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Friend of Sinners
A Good Friday sermon
For a couple years now, I’ve been occupied with an on-again off-again historical research project focused on the letters of Canon Albert Ernest Laurie, a visionary Scottish minister and World War I hero. Readers new to my work can catch up with a light intro here. The project will focus primarily on the impact of the Great War on the faith of the West as seen through Laurie’s eyes. It’s my hope that it will prove a valuable resource at the intersection of war memoir and church history.
In the research process, I also hunted down the last circulating copies of Laurie’s selected sermons, as compiled from congregants’ rough notes. They take up two slim volumes respectively titled The Vision of God and The Awareness of God. Laurie was never a famous preacher, and I imagine hardly anyone outside the community of his beloved Old St. Paul’s in Edinburgh has ever read these homilies. Which is a shame, because like many forgotten sermons of many forgotten ministers, they’re full of gold nuggets. My physical copies are among my most cherished rare books, although I’ve scanned them for posterity, together with an old biography on which I’m drawing heavily for my project. (All available in one place here, for the curious reader.)
These collections have brief, humble intro notes to the effect that the sermons were roughly jotted down “with no thought of future publication” and these jottings are presented as much as possible “just as they were taken, in the hope that something of the personality of the speaker might shine through them.” Laurie was a charismatic speaker, and it was said half the fun of his sermons was in how he delivered them. Decades later, a former altar boy fondly recalled “the low crouch; the balancing act on the edge of the pulpit, while we prayed that angels in their hands would bear him up; the sudden call to attention, ‘Children!’, with a clap of the hands.” Yet even on the page, as promised, Laurie’s personality still shines through. I’ve read that in his old age, not all his sermons were equally eloquent or coherent, and to some extent he was like the aged Apostle John, who we’re told would preach little except “Little children, love one another” over and over.
Still, I do have a soft spot for one particular mini-homily on the crucifixion, preached two years before his death in 1937. It’s not the most lofty sermon of the cross, nor the most convicting, nor the most profound. It even includes one outright theological blunder, taking the “He became sin” of 2 Corinthians 5:21 and outputting it as “God became a sinner.” One wonders if the younger Laurie would have cringed at this, if he could have glimpsed his older self in a crystal ball.
Why am I still fond of it, then? I suppose it’s because it still captures so well, in so few words, what Jesus’ suffering specially signifies to the poor. Granted, it could fairly be argued that the word “sin” should have made more than one appearance at the end. And in its gentleness, it requires a certain tenderness of heart in the listener to find its mark. This is not the Good Friday sermon for all men, in all seasons. It’s a sermon for the man who is “down and out.” It’s for the man who needs a Friend.
I’ve added paragraph breaks to the text where they seem to make sense and be most effective. With that, here it is:
I want to speak just now to a person who may be in Church, and to whom our Lord Jesus Christ would speak, maybe, through my lips—a person who is possibly down and out, who is not accustomed to come to church, or who may have come because somebody asked him. I want to pitch my aim very low, I want you to watch for a little by the deathbed of a friend. You wouldn’t hesitate to sit beside the bedside of a dying neighbour. And I want to tell you of a Friend of yours Who died on this day, and Who’s associated with you in that He was poor and lonely, and suffered greatly.
You’re poor, and let no one make little of the sufferings of the poor. But at least you have a roof to cover you, and you have food, and though perhaps it’s not a nice thing to sleep in your clothes to keep warm, you have at least the Parish Allowances, and the community gives you 15/3 a week. But this Friend was so poor that you have never come near to the extremity of His poverty. He had nothing—not even clothes. If you die, at least the parish will bury you, and give you a parish coffin—however hateful it is. But your Friend would have been cast out as you would cast something into a bucket.
Who is He? Wait a bit.
He was lonely. Maybe you live up a long stair, and have only a dog or a cat to keep you company. But you might have friends. Perhaps you haven’t any use for church people, and think that they’re cliquey, and stuck up. But you’re wrong there. Anyone here would be glad to be your friend, because they’re friends of this Friend of yours. And then, granted that you suffer, there’s Someone Who has suffered in body and mind more than you’ve ever dreamt—suffering you can’t possibly imagine. Poor, and lonely, and suffering far beyond your knowledge, going far deeper down than any experience of any man that ever was.
Who’s your Friend? Strange to say, it’s God.
You will always think of God as a rich man, but God cares absolutely nothing for riches. God is supremely just your Friend. And He knows you better than you know yourself. I’m not belittling your poverty and suffering, but I do know that that’s not the last word of your despair, and unrest and misery. And what’s behind all that is that you’ve got no peace, no quietness within. It’s that restless soul that was made for your Friend, and that will not get rest without Him.
God, Who became a sinner—not only poor and suffering and lonely—God brings peace and rest, because He Himself takes up and strengthens and cleanses and inspires your soul, because He takes all your sin upon Himself. Look up at your Friend on that hard bed He died on, and think of all He went through—God in His Mercy, seeking you. Will you not at least make some effort, put out your hand? If I were asked the one of all other things that a man needs, I would answer Rest—peace in his soul.
Christ died on the gallows, and changed even death.