A sermon by Dr. John E. (Jay) Phelan, Intern for Holy Orders on Good Friday, April 15th 2022.
When I was a kid, we didn’t do Good Friday. It wasn’t that the church I attended didn’t talk about the death of Jesus. It did; often and in some detail. It was just that like many churches when Easter season rolled around it was as if daffodils, pastel dresses, and white shoes overshadowed the gloom of Good Friday. It was Jesus resurrected we were eager to see, not Jesus executed and entombed. Perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps it was just me. Chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs had more appeal to me than the mournful contemplation of the crucifixion. And I don’t think I was alone in this. The crucifixion is a problem. It always has been. A crucified king was not only nonsense to the Jews, as the Apostle Paul admitted, it was just as outrageous and scandalous to the Gentiles. The New Testament spends a good deal of time trying to demonstrate why it was really necessity. Of course, many Christians today still find the crucifixion disturbing.
I want to ask this evening why we Christians even do this? Why do we spend time with such a brutal event as Jesus’ crucifixion? Perhaps one important reasons is that our Scriptures, our faith, and our traditions, want us to face hard truths about life and death—and, perhaps most importantly, hard truths about ourselves. This is, of course, part of our Jewish heritage as well. The Hebrew scriptures insisted on confronting Israel with its failures and the failures of its greatest saints and heroes No one is let off the hook—not Abraham, not Moses, not David. Their failures are spread across the pages of the Bible like the headlines on a tabloid: Abraham Lies About His Wife Sarah! Moses Murders an Egyptian! David Commits Adultery! The Hebrew scriptures are frank about its heroes’ human failures, and about the failures of the people of Israel as a whole. The New Testament is no less frank about the failures of our saints and heroes, as well as, of course, our own failures.
Far too often, as individuals and as a country, we try to sugarcoat our past, to pretend we weren’t complicit, for example, in slavery, oppression, racism, and the abuse of the vulnerable. Many school districts throughout the country are doing just that; striving to eliminate from the curriculum anything that would discomfit the minds of their students about America’s past. The Scriptures, however, discomfit us repeatedly—they refuse to let us off the hook. We celebrate Good Friday, I would suggest, because it forces us as individuals and as a people to look in the mirror. And it is painful. In the failures of our heroes, we are confronted with ourselves and our world and called to repentance.
As I read it, the Passion Narrative raises three questions. The first question is, “How far we would go to protect our privilege?” “Who and how many others would we sacrifice to preserve of power?” Who, in other words, would we scapegoat? Remember that in the wake of the resurrection of Lazarus the elite of Jerusalem had a consultation. They were worried at Jesus’ rising popularity and the threat it represented. They feared a popular revolt. The worried that the Romans would “come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” The temple was the locus of their authority, wealth, and power. If the Romans destroyed it, they would be lost. Caiaphas, who later confronts Jesus replies, “You know nothing at all. You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people that to have the whole nation perish.” This was, of course, canny advice. The destruction of Jesus would function as a safety valve. It would let the steam out of the movement and keep the Romans off their backs.
Perhaps Caiaphas thought this unfortunate. Even a tragedy. But sometimes hard decisions need to be made for the good of the whole, don’t they? And we know this move intimately. To preserve our economy, our power, our bank accounts we are willing to let others suffer, we are willing to sacrifice others, although we would rather not look too closely at it! This appears to me to be the basis of our current economy. Some marginal areas and populations of our country and our world we perhaps regretfully sacrifice for the sake of our wealth and comfort. We know this happens and I, for one, would rather not look to closely at it. But the passion narrative won’t let us. I am Caiaphas. Others suffer for my benefit—and for yours.
The second question leads from the first, “How far will we go to avoid doing the right but hard thing?” Or perhaps, “How cynical are we willing to be?” The villain of this piece, of course, is Pilate. He knows perfectly well that Jesus is no real threat to Roman hegemony. He engages in a bit of back and forth with Jesus over the nature of kingship and ends the conversation with the witheringly cynical statement, “What is truth?” When the crowd threatens to get unruly, he gives in and condemns Jesus to crucifixion engaging in a final bit of passive aggressive behavior by placing, over the objection of the temple aristocracy, a placard on the cross that said, “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.”
It seems to me that this too is a besetting sin of the comfortable and relatively powerful—to imagine that in the end there is nothing we can do to help and that it doesn’t really matter all that much anyway. It is just too hard, too challenging to do anything that really makes a difference. And it really is beyond us anyway, isn’t it? At least this is what I tell myself when the challenges are too big, and I am afraid of them and how they might impact me. But here I am Pilate, just as before I was Caiaphas.
The final question is perhaps the most painful: “How far will I go to preserve my own skin?” Or “Who would I betray?” The villain here is, of course, Peter, and not just Peter. Despite all the declarations of loyalty the gospels make it clear that when push came to shove the disciples dropped Jesus like a hot potato. Peter’s betrayal is vividly described in this passage. It is small wonder that Peter was unsure of his reception from the resurrected Jesus at the end of John’s gospel. And perhaps this is the easiest one for us to understand and the most difficult for us to reckon with. Because which of us has not betrayed a friend, a spouse, a child, our larger community, and, of course, God. Such betrayal in the face of fear is so common as to be unremarkable. Here too, I am Peter.
If this were all there was to Good Friday it would be grim indeed. But we also find love, loyalty, and courage. At least one disciple is there, the one whom Jesus loved, along with Jesus’ mother and the two other Marys. There is also the courage of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who provide for his burial. And then there is the rest of the story. Because of course we know very well, as did the first readers of the gospel that the story does not end there. We are not here just to be confronted with our failures; we are here to given hope—even on Good Friday. We are not here to feel guilty; we are here to confront our corporate and individual failures and then leave them at the cross with the God who makes all things new. We have gone through Lent not to beat ourselves up, but to prepare to set ourselves free.
One of the most famous African American preachers of the 20th century was Dr. Shadrach Meshach Lockridge. He died in the year 2000. In perhaps his most famous sermon he sums up eloquently and simply what I am saying here. I will not attempt to imitation the rhythm and resonance of Dr. Lockridge, but I will quote him as a means of helping us all begin the move from death to life, from failure to forgiveness, from despair to hope. Because, as he declares, it is Friday, but Sunday is coming!
It’s Friday; the disciples are running
Like sheep without a shepherd.
Mary’s crying; Peter is denying
But they don’t know
That Sunday’s a comin’
It’s Friday; the Romans beat my Jesus
They robe him in scarlet
They crown him with thorns
But they don’t know
That Sunday’s comin’
It’s Friday; the soldiers nail my Savior’s hands
To the cross
They nail my Savior’s feet to the cross
And they raise him up next to criminals
But let me tell you something
The earth trembles
The sky grows dark
My king yields his spirit
Hope is lost
Death has won
Sin has conquered.
Jesus is buried; a soldier stands guard
And a rock is rolled into place.
But it’s Friday
It is only Friday
Sunday is a comin’.
And so it is, for all the broken and battered, the fearful and defeated, the hopeless and helpless. Yes. It is Friday, so dark and full of pain. But Sunday is coming. Amen.