Good Friday, Year A
See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him –so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals– so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the LORD shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
"This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to
sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we
may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,
After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered.
Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said." When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, "Is that how you answer the high priest?" Jesus answered, "If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?" Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, "You are not also one of his disciples, are you?" He denied it and said, "I am not." One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, "Did I not see you in the garden with him?" Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed. Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, "What accusation do you bring against this man?" They answered, "If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you." Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law." The Jews replied, "We are not permitted to put anyone to death." (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.) Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, "What is truth?" After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, "I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?" They shouted in reply, "Not this man, but Barabbas!" Now Barabbas was a bandit.
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, "Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him." So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!" When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him." The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God." Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, "Where are you from?" But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, "Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" Jesus answered him, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin." From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor." When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, "Here is your King!" They cried out, "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" Pilate asked them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but the emperor." Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’" Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written." When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it." This was to fulfill what the scripture says, "They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots." And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, "None of his bones shall be broken." And again another passage of scripture says, "They will look on the one whom they have pierced." After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The text before us today is the lens through which the mystery of the ministry of Jesus is vindicated. In the dying and death of Jesus, from the moment of the arrest to his last exhalation, Jesus could have stopped himself from being killed. All he had to do was ask his Father. It is priceless and significant that he adopts a forgiving attitude even in the presence of the brutalization that he knew would be his, as one of those designated ‘criminals.’
Prior to our reading, a complex of events has occurred in the Johannine passion narrative. After the betrayal by Judas, Peter launches the attack that will begin the liberation of Israel and chops off the right ear of the high priest’s slave. Jesus commands Peter to sheathe his sword. This was not going to be the way.
After the arrest there is a two-sided drama, where Peter is outside the high priest’s house with ‘another disciple’ and Jesus is inside being questioned before Annas. While Peter denies Jesus outside, Jesus encourages those inside to go ask those outside what he had taught. Finally Jesus is led to Pilate ostensibly under the charge of treason.
The entirety of John 19 threatens to overwhelm the mind and spirit with its vast implications. We are taken inside the mystery of the Kingdom of God; we are shown the very character of the Father, in the character of Jesus.
John 19 is the culmination of the sacrificial crisis. The mimetic frenzy has reached a fevered pitch. The sharks smell blood. In the Johannine narrative the blame is not placed on the mob, as in Mark, but squarely on the shoulders of the institution that Jesus had taken non-violent direct action against, namely, the Temple.
The Fourth Gospel has been read as an anti-Semitic document, but it need not be so. The gospels never place the blame for Jesus’ death on Judaism or Jews in general but the ruling authorities of the time. This also includes Pilate, and it is not for nothing that the creeds hold Pilate responsible, not the Jewish people.
But Pilate must be involved, for in order for the sacrificial mechanism to work, unanimity is required. Pilate is thrust into his own mimetic crisis: was his career worth sacrificing the life of one Jewish peasant? The answer was ‘Yes.’ The die is cast, the victim is handed over, the sentence is executed.
The actual scene of crucifixion is written with brevity. Jesus has not spoken since he left Pilate, now in a scant few verses he speaks several times, first to his followers (“Woman, behold your son”), then to the soliders (“I thirst”), then to God and perhaps himself (“It is finished”). The journey was complete.
It may be recalled that the Johannine author specifically points to two things occurring in the death of Jesus. First is the demonstration of God’s love, second is the pouring out of the Spirit.
Regarding the passion of Jesus demonstrating the love of God, we recall our exegesis of John 3 this past Lenten season, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” We might also add here that the demonstration of the love of God in the death of Jesus is also a demonstration to us of the glory of God. God shines his brightest in the Cross of Christ. His glory is revealed, His love is demonstrated in that he does not retaliate nor participate in the mimetic mechanism (John 13:31ff). We might also add here I John 4:9-10 “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the expiation for our sins.” As we have frequently pointed out, the Cross is THE paradigmatic sign in the Fourth Gospel.
Second, the “Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet been glorified” according to the author in 7:37-39. Glorification in the Fourth Gospel is synonymous with the humiliation of the crucifixion. God is most glorified not in the demonstration of power and might and overwhelming forces. God is truly God’s self in Jesus on the Cross, humble, forgiving, loving to the end. It is this Spirit, the Spirit of this God that will be breathed into the Christian community in the name of the One through whom the Spirit has been sent, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” With these words we are led into the theology of reconciliation understood by the Gospel writers and Paul, that “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.” And we would add “showing that it can be done and the way it can be done, in knowing and following Jesus.” You can make peace at either end of a gun. God chose to stand in front of the barrel, offering Peace, humanity, Jews and Gentiles alike, chose the stock and trigger end.
Because Good Friday is about God in Christ reconciling the world to himself, Good Friday is as much about us as it is about God. When Good Friday is twisted into a transaction between a merciful Jesus and a wrathful God, it is emptied of its power. When the death of Jesus is seen in its fullness, our rationale for victimizing evaporates.
Rene Girard (The Scapegoat):
“The Christian Bible, the combination of the Old and New Testaments has provided [that] force of revelation. The Bible enables us to decipher what we have actually learned to identify in persecutors’ representations of persecution. It teachs us to decode the whole of religion. The victory this time will be too decisive for the sustaining force to remain hidden. The Gospels will be seen as that universal force of revelation. For centuries the most respected scholars have declared that the Gospels are merely one myth among many, and have succeeded in convincing most people.
The Gospels do indeed center around the Passion of Christ, the same drama that is found in all the world mythologies. I have tried to show this is true of all myths. This drama is needed to give birth to new myths, to present the perspective of the persecutors. But this same drama is also needed to present the perspective of a victim dedicated to the rejection of the illusions of the persecutors. Thus the same drama is needed to give birth to the only text that can bring an end to all mythology.”
