For the last 11 years, First Baptist Church on Highland Avenue, Winston-Salem, N.C.’s oldest African-American congregation (1879), has partnered with the Wake Forest University School of Divinity for a Lenten preaching series at the church’s weekly noontime service. Each Friday during Lent, faculty and staff members at the divinity school provide the homilies, focused on a particular theme. This year’s emphasis is “For the Living of these Days,” utilizing phrases from the hymn God of Grace and God of Glory, written by Harry Emerson Fosdick in 1930. The Rev. Paul Robeson Ford, pastor of the church, grew up in Riverside Church in New York City, where Dr. Fosdick was founding pastor.
On Good Friday, the series concludes with a service focused on the “Seven Last Words of Jesus,” with sermons presented by graduating seniors from the school of divinity. Each service ends with Holy Communion as participants — church members, staff from the neighboring human services complex, homeless persons, and nearby apartment dwellers — come forward to receive bread and cup by intinction (dipping bread in the cup). “Remember that Christ has died for you.”
This year, the Rev. Ford proposed pairing Jesus’ seven words with statements from sermons and addresses by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Good Friday 2018 occurs on March 30, five days before the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. While Jesus’ death carries unique spiritual and theological import for the church, King’s assassination is a continuing reminder of the prophetic significance of martyrs and martyrdom in Christian life and history. The student-preachers, female and male, African American and Caucasian, are asked to reflect on Jesus’ words alongside Dr. King’s commentary, continuing insights for the living of these days. This “Eulogy for a Martyred Savior” promises to be a poignant, contemplative moment for preachers and listeners alike. The words include the following:
- “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Luke 23:34
“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” — Loving Your Enemies, 1961
- “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43
“But it is not enough for me tonight to stand before you and condemn riots … without … condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society … the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. … A riot is the language of the unheard.” — The Other America, 1968.
- “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy mother!” John 19:26-27
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” — Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963
- “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:33-34
“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.” — Suffering and Faith, 1960
- “After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, said, I thirst.” John 19:28
“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.” — Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963.
- “When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished’; and he bowed his head and handed over the spirit.” John 19:30
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” — Nobel Peace Acceptance Speech, 1964
- “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’” Luke 23:46
“I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.” — Final Sermon, April 3rd, 1968
The Rev. Ford’s decision to link the words of Jesus (INRI) and King (MLK) is made more timely given two stories that recently appeared in the public media as we move along the Lenten way of the cross.
- A March 6 New York Times essay details the “scattered exodus” of African Americans from various evangelical congregations, specifically megachurches, “more in fatigue and heartbreak than in outrage.” Their specific concerns suggest an overall failure of those churches to understand and address issues — police brutality, birtherism, immigration, and overarching white evangelical support of the current race-baiting president. Mercer University professor Chanequa Walker-Barnes observes of herself and other African Americans who’ve departed predominately Anglo-congregations: “We were willing to give up our preferred worship style for the chance to really try to live this vision of beloved community with a diverse group of people. It didn’t work.”
- In an article in the April issue of The Atlantic, conservative-evangelical-commentator Michael Gerson writes scathingly about the current state of evangelicalism in America, citing “racial prejudice” as “a special category of moral wrong.” He concludes that “Americans who are wrong on this issue do not understand the nature of their country. Christians who are wrong on this issue do not understand the most-basic requirements of their faith.” What if race and racism remain the test-case of the gospel in 21st century America?
In his seven last words, Jesus lives and dies for, with, because of the gospel he declared from the beginning — forgiving his enemies, reconciling prisoners, confessing his humanity, pleading God’s presence, waiting on the grace of resurrection — a redemptive litany that Good Friday compels us to confront. MLK offers his own last full measure of devotion while working for, with, and because of sanitation workers in Memphis, literally proclaiming “good news to the poor.”
Living or dying — now it’s our turn.