee and Mac suffered, and wondered why things went wrong. At one point in the film Sonny wants to talk with Rosa Lee about his father’s death:
“Mama, the other night a boy asked me how my daddy died in Vietnam, and I didn’t know, I just knew he was killed. How was he killed, Mama?” I don’t know, honey. “Was he killed in battle?” I don’t know, Sonny. “Didn’t you ever ask anybody?”
Rosa Lee responds:
“Yes. And no one would tell me anything except he was found dead. He was alone when they found him and they didn’t know how long he had been there. And so they couldn’t be sure he was killed in a battle, or if he was, what battle, since there had been three in that area that week, and he could have been in any one of them. Or he could have just been out walking they said, and a sniper got him. Where would he be walking to I asked and they said they had no more idea than I had… He was only a boy. He was a good boy and I think he was going to make a fine man, and you would have been proud of him and he would have been proud of you.”
Toward the very end of the film Mac similarly pours out his heart to Rosa Lee about the suffering in his life, especially the death of his daughter in the car accident:
“I was almost killed once in a car accident. I was drunk and I ran off the side of the road and rolled over four times, and they took me out of that car for dead. But I lived. And I prayed last night to know why I lived and she died, but I got no answer to my prayers. I still don’t know why she died and I lived. I don’t know the answer to nothing. Not a blessed thing. I don’t know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk and you took me in and pitied me and helped me to straighten out and married me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny’s daddy died in a war and my daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why? Why? Why?”
In his passion and death, Jesus experienced the very things Paul Simon wrote about—Jesus was forsaken and misused, Jesus was battered and shattered and driven to his knees. All this is articulated in “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded:”
O sacred head sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn
O kingly head surrounded with mocking crown of thorn
What sorrow mars thy grandeur? Can death thy bloom deflower?
O countenance whose splendor the hosts of heaven adore!
And on the cross Jesus asked the same question Mac asked, “Why?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus suffered greatly, even to the point of death, as the hymn continues:
Thy beauty, long desired, hath vanished from our sight
Thy power is all expired, and quenched the light of light
But on the cross Jesus did much more than identify with our suffering and our asking why.
Jesus not only suffers with us, on the cross he suffered for us. The Bible tells us that Jesus’ death is the ultimate demonstration of the love of God, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Yes, on the cross Jesus asked, “Why?” But according to John’s account of his passion, “Why” was not Jesus’ final word on the cross; Jesus’ final word was something quite different: “It is finished.”
In dying for us Jesus atoned for all our sins, once and for all, as Article XXXI of the Thirty-nine Articles puts it: “The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone” (The Book of Common Prayer, 874).
Because Jesus’ death on the cross atones for every sin for all time, as we read in today’s epistle lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews, “there is no longer any offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:18).
In other words, there is nothing, absolutely nothing you can or need to do to supplement what Jesus has already done for you.
And the reason that Jesus’ death is enough to atone for all the sins of the whole world is because of his identity as fully God and fully human, as Yale Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf write:
“On account of his divinity, Christ is one with God, to whom the ‘debt’ is owed. It is therefore God who through Christ’s death shoulders the burden of our transgression against God and frees us from just retribution. But since on account of Christ’s humanity he is also one with us, the debtors, it is we who die in Christ and are thus freed from guilt” (The End of Memory, 117).
And yes this applies to the whole world, but it also applies to you, personally and individually. Jesus Christ died for you; you are “freed from guilt,” as the hymn continues:
Ah me! for whom thou diest, hide not so far thy grace
Show me, O Love most highest, the brightness of thy face
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus not only suffers with you, he suffered for you. You are fully loved, fully forgiven.
It is finished.
And our response to the One who is fully God and fully human, the One who died for us? Again, we find the answer in the hymn:
Ah, keep my heart thus moved to stand thy cross beneath
To mourn thee, well beloved, yet thank thee for thy death
Thank you, God. Thank you, God. Thank you, God.
- John 19:30