One of the better brief introductions to the Passion Narrative is Hans Reudi-Weber The Cross: Tradition & Interpretation. Regarding the Fourth Gospel Weber says, “John does not spiritualize the events of the crucifixion. He emphasizes the reality of Jesus’ death even more than the Synoptic gospels. He points more directly even than Mark to the testimony of a credible eyewitness who was present at the crucifixion. His first concern, like that of the other evangelists, is to relate actual events and to ensure that belief is anchored in history.”
Yet we are still left with the question of the relationship of the Johannine passion narrative to that of the Synoptics. If, as Theissen observes, the passion narrative was framed in Jerusalem in the 40’s, does this mean that the Johannine community developed their version of the passion narrative patterned after the aforementioned? Dodd offered his own solution analyzing the kerygma of the early church and arguing that there is a common structure to the telling of the story of the death of Jesus (The Apostolic Preaching & Its Development). But the two developed versions of the story created dissonance (the Johannine and the Synoptic) in the early church. That dissonance is worth observing, but not at the expense of the larger common faith in the Crucified.
As we have observed in our anthropological readings this Year B, the structure of the story of the death of Jesus is precisely that of myth demythed, also known as gospel. The victim has not done anything to warrant this punishment. He is hated without a cause. Surely the early church experienced this reality themselves, many times over. The New Testament was written, not by the victors, but by the losers; those who lost their lives, families, homes and friends because they choose to follow the Way. It stands to reason that the church would look to Jesus’ last day as a source of comfort and instruction.
But the death of Jesus is not simply a theological issue. “The death of Jesus is the consequence of tensions between a charismatic coming from the country and an urban elite, between a Jewish renewal movement and alien Roman rule, between someone who proclaimed cosmic change which was also to transform the temple and the representatives of the status quo.” (The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide)
These sociological and political observations are important and entirely germane to the discussion of the death of Jesus. After all, it was religious and political authorities that condemned and executed Jesus. Nor are these historical observations without hermeneutic significance for our own time. We constantly find political and religious authorities authorizing the use of scapegoats whether they are our authorities doing so or the other guy’s. Then, of course, we have our own scapegoats.
Finally, we would like to observe that it should not surprise us to find that the eyewitness to the crucifixion of Jesus found it a bit ironic that while he stood by, watching the supreme sacrifice, Passover lambs were being butchered in the Temple. It is not incredible to follow this line of thought, as the author of the Fourth Gospel does, and to see several allusions to the Passover, especially noted in the fact that Jesus’ had died and thus his legs did not need to be broken.
That the author also saw the spear thrust and the bodily fluids and later interpreted them in a theological manner does not mean that he created a fictitious scene. Physicians who have reviewed the death of Jesus have pointed out that a ruptured heart (fatal heart attack) would have caused a separation in the plasma so that it might look as though blood and then water came from the open post-mortem wound.
In short, the text wreaks of history, the history of what we did with God when we had him in our hands.
C.H. Dodd’s extended analysis of the Johannine Passion narrative still stands as a watershed. He concludes by denying any literary dependence of the Fourth Gospel on the Synoptics, most notably demonstrating several ‘omissions’ from Mark that would have well fit Johannine theology (had the author of the Fourth Gospel used Mark as a source). We tend to think that the apostolic kerygmatic framework most likely underlies the formation of the Passion narratives and acted as a control of sorts.
On this day, the central theme is violence, its roots, its process, its exposure, its demise. A true theology of the Cross is not about a “pie in the sky by and by” atonement theory. It is certainly not about God pouring wrath out on Jesus, there is none of that in the gospels. It is about confronting humanity with its most important issue. Good Friday exposes the human phenomenon of religion: that which happens whenever people move from mimesis to scapegoating others and finding therein (temporarily) divine satisfaction.
Today we are keyed in to the mystery of the life of God. The Creator, hung on his own creation, by his creatures. Has there ever been a God so humble, so forgiving? Not in the history of humanity’s gods. Yet, the Christian assertion is that God’s glory is revealed in the Cross of Jesus Christ. How then, if we preach this kind of God, how then can we ever participate again in scapegoating others? Knowing that here, the heart of the gospel is beating, how could we ever think that something other than real mercy, pure and true was occurring here?
It seems to us that, as preachers seeking to preach peace, we must first know the peace that is Father, Son and Spirit. How can we do that if God is not revealed in the Cross? It is blasphemy to assert that God was pouring out his wrath on Jesus. This is the most extreme Christian form of the ancient myth, though most atonement theories bear the marks of myth to one degree or another. We believe that we cannot separate the Father from the Son nor either from the Spirit. God is one. Period.
The tragedy of Good Friday is not that we killed God. The real tragedy is that we continue to do it to one another as though we had never learned our lesson from today’s reading. Christianity, no matter what modern form it takes, tends to proclaim a version of the Christian myth. On Good Friday, more than any other day, we are clued in on that myth and its destruction. We are told the truth. Clergy must never, ever forget that it was the religious authorities that condemned Jesus and stirred up the populace. Christian clergy may not sit in Moses’ seat, but most of us trace our ordination through apostolic succession. May we once again trust the apostolic witness and share the apostolic faith, viz., that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”
Whew, heavy duty stuff. If Jesus’ story were any other human story we would be at the end. But because it is the story of Jesus, we have one more chapter. In the coming weeks as we hear the story of the resurrection, we will see that the grounding of our Good Friday logic is more than adequate. It is all about God’s way of peacemaking.