Sermon preached on Good Friday at the Church of St. Luke 7 St. Simon Cyrene, ROchester, New York: John 18:1--19:42
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
LEVAS II 37
So asks the traditional Negro spiritual, and it is, of course, meant to be a rhetorical question. Yes, we were there.
But how? The hymn doesn’t pretend to answer the question and may even imply that we were there as passive observers, part of the curious crowd.
But the Gospel writers certainly want us “to be there” in the person of the characters that inhabit the story. We were there in them and through their actions.
We were there in Judas the betrayer, finally, grimly, convinced that Jesus has gone too far, that his teaching ultimately cannot lead to any good, perhaps disenchanted that Jesus was not ending up to be the political savior for which he had hoped. Perhaps he believed what the religious leaders were saying, that it was better for one man to die for the people. It had been the people and their freedom from Rome that had been his passion and he had thought it was Jesus’ passion as well. That his passion was “not of this world” was a crushing disappointment. What earthly good was this heavenly minded man?
We were there in Peter the denier, the other betrayer, scared to death, acting on the impulse to save his own skin, unwilling in the end to follow Jesus down this road, perhaps himself horrified by it. Ever since Jesus had insisted that Jesus wash Peter’s feet, it had felt like something was wrong. The risk of his own life was asking too much. How much did this Jesus really expect from him?
We were there with Caiaphus and the other religious authorities, concerned first and foremost with appeasing the empire and protecting the security of the people, willing to set aside any sense of their own values, willing to sacrifice a human life in order to feel safe. What is one life if it means our own security?
We were there with Pilate, cynical Pilate. “What is truth?” he asks, neither expecting an answer nor desiring one. And willing to use his power to assuage the masses. You can also here him say a twenty-first century, “Whatever?” Who really cares? This doesn’t actually effect me, so why bother getting worked up about it?
We were there in all four of these “villains” of the story, either actively encouraging the injustice or passively accepting it, either way out of our own fears and insecurities.
But we were also there in the beloved disciple and Jesus’ mother and the other women at the foot of the cross, being formed into the church, that family beyond biology wherein we are trusted to one another’s care. And we are in grief over this injustice, this enormous loss, the blinding pain of it all. And we cannot for a moment understand why Jesus did not save himself, why did this have to be?
And we were there in Jesus himself, courageously offering himself indeed to die for the people, willing to risk or even give our life for the sake of those we love, acting the part of a servant to the very end.
We were there. For ill or for good, we were there.
But more importantly, God was there, the servant God, not demanding our obedience and subjection, but offering himself to be our very liberation and life freeing us from all the tyrannies that hold sway over us, either from without or from within. And freeing us as well from the tyranny of our image of the angry, wrathful God, the moral bean counter in the sky. In Jesus on the cross, dying for us, we are free from that God, free instead to worship the Servant God, who values us as his children, so much to give up all his power to us and for us.
This day is only “good” because of the God whom this day is revealed to us, the God who really is love, pure and unconditional, despite the fact that “we were there.”