Jesus’ blood never failed me

Good Friday

 Deacon Richard Haber  April 14, 2017

I first heard this refrain while returning to Calgary from the Rockies on my way to a medical meeting.  I remember being almost moved to tears by the plaintive quality of the voice singing it.  As I was preparing this homily, wondering how can one possibly put into any kind of human words what we have just witnessed in the reading of the Passion, this refrain came into my mind.  There is a fascinating story behind this refrain.  Gavin Bryars, a film maker, was making a film about the street people and chronic alcoholics who lived in London near Waterloo station in the 70’s.  While they were making the film, people would break into drunken song—sometimes irreverent bawdy ballads or fragments of operas.  However there was one old man, who in fact did not drink, a street person, who sang this refrain, “Jesus’ blood never failed me”.  Although it was never used in the film, Bryars kept the tape and added an accompaniment to it which was very simple and the tape was looped in such a way that the refrain played over and over again. While he was copying the tape, he left the recording room and went for a coffee. 

When he came back, he was amazed to find the art studio, filled with people, and usually a very lively place, was very subdued and some people even had tears in their eyes.  At first, he could not understand what had happened and then he realized that the tape was playing over and over again, “Jesus’ blood never failed me.”  He decided then to add an orchestral accompaniment and allowed the old tramp’s simple, powerful faith express itself and he said, “Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.”

To preach on Good Friday brings Walter Wangerin’s words in Ragman to mind ,

God is apprehended in experience.  Nor, in fact, can the divine and human meeting happen any other way.  God is not a God of the pulpit, though the pulpit proclaim Him.  He is a God in and of the histories of humankind. (Ragman, pg.80)

God through Jesus is not a part of human history in some abstract manner. God is a part of my human history, a part of my family’s history, a part of this community’s history, a part of our history here and now, this afternoon as we bring to mind and heart, and therefore, bring into this time and place, the great mystery of Jesus’ presence among us.  For many people, Jesus’ crucifixion is an embarrassment, ridiculous, how and why would God submit to such humiliation, such indignity!  This was a problem in the early Christian community as St. Paul frequently reminds us:

Christ…sent me to tell the Good News, and to tell it without using the language of human wisdom, in order to make sure that Christ’s death on the cross is not robbed of its power.  For the message about Christ’s death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost; but for us who are being saved it is God’s power.  The scripture says, ‘ I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and set aside the understanding of the scholars. (1 Cor 1:17-18) 

How could the early Christians explain their worship of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah?  Jesus was executed brutally like a common criminal.  This was not a god people are used to.  A God, according to our poor human wisdom, is a being far greater, far more powerful than we are. God is someone who could respond to evil and brutality by calling thunder and lightening down from heaven.  God is someone who has legions of angels to defend him.  God is someone who performs incredible miracles, raises the dead, walks on water.  We will never accept a god who dies on a cross like a criminal!

He saved others, but he cannot save himself! Isn’t he the king of Israel?  If he comes down off the cross now, we will believe in him!  He trusts in God and claims to be God’s Son.  Well, then, let us see if God wants to save him now.! (Mt27:42-43).

Are we unlike the crowd at the foot of that cross?  We still don’t understand, do we?  We cannot possibly imagine that Jesus—the incarnate God—accepted the humiliation of an execution for one reason only.  He loves us!  We are fearful, afraid to accept God’s unconditional love.  If we did, what might happen to us?  We cringe because we cannot think the unthinkable that we are loved by God despite our sinfulness.  Yes, Jesus loved and in that love forgave his disciples who had journeyed with him throughout his public life and yet at the end, abandoned him—even Peter—

Before the cock grows you will have denied me three times.

Jesus himself felt abandoned even by his Father on the cross,

Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? ..My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mk 15:34). 

