Good Friday

April 3, 2015

Bible Text: John18:1-19:42 |

Oh, this dreadful day. Dreadful for the passion narrative we retell and dreadful for its contents. Dreadful for the arm’s distance we keep from the story and dreadful the way we feel in our avoidance. Dreadful for 2000 years of church history, and the various ways we’ve turned the story of Christ’s love and passion into hideous theologies of a vindictive God demanding blood and violence and retribution.

I find myself resisting Good Friday each year, for it fills me with dread.

And what’s to be said for the discomfort of being required to stand before you and speak of that which I hardly understand. For what can be said when we are brought to the cross, to the edge of this vast and cosmic void, where the perfect man, the divine man Jesus, gives himself to fools and tyrants, to be crucified? And for what purpose? Jesus gives little rationale other than his disturbing insistence that he must drink the cup that the Father has given him.

What cup are you giving him, O Father God? and how can we call you merciful who would ask this of your son?

For two thousand years the church has struggled to make sense of this day and this death. In theological terms, we call it “atonement”: this foundational theology of the church that has always believed that – somehow – through the death of Christ, God has forgiven our sins. But how this is true, we’ve never been able to agree, though many have violently insisted over the years that their view is the absolute truth, and that salvation can come only from heeding whatever theology they’re pedaling. But how can we employ any violence of spirit to defend the sacrifice of Christ who said, “Put your sword away”?

However God has used Christ’s death to affect the redemption of the world, it has happened. And it has happened apart from our faith and independent of our creeds. Faith and creeds are theologies are good; they are our best attempt to make sense of the testimonies of Christ. But they do not have power within themselves to save. It is God who saves, for it is the will of God through his Christ to save and all we are doing is responding to what God alone can do, and what God alone has done.

So how are we to read this story – this story of betrayal and passion and death?

To begin with, I think it is a question of perspective. If you stand very closely to an impressionist painting you can see clearly and distinctly a particular blob of paint. You can see its contours and its hue with great precision. But the more closely you study that one bit of color, the more likely it is that you will miss the meaning of that color. For its purpose in the painting can only make sense in light of its relationship to the thousands of other colors spread across the canvas.

And so it is with the death of Jesus. If we focus too intently on a handful of scriptures it becomes very easy to make dreadful distortions about the character and intention of God. How often our atonement theories render God as being so angry at our human sinfulness that he looks to his innocent son and takes out his wrath on him. What kind of father is that? God is the God of all creation. His own son defined him as “love” itself. Could such a total God be bound by some greater authority that demands violence and retribution?

From childhood something has balked at this picture of God. Something’s not right. But nor we can ignore the tears of Jesus who prays, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.”

There is a deep mystery here. To make any sense of it, we must pull back to see how this prayer, how this submission, how this death work in relation to the whole life and ministry of Christ. And, if it is possible, we must pull even further back to see how this moment fits within the grand arc of God’s entire creation.

Throughout his ministry, as much as Jesus was preaching to the crowds, he was surely also preaching to himself, declaring to his own spirit the truth of the Kingdom of God, and preparing himself for the destination of his journey:

Whoever will save his life must lose it.

The first shall be last and the last first.

It is more blessed to give than to receive;

Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it abides alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

This is my blood of the new covenant that is poured out for many.

Jesus has been teaching and embodying the Kingdom of God, which stands in stark contrast to the kingdoms of this world. In God’s kingdom, true power lies in mercy and forgiveness; true self is known in loving relationship with the other; true possession is achieved by giving away. Hoarding and bitterness and defensiveness are turned on their heads, and their pockets emptied. Jesus is living the Kingdom of God and at the cross the substance of this kingdom reaches its completion.

What does this mean? I hardly know. But what I see is the absoluteness of Jesus’ embodiment of this other kingdom, this real kingdom, this kingdom that reveals the kingdoms of this world for the sham that they are.

Jesus has gained his life by losing it.

He has become first, by making himself last.

He is blessed for he has given all.

He has fallen into the ground and died, and now born much fruit.

Jesus has poured out his blood and now the many do live.

How is this possible? I don’t know. But it was surely more than some judicial exchange.  Jesus has been teaching all along that he is “the way, the truth, and the life”. So now, by his dying, that truth has become life and saturated all creation with its substance, for truth has met truth and we have been changed.

Jesus was obedient to the Father and in so doing fulfilled the divine intention for all creation.

We live in a universe that is always dying and always being reborn; of leaves and trees that fall in their season, then re-emerge as something new. It is a universe in which species can only survive by eating other species. We live on a revolving world where day is always followed by night, before becoming day again. We see our place in this world; we know the inevitability of our ending, and it fills us with dread. We dread the grave – that ultimate abolishing of the life we know and cling to. Surely it is this fear of death that lies beneath all the strivings of worldly kingdoms – all selfishness and self-centeredness – our feeble attempts to preserve what we know must one day waste away.

And God knows this, for he made this world and its constant turning to decay. But he entered this world and said, “Fear not; the grave will not be your end. Your strivings to avoid the grave are misspent. Let me go there for you – and perform within the shades of death that mystery beyond your knowing. Then let me emerge in the new life, like the grain of wheat that has fallen and born much fruit. You may follow me to the grave with confidence that you will also follow me out of the grave and into life again. And for those with eyes to see, you may begin my resurrection today.”

“For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18:37).

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