I have been thinking this week about how every year we read the same story of Jesus’ death. Unlike the Christmas story that we eagerly anticipate hearing each year, this story seems like a masochistic practice of hearing the same devastating story over and over again. And we do not just read this story on Good Friday. In addition to John’s version of the passion narrative, we read one of the synoptic versions on Palm Sunday. Twice in one week we relive the painful story, catching interesting variations. But the ending is always the same: death, finality, failure. At least on Palm Sunday, we use various voices, making the story feel like a performance. But today, one sole voice, tells the achingly raw story – a story we would rather skip, or soften, or cry out to the reader, “Please stop!”
In hearing the story this year, I was struck by the failures of three characters. The first is probably the easiest culprit: Judas. In Mathew’s gospel there is at least a feigning of loyalty as Judas greets Jesus as “Rabbi,” and kisses his cheek. But John does not play such games. In John’s narrative, Judas is fully on the side of the persecutors. He boldly brings and stands with the soldiers and police. He does not greet Jesus, or apologize. He is confident in his decision. He stands proud, even as we now are able to see his profound failure. His ignorance of the depth of his betrayal is almost worse than the actual betrayal. His confidence that this is for the best, is the first crack in our hearts as we hear this painful story.
Then we have Peter – precious, passionate, pitiful Peter. For all the times he gets things right, and all the endearing times he gets things wrong, today is just a spirit-crushing failure. In Matthew’s gospel, Peter denies knowing Jesus. In John’s gospel, Peter denies his discipleship – his very relationship with and dedication to the Messiah. In the face of Jesus’ “I am,” claim[i] today, Peter’s claim is “I am not.”[ii] For all the wonderful, powerful, sacrificial moments in Jesus today, Peter is shameful, cowardly, and self-serving. Even after being warned that he will deny Christ, Peter denies Christ in spite of himself. That cock’s crow is the second crack in our hearts as we hear this brutal story.
The third character today does not always get as much attention, but their failure is perhaps the worst. Whereas Judas and Peter deny and betray a friend, the chief priests deny their very God. They say seven words to Pilate today that should be more shocking than anything said. “We have no king but the emperor.” We often get distracted by their words, because we know that they are meant manipulate Pilate’s sense of authority. But the chief priests, the religious, moral guides of the people of faith say today, “We have no king but the emperor.” Of course, we have to think back to remember why this statement is so profoundly painful. You see, once upon a time, God was the king of Israel. The people worshiped Yahweh, and Yahweh alone. But the people got greedy, and begged Yahweh for a king like the other nations. And so God anointed kings through God’s prophets. But the chief priests take their self-centered sinfulness a step further than our ancestors. They deny God today. Their claim to have no king but the emperor is treason against our God – blasphemy. And with their claim, our heart lies cracked in two as we hear the rest of the awful story.
Of course, blaming Judas, Peter, and the chief priests would be an easy way to scapegoat our way out of this dark day. There are even Christians who claim that the Jews crucified our Lord. But we know the truth. We know that we are the Jews. We know that we are Judas and Peter and the chief priests. We know that our heart fractures with each vignette because they remind us of times when we have stood on our soapboxes, certain of our moral claims, only to later look back and see whom we betrayed and trampled in the process. We know that that our heart fractures because we are reminded of those times when we knew the right thing to do, said we were going to do the right thing, and then failed to do the right thing – over, and over, and over again. We have heard that same cock crowing. We know that our heart fractures because we have put other gods before our God. Sure, the gods have varied: money, power, security, ego. But we have gotten so lost in our gods that we said and did things that would have inspired a gasp from anyone more faithful than ourselves. The failures of Judas, Peter, and the chief priests are not just failures of those men, two thousand years ago. The failures of Judas, Peter, and the chief priests are our failures.[iii]
I think that is why we tell this story year after year, twice a week from different gospels. We tell this story over and over again because we fail over and over again. Though the specific characters are important, the characters live and operate in us centuries later. That is why the story is so compelling – not because we can gather together and wag our fingers at those people. The story is compelling because the story is eerily close to our own sinfulness. Part of the devastating nature of this story is how complicit we are in the story. Though the powers of evil might want us to deny our culpability in this story, what is hardest about this story is how close to home the story really is.
Now, you I do not ever like to leave the pulpit without a word of hope, a reminder that risen Lord redeems us all. But today, I encourage you not to rush to the empty tomb. Take time to sit in our collective confession, to tarry on those things done and left undone which are separating you from God and one another. Bring your failures or sense of failure to the cross and lay them there today. Grieve the ways that you cannot help yourself, year after year, from sin and shame. The whole season of Lent has been building up to this day. The whole reason we took on those disciplines and came to church for confession was because we knew, ultimately, that this is where we keep tripping up: in betrayal and denial of our very identity as beloved disciples and children of God. We are the ones bombing others. We are the ones racially profiling. We are the ones denigrating women, the poor, and the oppressed. We are the ones, century after century repeating the sins of the faithful.
Lay all that sinfulness at the cross today. Whether you venerate the cross in the liturgy today, wear a cross around your neck, or pray with the cross on your prayer beads, the power of the cross is to absorb all those failures and to transform them into something worth living. You can, and perhaps should, feel the powerful weight of your sinful patterns today. But let them die at the foot of the cross with Jesus. Lay them naked at the cross, for all the world to see. There is relief in that confession, the depth of which you may not feel fully until our Easter proclamation.
[i] Susan E. Hylen, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 299.
[ii] Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 222.
[iii] Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner, “SB 535, Good Friday,” April 7, 2017, found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=873 on April 8, 2017.