Yet he trusted in his Father’s love and hoped to the end. It is through this incredible love of Jesus that each of us is liberated and freed from the burden of our sins. At different times of our lives we are all like the crowds in Jerusalem singing “Hosanna, to the son of David” only to  turn  suddenly and chant “Crucify him”.  At times, we are Peter, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and death!” and moments later, “I do not know him.” Despite our failure to respond to a Father who sacrificed his only Son for us—unimaginable for those of us who have children, to sacrifice your own son or daughter for someone else!—God still loves us.  This is the true meaning of the cross for Christians—it is a symbol of God’s creative, overpowering love which transforms us.  “For when you were baptized, you were buried with Christ, and in baptism you were also raised with Christ through your faith in the active power of God, who raised him from death.  You were at one time spiritually dead because of your sins….But God has now brought you to life with Christ.  God forgave us all our sins; he cancelled the unfavourable record of our debts with its binding rules and did away with it completely by nailing it to the cross.”(Col 2:12-14).

Our Easter liturgy continues then today as we mourn at the foot of the cross.  We began our Triduum, a single liturgy culminating tomorrow night in the Easter vigil, last night with the celebration of Jesus’ Passover meal with us.  Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and commanded us to do the same.  This is the only response possible to God’s love for us,

So if I your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.

This is the true meaning of our Eucharist.  In a few moments we will venerate the cross.  As we venerate, perhaps all we can do is keep the refrain of that old homeless man in London in our hearts and minds, “Jesus’ blood never failed me.”

The Ragman, a story written by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story, a story of death and resurrection.
Allow me a few moments to share it with you. Even before the dawn on Friday
morning, I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking in the alleys of the
city. He was pulling an old cart, filled with clothes; and he was calling in a clear,
resonant voice, "Rags! New rags for old, I'll take your tired, old rags. Rags!" Now
this is a wonder, I thought, for the man stood six feet-four, with arms like tree limbs,
hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed with brightness. Could he find no better job
than this, to be a ragman in one of the rougher areas of the city?
Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into her
handkerchief, shedding thousands of tears. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was
breaking. The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly he walked to the woman and asked,
"Will you give me your rag; I'll give you another." He slipped the handkerchief from
her eyes, and laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined? Then
as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing. He put her tearstained
handkerchief to his own face; and began to weep, to sob as grievously as she
had done. Yet she was left behind without a tear. "Rags! Rags! New rags for old!"
In a little while the Ragman came across a little girl whose head was wrapped in a
bandage. Her eyes were blank and empty. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.
Now that tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lively bonnet
from his cart. "Give me your rag, and I'll give you mine." He loosened the bandage,
removed it and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. I gasped at what I
saw, for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow ran a darker, richer
flow of his own blood! "Rags, rags! I take old rags!" cried the sobbing, bleeding
The sun was at its height by now, and the Ragman seemed more and more in a hurry.
"Do you have a job?" the Ragman inquired of a man leaning against a telephone
pole. "Are you crazy?" the man sneered, pulling away from the pole and revealing
that the right sleeve of his jacket was empty. "So give me your jacket, and I'll give
you mine." The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman. I trembled at
what I saw. For the Ragman's arm stayed in his jacket, and when the other put it on,
he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.
By now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping
uncontrollably and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling the cart with one arm,
stumbling with exhaustion, he still ran on ahead faster. I wept to see the change in
this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed to see where he was going in such
a hurry, perhaps to discover what drove him so. The little old Ragman came upon a
landfill, a garbage dump. He climbed the hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little
space on the hill. Then he sighed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a
handkerchief. He covered his bones with a jacket; and he died.
Oh, how I cried to witness his death! I slumped in a car and wailed and mourned,
because I had come to love that Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died. I sobbed myself to sleep.
But then, on Sunday morning, I was awakened by a violence.
Light—pure , hard , demanding light—slammed against my sour face and I blinked, and Ilooked, and I saw the last and the first wonder of itall.  There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead but alive!
Well, then I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman.  I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him.  Then I took off all my clothes in that place and I said to him with a dear yearning in my voice: ‘Dress me.” My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him.  The Ragman, the Ragman the Christ.