The context of this service is an ecumenical Good Friday service in the Chapel of a large teaching hospital.
The texts are John 18 - 19
It was the people in this story that struck me as I read the text. All the different kinds of people – a whole cast of characters – with a wide range of motivations.
First we have the groups of people:
The disciples, Jesus’ closest twelve.
The Roman soldiers.
The courts of the High Priest and Pilate.
The common people lurking in the High Priest’s courtyard.
The spectators on Good Friday come for a good execution and a bit of entertainment just as people have done from time immemorial.
And then we have the individuals, too many to list now:
Jesus, of course.
Judas, the disciple and the betrayer.
Peter, who is disciple, defender AND betrayer.
And Annas (the High Priest) and Pilate. So-called “leaders” who don’t seem to be doing a lot of leading.
I don’t know about you, but as a child I was taught to read all of these events as things that happened because Jesus needed to die for my sins. So, as I sat in church on Good Friday hearing these stories, there was a kind of inevitability about it all. In the same way that I knew how the story about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs turned out, I knew the story about Jesus praying in Gethsemane, judged by the High Priest and by Pilate and marched off to crucifixion.
It never really occurred to me that, in some very real sense, these events occurred because a number of people – both groups and individuals – made free choices. Free choices which led human beings to execute the Son of God. And as today’s reading reminded us, Jesus didn’t call down legions of angels to fight the legions of Caesar. He left the events of human history to the consequences of human actions.
Jesus died because an angry mob was looking for a scapegoat.
He died because the rulers of the subjugated people were frightened and thought it was better for one man to die than for the nation to suffer.
He died because the official representative of the Empire didn’t have the courage to do what he knew in his heart was right.
Yes, there is a sense in which all of this had to happen. Yes, he died for our sins, but he also died because of our sins.
The choices made by individuals over 2000 years ago killed Jesus. But I don’t think we’re off the hook. Unless any one of us can truly say that we would never be so frightened as to permit our government use individuals as scapegoats. That we would never give up one of our group in order that the group might survive. That we would never sacrifice another person on the altar of expediency. The human choices that were made by those individuals 2000 years ago are choices that we ourselves are very capable of making. And those choices killed Jesus.
The other thing that struck me in reading this text was that it is a story about the death of a human being.
Of course, the Christian tradition affirms that Jesus was the Son of God, true God and true human being. But he was a human being. And I think that, historically, Christians have tended to forget this.
Often we tend to see Jesus as a kind of a Superhero, who shared all the qualities of God but was only masquerading as a human being. But the Passion story is also a story about a very human Jesus: a man who made sure that his mother would be looked after, a man who was thirsty, a man who looked death in the face and gave up his spirit.
And this particular human death reminded me of the deaths of other human beings that sadly happen here in the hospital, despite all the prayers and wishes of the people who love these individuals. Despite all the best efforts, choices and work by the medical staff here. Deaths that sadly sometimes happen despite all our best choices. And just like Jesus had all these different people surrounding him at the time of his death, so too do families often gather at the death of a loved one.
And that reminded me once again that, as a Christian, I believe in an incarnate God: a God who took on human form. Christianity does not tell us that we humans are a lower form of life who have to work very hard to rise up to the level of the divine. Christianity tells us that, by divine grace, God became embodied like us. Christianity tells us that, if we have seen Jesus, we have seen not only the invisible God but we have also seen who we are truly created to be as heirs to the New Creation.
Although the Christian church tends to talk about the Incarnation at Christmas, I think that here in this hospital we need the incarnate God – true God and true human – even more on Good Friday. When we see individuals facing times of pain, illness, trauma and death it’s good remind ourselves that God had a body. As human beings, we all need the Jesus who understood physical human suffering and who did not evade it.
This – embodied, suffering Christ – is The One who we need to be by our side when we are gravely ill and suffering. The embodied Christ is the One we need when we begin to wonder if God is so far off that God has no idea what we’re going through. On Good Friday, we are reminded that God became incarnate not just as a little baby but also as the Suffering Servant.
Today is Good Friday. I regret if you think I’ve spoken too much about death. Because, of course, we know the end of “The Jesus Story” and it’s not ultimately about death. The story of Jesus’ mission is ultimately about resurrection, about New Birth and New Life and a new Reign of God.
And Easter, of course, is the source of the sure and certain hope that we have in Christ.
But I do want to urge all of us not to jump too far ahead. As a devotion, let’s linger a bit at the events of Good Friday.
Let’s remember that human choices – the sort that we are all capable of making – put Jesus on the cross. And let’s remember to that Jesus also freely chose his suffering. A suffering which somehow unites God and humanity in a new and lasting coventental relationship. But a suffering that Jesus chose because of his deep and abiding faith that, ultimately in the final analysis, death does not dwell where God dwells.
This is the ultimate source of the Christian hope. This is the hope of Good Friday that points us toward the hope of Easter Sunday.
As we commemorate the death of Jesus this afternoon, I pray that the hope that we have in the embodied, crucified and resurrected Jesus will be with us all. Amen