Sermon preached on Good Friday at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: John 18:1--19:42
At the heart of the story we have just heard is an act of violence—the crucifixion. Most Christians have accepted this without question. It was what had to be done. Some of us have, however, been troubled by it. Does this somehow add to the glorification of violence in our society, a glorification that has gone on relatively unchanged through human history?
The problem untangles around the question of why Jesus had to die in this way. How does Jesus’ death on the cross save us?
The standard answer, for at least the last thousand years, has gone something like this: God created a good creation including humankind to whom he gave a simple act of obedience. Humankind disobeyed as a result of which sin and death entered the world and the first humans were driven out of paradise. Every human being that has followed has carried the stain of this sin.
Ultimately, humankind could not pay the price of this sin even though, paradoxically, they had to do so. So God came up with the idea that he would send his Son to earth, who would become a human being. If he paid the price of sin it would turn out perfectly. Because he was human, although without sin, the price could be paid, and because he was also God, this payment would be eternal. From that point on, anyone who united her or himself to Jesus’ death (sometimes we say, is covered with Jesus’ blood) would share in his salvation.
That’s the story we’ve been given, for the most part. It all seems to turn out all right in the end, but unfortunately at the heart it is a story of a God who demands a bloody sacrifice to avenge his honor.
Is there any other way to tell the story? Yes.
Sin and death have been a reality from the beginning, as the story of Adam and Eve attests. They are a manifestation of the separation that exists between God and humankind. For many centuries, the priests of Israel made sacrifice to atone for the people. The Temple was built as the place for these sacrifices to take place.
Jesus indeed was sent by God to save his people from their sins. John the Baptist says, when he sees Jesus in John’s Gospel, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29).
How he does that is he preaches and teaches and performs miracles, all announcing the kingdom of God which is near or at hand. Gradually this gets him into trouble with the religious and political authorities until the point that they want to get rid of him. He must be killed. Working together they make it happen. He becomes an innocent victim and a kind of scapegoat who is sacrificed for the good of the nation, as one of the religious authorities puts it (John 11:50).
Jesus dies, in this way of looking at things, so that no one need ever die again. There is no more need for sacrifice. There is no more need for violence, especially the kind of violence that seeks to redeem. Moreover, Jesus dies as if death doesn’t matter. This is especially true in John’s Gospel. That means we can do the same—live and die as if death doesn’t matter.
What happened on Good Friday, all this means, was the murder of an innocent victim. The death of Jesus itself could not be said to be a good thing. It was horrible, in every way, shape and form. But in the midst of that horror came an eternal result—the need for anything like this to ever happen again to anybody was over.
Now that does not mean that things like this have not kept happening to people, and painfully, ironically, the Church has sometimes been the perpetrator, to its shame. And what is worse, we have thought that we were simply doing what God did in the crucifixion, requiring a sacrifice of blood for sin.
But Jesus meant his death to say, “It is finished,” and I do not think he meant just that his life was over. I think he meant that the whole game of blood sacrifice, of victimization and scapegoating, was finished. Today let our deepest prayer be that we would understand that to be the truth, and order our lives as if it were so.