Is 52:13-53.12; Ps 22; Heb 4:14-16; 5:7-9; JN 18:1-19:42
“It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. AMEN.
Again we hear the long, difficult narrative of Jesus’s death on a cross. Again we want to squirm away from it, and rush to celebrate what comes next. We need to make meaning, though, of this: Jesus died on a cross. He didn’t choose to die or die this way then, and yet he did. That in no way means he agreed or chose in a suicidal way to die. He kept on keeping on making the cross into an offer, and an act of solidarity.
The devil, or Satan, or an embodied or nightmare form of Tempter, tempted Jesus. He was to turn stones into bread, and so by extension have the power to feed the world, jump down from the temple, and so give a Messianic signal, and to come down from the highest mountain, and so would have temporal power over the world. In Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus is tempted again, this time while on the cross. Essentially that temptation was to walk away from the whole eventful drama of the cross and live “happily after” with Mary Magdalene. He sees his whole life run through in his eyes and imagination, a real human full life, and again he must push back temptation.
I think additionally, The Holy One, the One Jesus called Father might have been tempted too. We are told repeatedly that G*d’s property is always to have mercy, and we’re instructed that G*d is love, and yet Jesus is shown neither G*d’s mercy, nor love on the cross. It seems to me it was G*d in Jesus or G*d, Father, Creator, Holy One, the Really Real, who both learned how being tempted felt, and the hard consequences of beating back temptations for a real good. It’s an almost unimaginable idea that G*d could either be tempted or possibly agonize over such a temptation. We know that as G*d loves sparrows, so much more does G*d love each of us, even to count every hair on our heads, so precious are we. Whatever a paternity test would have shown about Jesus and Joseph’s relationship, G*d never appears to be a neutral or disinterested bystander. From the time of the Annunciation, Jesus was the apple of G*d’s eye—whatever that might mean for G*d. It’s not fully clear to us what the relationship between the one Jesus called “Abba” and Jesus was, but surely it was close and loving. We know that Jesus heard himself called “Beloved Son, in whom G*d was well pleased.” Jesus exhibited a kind of reciprocal familiarity saying he was on “his Father’s business.” There’s simply no family vision of G*d that would make the cross a symbol to Jesus of one of love and mercy.
Why the cross then? Why? Why for G*d? Why for Jesus? How for us? (Krister Stendahl, the distinguished Bishop of the Swedish Lutheran Church, HDS, and friend to many in his various Massachusetts communities repeatedly instructed “No theology, on high holy days,”) and yet Good Friday presents such conundrums, that one more time I’m going to violate his rule. A Jewish biblical tradition was symbolically to load the sins of the year onto a goat and drive it into the wilderness, thus freeing the community of all its sins. People in Jesus’s community would know that tradition and the usefulness of that act so the idea of a scapegoat persists, but Jesus wasn’t a goat, and the cross wasn’t simple wilderness.
Charles Hefling has written on “Why the cross?” recently in “The Christian Century” and I use his wisdom tonight. (Any absences of clarity are mine not Hefling’s.) He discusses the meaning or meanings of atonement, and the word’s use as one of the complexities in thinking about the cross. Usually atonement or atoning means to reconcile or be reconciled for some personal failure; I atone for what I did wrong. Recently we’ve been instructed that the word actually looks its meaning, and the word is at-one-ment, a reglueing of something that has come apart, back together. In that meaning, the sinner has come apart from the Holy One and, in atoning, is glued back again to the Creator. Neither meaning seems to describe the life and actions Jesus lived. Why would a loving G*d allow a sinless person to undergo punishment of that degree of cruelty (on any other, for that matter) for any reason? Hefling asks “Does atonement depend on atonement,” using each of those definitions. “Otherwise stated, does reconciliation with God depend on compensating, making amends, paying a price? Is that what the cross is all about?”
In the 1931 book, Christus Victor, Gustav Aulén thought that reconciliation was really the triumphant outcome of confrontation and conflict, with Christ the conquering hero. That theology has not replaced the older idea that Christ’s suffering makes amends for human malfeasance, in some way. That’s to say that since all humans are sinners and Jesus wasn’t, that Jesus’s unmerited death could substitute for human punishment, so although sinners are guilty, the sentence against humans has been suspended, and substituted for.
Maybe not. In fact, usually violence, unjust actions, and harsh punishment lead to more violence, injustice and cruelty. Aren’t such evils contagious and don’t they build on each other? Punishment takes away something valuable from the offender—whether liberty, companionship, physical well-being, or possessions. If forgiveness would cancel these out it would only be a taking away of taking away. It would be a not-doing, not a restoring or putting together.
If instead forgiveness is a self-absorbing of an infection, the wrong doing from the wrong doer, the wrong wouldn’t get spread through the life and actions of the person wronged—the wrong, evil would itself weaken, even vanish. If forgiving an offense could be a positive act, an occasion of joy, then it would make possible the transforming of evil into a good. The evil wouldn’t grow, wouldn’t take on its own encroaching life, but would be a way to make a new and growing good.
Away from this thinking for a moment. Jesus was a larger than life figure in the Jewish/Roman/ Greek/pagan/ peasant/and other communities in which he lived and had become well known. Crowds followed him. People kept track of his stories, parables, travels, friendships, family, teachings, and more. His presence could stir up one or another of those groups together with or against each other. Given the anxiety, competition and close proximity among the Roman Army of occupation and anxious sets of other rulers, anyone who stirred up great numbers from any of these groups would seem a threat to order. There was no easy way to discount him, and the groups around him were growing. He kept talking about the “Kingdom of Heaven,” which might well have sounded outside the authority of any of those charged with maintain tidiness, order, and their own power. It doesn’t much matter in the long sweep of history whether the person, the central figure, around whom massive groups of followers collect, how they’re eliminated. We remember Pilate, and also John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, and Sirhan Sirhan. Their motives were each different, distinct, personally a little crazy perhaps, and each believed he had a good, necessary, immediate, political reason for his act. Those who felt threatened in the Roman Courts, or religious authorities, or some from the forces of evil, were worried about Jesus’s growing presence and effectiveness. Jesus could have chosen to flee or fight. He could have summoned a legion of angels. Indeed G*d could have chosen to bail out “his Beloved” with, I suppose, fire, floods, death of all Roman soldiers, or whatever other plague, pestilence, would have achieved the rescue. Any of those paths would have both taken away Jesus’s free choice, and made him a pawn, but worse would also have introduced much retaliatory evil in hostilities or natural disaster consequences. There and then, Jesus was accused and found guilty. By not following any escape avenues, he introduced to himself and those around him that forgiveness is a way, an occasion of good. He learned that; the Holy One learned it, and they’ve taught it for all people, for all time. His choice of accepting the cross gave meaning to his death, and to his life’s teaching of forgiveness and love. He demonstrated that even evil could be absorbed and turned into an occasion for joy, and the Holy One also accepted that choice. To blast out the evil- doers, or to effect any rescue, would vitiate Jesus’s absorption of the forces of evil which colluded in his death. G*d seems to be accepting the rules of justice necessary for humans, that G*d and mankind need to be at one with each other. Jesus is not reconciling or being reconciled for his own sin, but rather transforming real evil into an occasion of joy, of love, and of forgiveness. G*d accepts that same pattern, that forgiveness is stronger than the evil, that love is stronger than death. The cross for us is not exactly happiness, but forgiveness and deep accepting, difficult, true, eternal joy. This is Good News. AMEN.
© Katharine C. Black C Good Friday 27 March 2013