And so… we have arrived in Jerusalem. The time has come. We stand at the edge of a great mystery. The mystery we celebrate each year in Christ, the Crucified Risen One, who did not shrink from dying into our death, to raise us to life. Every year we do this, every year it doesn’t get old, every year has something to show us, every year there is something for us to take away from the readings of scripture in our liturgies about this great mystery.
Good Friday is understandably marked by the reading of the Gospel of John’s version of the Passion Narrative. However, for this Good Friday, I want to spend some time with the other assigned readings. The other readings in some sense provide a commentary or contextual support as to why the crucifixion of Jesus is important. He was not the only Galilean the Romans crucified—there were many, many insurrectionists crucified by the Romans. I want to be clear too that the reason we bother to remember Jesus is not that he was a really good guy and taught good things, but that his life, death and resurrection bring us closer to God, and thus make a difference in our lives. This has the effect on Good Friday of the day not turning into a solemn funeral, where we remember dead Jesus, but instead into a life-giving time of hope where we can live into the possibility of our best selves. Though this is not a self-help event, because quite frankly, we can only do this with the help of God.
The reading from Isaiah is from what is referred to as Second Isaiah (for there were at least three different writers from the school of Isaiah), and it is what is part of the Servant Song. Throughout Christianity, this has been looked as a prophetic text heralding the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus. It is frequently quoted in the New Testament as a sort of proof-text. Right or wrong whether the text refers to Jesus, that really, REALLY doesn’t matter, truly. The text more encapsulates how Israel understands God and God’s relationship with one who suffers for the good of the whole.
Before we all slip into a very familiar understanding of God as some sort of sick let us first understand the religious concept of scapegoating that lies behind this text. Although neither Jewish nor Christian traditions hold to this now, this involved a priest ritually placing the sins of the community on a goat and running the goat out of town. The point was not to make the goat miserable or die, the point was to free the congregation of sin so that they could freely be in the presence of God unburdened by their sins. In this way Jesus is presented as one who frees us from the burden of our sins, not so that how we act does not matter, but that we are free to begin again. But be clear, God is not “needing” Jesus to die, which is different than Jesus understanding he will die.
For my friends in the congregation with Buddhist tendencies, one could easily think of this as emptying oneself for others. The very early Christ hymn of Philippians has just this language, “though he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited… he emptied himself.” As the passage in Isaiah has it, one may suffer if it brings others closer to God. If you don’t like word “suffer,” one may say one person may put aside her or his own desires for the good of the whole.
But be clear, again, God is not “needing” Jesus to die, which is different than Jesus understanding he will die. Our hope is that we like Jesus will also put aside our selfish desires so that others may flourish, have life and have it abundantly. This may be the reason that Jesus cries what he does from the cross. In those days, uttering the first words of a psalm would invoke the prayer of the whole psalm. Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani is not just “my God why have you deserted me?” but it is also
“My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever.
They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done.”
Today’s text from Hebrews interprets Christ’s death and resurrection as a fulfillment of the covenant we recently read in Jeremiah—the covenant written on hearts and in minds, but more likely innards. What God desires for us is essential to us; we know what it is to live in this new covenant. The language in the passage also is rooted in scapegoating, but in this explanation, Jesus is both the priest and the sacrifice; our sins are completely forgiven. There is no separation of the people from the holy of holies, the curtain is open. We can worry less about the whys of Good Friday, why Jesus had to die, and instead turn to what it means for our journey. Jesus is where we find our journey, where we find the hope that is in us. Jesus is then who we confess as Lord because his life, death and resurrection have power over our lives.
For each of us, as for Jesus, it is most known in the times of God-forsakenness that we are given the gift of life, the gift of saving, the gift of hope. This is not when we get our act together, not when the bills are paid, not when the cancer is gone, not any other external marker that might be thought of as showing completeness, but it is in the midst of the cross, and in the tomb, here where we have Jesus who went before us to bring us closer to God, to bring us life. We feed on Jesus, we get our sustenance from Jesus, when not in the Eucharist then by his words, we are sustained by serving others, by denying our basest selfish selves, by dying again and again to those parts of us, so that we may truly know God.
My wish for all of us is that this time of Lent, and specifically this Holy Week segment of our Christian Journey, that we recognize this journey of Jesus as OUR journey. Christ is leading us, but in his journey, we follow him, each on our individual journey towards a flourishing world, when all selfishness has been let go, all damage is healed, and God is all in all.