John 18:25b: They asked [Peter], “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.”
Today, on Good Friday, we contemplate the suffering and the death of Jesus, and we find—if we are paying attention—that something is demanded of us. I want to suggest that here, on this day, we are called to tell the truth about what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now.” Even as we call ourselves “Easter people,” we come together today to mourn the frailty of creaturely existence in a world of ungodly powers. A difficulty, on this side of the empty tomb, is that we know that things turn out. Liturgically, the Risen Lord is just a few short days away. On Sunday, we will lift high the cross, thus transforming the imperial instrument of death to a symbol of liberation. Why then do we mourn if we know how the story ends, if a resurrection destiny awaits?
The answer is that the Truth of the Incarnation asks that we tell the truth about crucifixion. Crucifixion rejects the scandalous belief that God so loved the Creation that God became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). Crucifixion exemplifies what Dostoevsky calls, through Ivan Karamazov, the artistic, sensuous, intoxication of cruelty. We mourn on this day for the sufferings of our Savior, but also because we know, or ought to know, such cruelty intimately.
We, like those early disciples, live in a world of crucifixions: Presidential frontrunners celebrate torture, young black men are assassinated in the streets, drones rain terror from on high, exiles from war zones turn their bodies into bombs, and we in our ignorance and our indifference are hell bent on breaking the very body of the earth. Crucifixion, that intoxicating, sensuous, tradition of artistically, breaking bodies threatens to annihilate all that is called good. But it is God’s love for Creation that is the fiercely urgent truth of the Incarnation. So it was in the first century. So it is today.
On Holy Monday, Dr. McInroy suggested that the death of Jesus is not primarily about divine satisfaction nor is it merely about inspiration, but rather that the death of Jesus must play a role in drawing us into union with God. I am very much inclined to follow this teaching, for it situates crucifixion as a tragic confirmation of the Incarnation. It confirms both the humanity of the Christ and our profound need for reconciliation that God pursues by dwelling among us. Good Friday compels us to tell the truth about who we are and who we must become.
Truth-telling is a central question in our Gospel this morning. Judas breaks the trust of Jesus’ fellowship. Peter flatly denies even knowing Jesus three times. Pilate asks that sophomoric question, almost with a postmodern flair, “what is truth?” In each case, the individuals seem to know the truth, or at least sense it, even as they choose against it.
Let us consider for a moment Peter’s denials. Peter, of course, does not know—as we do—how things are going to go down. So, we can consider his denials according to several possibilities. We could say that he chooses to engage in cost-benefit analysis. Jesus has been captured, what good would it do to join him in death when the liberationist movement could go on? Or, perhaps more likely, we could say that Peter’s denials are simply the product of fear. He is traumatized and threatened. He tried fight, taking an ear along the way, but Jesus told him to put the sword away. Now, perhaps, he’s entertaining flight. Like Peter’s sword, however, I think both of these readings slightly miss the mark.
Peter’s refusal to tell the truth, is a refusal to tell the truth of who he had become, of who he should be in Christ. It is precisely this act, I submit, that each of us practices every day—in one way or another. We, like Peter, falter when confronted by the powers of crucifixion. Despite our identities in Christ, we submit to powers that threaten to consume the fiercely urgent love of the Incarnation. The irony is that we make these denials, unlike Peter, on the other side of the empty tomb. The persistence of fears, anxieties, doubts, trials, and losses daily prompt us to deny the scandalous love that led to the Cross. And so today, in a world of crucifixions, we mourn for and with our Savior. May it be that in our lament, we come to know more deeply the fiercely urgent love of the Incarnation.