Good Friday is one of the most difficult liturgies in the Church year. The tone of the liturgy alone is stark. Without our usual adornments and vestments, without music, and without our sacred sacramental feast, we are already feeling bereft. But added on top of all this starkness is our passion reading from John. This is one of those stories that gets worse and worse as we read. Our tendency in the face of such overwhelming grief and failure is to start disassociating ourselves from others, somehow hoping to deny that there is ugliness in each of us that could lead to the exact same results had we been there.
We would like to believe that we would never betray Jesus in the way that Judas does. Surely nothing could ever lure us into such a treacherous act. Unless, of course, we think Jesus needs a little motivation. Many have argued that Judas’ betrayal is caused by his desire to push Jesus into the role of a political Messiah – to assume the military power that rightly belongs to Jesus.[i] If we believe as Judas does that Jesus is the political Messiah that we had been waiting for, perhaps we too might find some way to give Jesus a push to fight back. Surely we have all experienced impatience and pushed others along the way. Judas’ ugliness seeps into even us at times.
If we have to admit that some of Judas is in us, then at least we can imagine that we would not betray Jesus as Peter does. We all know that Jesus has said following him will lead to death – we would say “Yes,” to that servant girl’s question because, come what may, we would stand with Jesus. But how many of us have failed ourselves and our friends under similar pressure. That survival instinct – that desire to protect ourselves takes over all the time – even if only in the form of white lies that cover our interests. We have to remind ourselves that Peter wants to be a better disciple – he does attempt to protect Jesus with the sword, and he at least follows Jesus into the cold courtyard. Who knows if we could have done that? So parts of Peter must be in us too.
If we concede some of Judas and Peter in us, surely we can at least claim that we are not like Caiaphas. Surely we would never look at Jesus and claim, “It is better for one person to die for the people.” Surely we always stand on the side of goodness – except, of course, when we are choosing the lesser of two evils, as Caiaphas claims he is doing. I remember a classic ethics case in seminary. A group of Jews were hiding from the Nazis. A baby in the group starts crying. The ethical question is this: Do you suffocate the child in order to protect the lives of the whole group, or do you save the child, knowing that the entire group will be discovered because of the crying baby and most likely murdered. Just because one option is less evil does not make the option good. Unfortunately, Caiaphas can be found in us also.
Perhaps, then, we can still deny the Pilate in ourselves. We see in Pilate a man who knows the right thing to do, but who keeps waffling, trying to weasel out of a decision. But we too have had times of indecision, even when we know what to do; because the right thing is rarely the easy or popular thing. How do any of us fare when faced with a group who is staunchly opposed to what we know is right? Yes, Pilate is in us too.
Having experienced many passion narratives where we have been required to say the “crowd” part, “Crucify him,” we would like to believe that we would never be like the chief priests who shout this line. Surely we would not succumb to that same behavior. But in the last several years, we have heard enough stories about mob mentality to know the power of the mob to deteriorate morals. People say and do things they would never do otherwise when egged on by a crowd. I think about that school bus monitor who was taunted by four boys on a school bus. When the parents saw the video, they could not believe their children had done such a thing – had fallen in with the group. We look at those boys and wonder how that could have happened, forgetting the times we have been swept up in anger or pushed to the point of breaking. Yes, we have some of the chief priests in us.
So if we cannot deny all these individuals, perhaps we can at least deny the behavior of the soldiers. We would never flog Jesus and mock him in the ways that they do. We would not nail him to that cross or gamble for his clothes or pierce his side. But all we have to do is remember those scandalous photos of the military prison in Abu Ghraib less than ten years ago to realize how corrupted judgment can become, especially for those who have to desensitize themselves to violence as soldiers often need to. We all take on the behaviors of those biblical soldiers from time to time.
This is what makes Good Friday so difficult. Certainly we are devastated about what happens to Jesus. But more importantly, we are devastated because we know deep down, in the most sinful parts of ourselves, we too have betrayed Jesus, denied him, judged him, condemned him, rejected him, mocked him, cursed him, flogged him, and killed him.[ii] What is so painful about this day is not so much Jesus’ painful death, but our own participation in that death. That is why we leave here in silence, and why we keep watch in the face of our sinfulness.
But even in this most despairing of days, there is one sliver of hope for me. Just as we can be Judas, Peter, Caiaphas, Pilate, chief priests, and soldiers, perhaps we can also be like Mary and the beloved disciple. Perhaps we could also find the goodness in ourselves that would take the risk of standing at the foot of that cross. Perhaps we can find in us the one who keeps watch until Jesus draws his last breath. Surely we have all done this throughout our lives. We too have set at the bedside of a loved one in their final hours. We have fought sleep, given in to grief, rubbed a withered hand, and waited through the ambiguity of those last hours.
This is the image that gives me hope today. I think of the countless bedsides I have joined, as we loved someone through to death. We have spoken in hushed voices, patted each other on the back, and shared hugs. We have shed tears, reminisced with stories, and prayed the prayers and psalms. We have stumbled through goodbyes, hoping our words and presence show forth our love. We have simultaneously felt helpless, and felt like we were doing the right thing.
This is our invitation today. We claim all of the Judas, Peter, Caiaphas, Pilate, chief priests, and soldiers in us, but we also claim those who stand at the foot of the cross in us too. The beauty is that we can do both – in fact we can stand at the foot of the cross more honestly if we recognize all the parts in us. And we can stand at the foot of the cross more vigilantly when we look around and see the community of faith who stands there with us. We can lean on one another, giving one another strength to live into the light over the darkness. Even as we see him hanging on the cross, we stand as a community unwilling to let the darkness overcome the light. Recognizing the dark and light in each of us, even on this darkest of days, we can choose to stand at the foot of the cross together, and claim the light. Amen.
[i] George Arthur Buttrick, Ed., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2 (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 1007.
[ii] Jim Green Somerville, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 302-304.