Homily: Good Friday, March 25 2016, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12/ Ps 22 / Hebrews 10:16-25 / John 18.1-19.42
Every year as we gather together on Good Friday, as we hear the gospel account of Jesus’ trial and death on the cross, as we meditate before the cross, it seems to me that one of the things that we’re trying to do is to draw meaning out of this story and these events in a way that resonates in our own time and place, in our own lives. In that sense we’re no different from Jesus followers in the early church. Jesus’ friends, those who actually witnessed the events, had to do the same thing.
Now on one level, the question of why Jesus died on the cross is relatively easy to answer. Jesus of Nazareth was an outsider who had marched into Jerusalem and challenged the political and religious authorities of the day. In those days of Roman military occupation, Jesus was but one of many accused rebels to die on a cross.
But Jesus himself had taught that there was more to his death than this. He himself had spoken of his coming death as a divine mission, as a service to others, as a new covenant, as the means by which people would be drawn into a new relationship with God. And so the early church had to wrestle with what Jesus meant when he said these things. They looked into the Hebrew scriptures and rediscovered Isaiah’s astonishing poems about the suffering servant, one of which we heard in our first reading. “Who can believe what we have heard?” wrote Isaiah. “The one who was despised and rejected by others, who was crushed for our transgressions, by his punishment we were made whole, and by his bruises we are healed. Who can believe it?” Those words of Isaiah written hundreds of years earlier somehow seemed to fit, somehow seemed to hint at the meaning of what had just taken place.
The first disciples also looked to their religious tradition, and in particular to the practice of being restored into right relationship with God through the offering of sacrifices by the priest. The Jewish understanding was that when someone sinned, their relationship with God was impaired. In order to restore that relationship, a sacrificial animal would be provided, and the priest would take the animal, enter the sanctuary of the Temple, and offer the sacrifice of atonement. Again, as the early Christians wrestled with the meaning of Jesus death, they began to see what Jesus had done once and for all on the cross as the fulfillment, as both the continuation and the completion of what the priests had been doing with their sacrifices year after year, reconciling us with God and allowing us to enter God’s presence with confidence.
We in our time and place are inheritors of these traditions, of the attempts of earlier generations to understand the meaning of the cross in terms of redemptive suffering and sacrificial atonement. But we’re also called to do our own wrestling and our own meditation on the meaning of the trial and execution of Jesus. And for that this morning, I want to return to the narrative which we heard from the gospel of John.
When Pilate, in response to the accusations that have been made against Jesus, asks him, “So you are a king?” Jesus responds, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” In response to a question of identity, Jesus responds that his whole purpose in life has been to reveal the truth. The events of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion are all about stripping away false pretences and revealing truth, the truth about who we are, and the truth about who God is.
Let’s start with humanity.
Exhibit One: the Jewish authorities. The Jewish authorities see themselves as the ones who uphold the law, as those who are morally superior, or as they would have said, the righteous. When they take Jesus to Pilate’s headquarters, they stay outside and won’t enter, because that is what the law requires. The charge that they level against Jesus is that according to the law he must die because he has committed blasphemy by claiming to be the Son of God. But when Pilate tries to release Jesus against their wishes, their pretensions of upholding the law and of righteousness start to crumble. They call for the release of the criminal Barabbas. They threaten Pilate by saying that he is no friend of the emperor. And finally, the Jewish authorities themselves commit the ultimate disobedience against their own law: they declare
“we have no king but the emperor.” It is a denial of God in violation the first commandment given by Moses. No longer are these the righteous upholders of the law. Their true identity is revealed as scheming manipulators who subvert the law to get their own way.
Exhibit #2 of humanity: Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate is the one who boasts that he is the strong man, the powerful one. He tells Jesus, “Do you not know that I have the power to release you, and the power to crucify you?” But as the events play out we realize that Pilate doesn’t have the power he thinks he does. He realizes that Jesus is innocent and tries to release him, but he fails. Pilate isn’t strong enough to do it. His power is an illusion – by trial’s end, Pilate is a picture of weakness, captive to his own fears, powerless in the face of the events that unravel his illusion of control.
And then there is Peter. At the start of the trial, Peter is the model disciple. He is the one who pledges to stay with Jesus to the end, the one who pledges to defend him and be faithful to him. The one who said “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will not desert you.” I don’t doubt that Peter was sincere, that he thought he was being truthful when he said this. But as the events of Jesus’ arrest and trial unfold, Peter’s pretensions too are stripped away, and he is revealed to be a coward, who when confronted, not by soldiers but by a woman and a slave, denies Jesus three times before the cock crows. Peter is faced with the crushing realization that he is not the man he thought he was. The truth must have been a bitter, shameful pill for him to swallow.
And I ask you, if any one of us was to insert ourselves into the story, would we have been any different? At the time of trial, which of your pretensions and illusions would be stripped away?
Because when you think about it you realize that in this trial scene, it is not really Jesus who is on trial. It is, rather, humanity that is on trial. And in these three vignettes that we get of the Jewish authorities, of Pilate and of Peter, the truth about humanity is revealed as our illusions and pretences are stripped away. And that truth is not pretty. We see a downward spiral at work, in the Jewish authorities, in Pilate and in Peter. That downward spiral is what we call sin. It is the dynamic of sin at work in human relationships. And if any one of us had been placed into these events, I suspect that the same dynamic would have been at work. Jesus came to bear witness to the truth, and despite our best efforts to portray ourselves as law-abiding, or as strong, or as faithful, the truth that is revealed is that humanity is broken and sinful. Think Brussels or Istanbul. Think Syria. Think residential schools. Think about our own lives.
And when God, in the person of Jesus the Messiah, comes into our world and enters into relationship with broken human beings, what happens? We’ve heard the account. Jesus is rejected. He is abandoned. He is condemned to crucifixion. John warned us about this right at the beginning of his gospel: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
And here we reach a critical moment. How will God respond to this rejection? How does the God who is present and made known in Jesus respond to the brokenness of humanity?
It is at this point, on the cross, that Jesus is able once more to bear witness to the truth, this time not the truth about humanity, but the truth about God. How does God respond in the face of rejection and abandonment, how does God respond to the pain and suffering that humanity inflicts on him and on each other?
One could imagine a number of different responses. The obvious one might be the response of anger, of judgment, of punishment. But the events of Good Friday tell us that God does not respond in this way. Jesus on the cross utters no words of anger or judgment. The words he utters are words of forgiveness.
Another response might be to simply abandon humanity. To cut off the relationship, to leave us to our own devices. But again, Jesus’ response in the events of Good Friday gives no indication of disengagement. He reaches out to his mother. He reassures the criminal crucified at his side. God does not respond to our sinfulness and brokenness by abandoning us.
The events of Good Friday tell us rather that Jesus accepts the cross. He allows himself to be crucified, not judging but forgiving, not lashing out in anger, but accepting the pain. In our suffering, Jesus suffers with us. In our brokenness, Jesus heals us. When we hate, Jesus loves us. The story of Jesus on the cross is the story of one who accepts the pain and sorrow of a broken relationship in order to remain in that relationship, and to stand by us and to summon us home.
Not only does Good Friday reveal the truth about who we are, but it reveals the truth about who God is. God is the one who loves us from the cross, who endures the pain and suffering caused by our brokenness so that by his love we might be healed. This is the supreme accomplishment which is proclaimed in Jesus’ final words from the cross, “It is finished.”
“For this I was born, for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth.”
The truth is this: that God overcomes the power of human sinfulness by taking the pain and suffering it causes upon himself and by giving us love and forgiveness in return. By his wounds we are healed.