Good Friday, 2023
Last night we shared a meal, we washed feet, and we participated in the final Eucharist of Holy Week. And when that service was over we pushed Jesus out of our lives, removing almost everything from our sight that reminds us of him. Today we not only denied knowing him, we also cried out for him to be crucified.
On Palm Sunday I said the crucifixion wasn't the act of a vengeful God against humanity, but the act of a vengeful humanity against a loving God. It was our desire for vengeance that led to the torture, crucifixion, and death of Jesus. This makes sense because it is often in our desire for vengeance that we want to see the other person suffer. The torture and suffering Jesus endured was instigated by religious and political leaders wanting retribution for Jesus not bowing to their demands. And it might as well have been carried out by us because we can't bear a Jesus who isn't made in our image.
Because Jesus didn't do or say what the leaders wanted to see or hear, he became a target. He healed on the Sabbath. He spoke with women and foreigners. He touched the sick and outcast. He feasted instead of fasted. He connected with God in new ways. He broke down barriers which divide. He was a threat to the system, so he was arrested, tortured, and executed.
There are two things in particular we need to look at when examining the Passion story, and those are how Jesus is tortured and his response to that torture. He is flogged/scourged which entails whipping a person repeatedly to inflict as much damage and pain as physically possible. It is designed to not only punish, but to cause submission. A crown of thorns is woven and pounded down onto his head. This was done after his whipping so that he would be so weak as to not offer up any defense; his only recourse was to let the abuse continue. After this he is spit upon and punched in the face, further humiliating him and further showing that the State has the ultimate power over who lives and who dies, who is accepted and who is cast out.
Second, notice Jesus' reaction to all of this. Yes, he has been beaten to within an inch of his life, his body is in shock, and he is too weak to defend himself. But even so, and depending on the Gospel, he either says nothing or he says things people don't want to hear. In the face of all he has endured, he maintains his composure and he never submits to the demands of his torturers.
He never submits because doing so wouldn't accomplish anything. If he submitted and said what they wanted to hear, they could claim he was delusional and misguided, a fraud who led people astray, and they would still execute him for that crime. His execution at that point would serve the purpose of putting an end to his movement because, ultimately, nobody wants to be associated with a fraud.
If Jesus submitted and said what they wanted to hear, he would have still been executed. That is because torture is rarely used to extract information. Torture is used to break people down, to get them to submit and bend to the will of the torturer. The more they resist, the more they are tortured. But by couching torture as a tool to get answers, torture can be justified. And when torture is used as a regular mechanism of captivity, victims are killed anyway when it becomes clear that torture is no longer effective.
The silence of Jesus, or his limited response, maintained his integrity of who he was. By his silence, Jesus refuses to participate in state-sanctioned torture. It is his silence that acts against the violence perpetrated against him. It is his silence which forces his torturers and us to define who we think he is.
The silence of Jesus is also a way to keep his disciples safe. All through the gospels we see Jesus welcoming the outsider and preaching and living a way of radical inclusive love. In his interaction with Pilate, Jesus says, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” But his kingdom is not from here, and his kingdom operates on a different set of rules than earthly kingdoms. Consequently, if his followers began fighting for Jesus, they would be fighting against Jesus himself. Unlike certain leaders of today who call for an uprising of their followers, Jesus remains silent so as not to lose a single one. If we use violence in the name of Christ, or on his behalf, we fight for a false idol of our own making, and not for the Christ who really is.
The silence of Jesus reminds us that he is not from this world. It reminds us that his kingdom is not of this world. As Rowan Williams once said, “The kingdom of Jesus does not compete for space in this world . . . And the world hates Jesus and his community because they do not live by the same fears or use the same defenses.”
Williams goes on to say, “Our place in the world is not the territory for which we must fight, but a home into which the world, the other, can be invited . . . Faith requires us to move from our center to his.”
We are very good at punishing those who go against the system. I saw a short video the other day about a school with circular hallways. The rule was that all students had to travel clockwise through the halls in order to avoid traffic jams. One student went the opposite direction because his next class was just next door. He was caught and sent to the principal's office for violating the rule. He then received a tardy for being late to class.
There are plenty of other examples out there about rules and systems designed to keep lower classes, minorities, women, etc. in line; and you challenge these rules at your own peril. And sometimes, if you have the misfortune to be the right gender, sexual orientation, or skin color, you will also be executed.
Jesus was executed for his role in challenging an oppressive system. The silence of Jesus signified his refusal to participate in both that system and in state-sanctioned violence. His silence tells us that no matter what this world does to him, he remains connected to God where the violence of this world will not and cannot be victorious.
In the mess that is Good Friday – with the kangaroo trial, the torture, and ultimately Jesus' death – we are asked a simple question: are we willing to live with Jesus in the pain of the present moment?
Because it was the unwillingness of the religious and political leaders to live with Jesus in the present that led them to focus on the past and eliminate him from their future, and it was the unwillingness of the disciples to live with Jesus in the present that led them to desert him.
Good Friday, probably more than any other day, asks us if we are willing to live with Jesus in the NOW of a world gone mad.