Earlier this week, I began my preparations for this sermon the way I prepare for every sermon: prayer and turning to one of my favorite commentaries. As I flipped through the pages, I found the entry for Good Friday and began reading. “Good Friday,” it said, “is a day for all Christians to approach with trembling, but none more than those called to preach.” Not the hermeneutical reassurance I was looking for, and for a moment it made me second-guess my acceptance of the invitation to preach tonight. But the more time I spend reflecting and praying on this night, the more I think the commentary is right. Tonight is a night that we all should approach with trembling and uneasiness. Tonight is the night we come before the Crucified Lord, the night we witness the very worst that humanity has to offer. Tonight is the night that darkness wins . . . or so it seems.
We all know the end of the story, we know what happens next, what we celebrate tomorrow night. In fact, the lilies are already in the angel room. Still we cannot gloss over or skip this night. While we know the resurrection is coming, we still experience the darkness of Good Friday: broken promises, lost hopes, unanswered prayers, severed relationship, grief, death. We know all too well the pain associated with this night. So we come and stand before the cross with all that we know and all that we are, and we wonder and wait.
Before going to seminary I worked for a parish that had a pre-school, and part of my ministry was to lead a weekly chapel serve for the students. Very quickly I learned that children have a way of asking seemingly simple, yet remarkable challenging questions. As I finished reading the story of the crucifixion, one child asked, “Why did Jesus have to die?” As I struggled to find the words, to answer a question I wasn’t sure I even had an answer to, I looked at our children’s bible to see if it could help me come up with something that resembled an answer. “You see, they didn’t understand. It wasn’t the nails that kept Jesus there. It was love.” Why did Jesus have to die? Love. Not just any king of love, but a never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever kind of love. As elsewhere is John’s Gospel puts it, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Jesus dies on the cross to save us from ourselves, to save us from sin and death, to restore us to wholeness and right relationship with God.
There are a few ways that John’s passion narrative is different than the narratives found in the three synoptic gospels. John highlights the religious-political dynamics surrounding the execution of Jesus. In fact, John makes it clear that Jesus was killed for political reasons. The title “king” is repeatedly associated with Jesus: “Here is your king,” “we have no king but the emperor,” “the king of the Jews.” As king, Jesus is always in control of what happens. At the time of his arrest he goes out to meet and question those who are there to apprehend him. He even directs the authorities as to how they should treat him and the disciples. Jesus makes a declaration to Pilate about the realities of Pilate’s power in relationship to the power of God. Jesus carries the cross by himself, does not fall, does not experience the mocking and shame portrayed in the other passion narratives. He even determines when his mission is “finished” and when it is time for him to lay down his life.
John continues to build the political case for Jesus’ death. The absence of a Jewish trial, in the fullness we hear in other accounts, continues to weaken the view that Jesus was executed for religious offenses. We hear that Caiaphas, the high priest, persuaded the Sanhedrin that Jesus should be put to death. There was a real fear that if Jesus’ followers became too large, if he became too powerful, an uprising might occur and the Roman Empire would come in and punish them all. Caiaphas convinces the Sanhedrin to sacrifice the life of one Jewish man to save the entire Jewish nation.
This gospel passage has a particular danger to it. John’s constant use of “the Jews” has led Christians for centuries to believe that “the Jews” killed Jesus. A fact that simply is not true. But that hasn’t stopped centuries of anti-Semitism, oppression, and outright persecution and violence against our Jewish brothers and sisters. In many ways the Jewish community has been the scapegoat for a reality that many wish to ignore.
This week, a friend of mine published a blog post on this very issue. He writes:
A preacher on Good Friday would do well to talk about how the crucifixion is the fruit of human sinfulness, something we all share in, not something that can be blamed on any person or group. We humans crucified Jesus. When we ignore the homeless on our doorsteps, we fail to care for Jesus Christ himself. When we eat our fill while others starve, we steal nourishment from Jesus Christ himself. When we site up hatred against the vulnerable or fear of those who differ from us, we alienate ourselves from Jesus Christ himself. In other words, Good Friday is the chief exemplar of a pattern of sinful behavior that we continue to this very day.
This is why Jesus dies – for the collective sins of humanity. Jesus dies to offer us the opportunity to be forgiven of our sins, to be forgiven for the ways we participate in systems of power and oppression, to be the assurance of our life and our salvation.
It seems to me that when we get trapped in the “Jesus died for me” conversation, we make the crucifixion all about “me” – we turn it into an individualist salvation as opposed to the salvation of humanity. There are personal implications for the cross, chiefly our salvation, but the central plot line of the New Testament is not about retribution or substitution. There is no mention of Jesus dying for individual sin. Jesus comes to judge the world and its systems of oppression and violence.
When we approach the cross we see, or at least we should see, our own brokenness reflected in Christ’s brokenness and our sinfulness particularly as it connects to the sins of humanity. Some time ago, I came across the following quote from a Nicaraguan peasant, “Lots of people in Holy Week think only about the sufferings of Jesus, and they don’t think about the sufferings of so many Christs, of millions of Christs that exist. And Jesus didn’t want them to be wailing for him but to wail for the others that were going to suffer like him or worse than him.” When we stare at the cross we should see the brokenness of those who suffer like or worse than Christ.
Each and every day people throughout the world face suffering and death – brutal torment and torture. But, Christ’s suffering and death on the cross says something to those in these most horrific situations. It shows that the Lord and Savior, the Redeemer of the world suffered as they suffer. More than that, he chose to suffer out of love for each and every one of us.
No matter what our brokenness is – be it physical brokenness at the hands of others or emotional brokenness by our own self-deprecation – Jesus chooses to suffer with us out of an incomprehensible love for us. He suffers so that we might be released from our brokenness and bondage, be made whole, and restored to right relationship with God. He suffers so that those of us who enjoy power and privilege in this life may strive to breakdown the systems of violence and oppression around us.
In a few moments, we will have the opportunity to come before the cross in veneration. We are invited to stand, kneel, bow down at the foot of the cross – to come before it, touch it, kiss it. Before you come before the cross, you are invited to write down your sense of brokenness, your sins, hurts, shames, and anything else that is separating you from wholeness and right relationship with God. Whatever is written down will be left between you and God. No one will ever read them. Tomorrow night they will kindle the light of Christ that shines to the deepest darkest places of sin, brokenness, and despair in our lives and around the world.
As we lay these burdens before the Cross of Christ and return to our seats, I hope and pray that we will be ever mindful of all those the world forgets – all those who share in our common humanity and salvation, but remain neglected. As we lay our burdens down, we are called to pick up the cross, to pick up this most radical gift, and share its healing love with the world. The one thing this world of ours needs most is the restorative redeeming love of the cross we stand before this night.
This is not the night that darkness wins.
This is the night that love wins.