- Isaiah 52:13-15
- Isaiah 53:1-12
- Hebrews 10:16-25
- Hebrews 4:14-16
- Hebrews 5:7-9
- John 18:1
- John 18:19-40
- John 19:1-42
Good Friday, Year A
Main Text (Hover for Text)
“Ultimately, it was Jesus’ public execution and not his public ministry that consummated the biblical revelation, inspired the New Testament, launched the Christian movement, and eventually led to the anthropological crisis in which we now find ourselves.” Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled.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.”
The scandal of the crucifixion is briefly but well explored by Martin Hengel (Crucifixion).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.
The war with Iraq has ratcheted up tensions. What were formerly just annoyances now develop into full-blown arguments. Drivers are hastier, ruder. The volume of society has gotten louder. Fear is rising. Each day seems more difficult than the last. And underlying it all is uncertainty about what tomorrow will bring.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.