When I was in college, I would occasionally find myself sitting in the back of the enormous Chapel. Sometimes I do not even remember actively choosing to go inside the Chapel. Somehow my body seemed to know I needed something before my brain did. The cavernous, quiet building rarely had large crowds. Or maybe my late-night study sessions meant I was there after everyone had left. Regardless, I would find myself on a hard, wooden pew, just sitting there. I am not sure I was there praying necessarily. At least not in the traditional sense. More often I was sitting there in desperation. Sometimes I was at the end of a semester, completely overwhelmed and feeling incapable. Other times, I was feeling a deep sense of loneliness, despite being surround by tons of friends and classmates. Other times, I simply felt lost, not sure about my purpose or what in the world God was doing with my life – if God was even there at all. But mostly, when I sat on those pews, surrounded by magnificent beauty and architecture, I felt a profound hole in my heart. That Chapel was sometimes the only place I could go and be honest about my profoundly weak humanity.
I think worshiping on Good Friday is a little bit like that. Unlike other times of worship, we do not usually come to this service looking for praise and joyful singing. Instead, this day is a day where we willingly come to acknowledge and honor those parts of our lives where we feel a profound sense of brokenness, sinfulness, and incompleteness. We read Scripture that speaks to our deepest pain and suffering. We say prayers that address the fullness of need for ourselves and the world. And we venerate the cross – staring at the object that brings into sharp focus our weakness and humanity, and our need for something bigger than ourselves.
On a day like today, I am grateful for John’s Passion Narrative. All the Passion Narratives from the gospels tell a similar story – the last moments of Jesus’ time with the disciples, his trial and crucifixion, and his death. And despite the fact that the story in all four gospels is heart-wrenching, something about John’s version digs deeper – shines a light into those dark places we prefer to keep hidden from the light of day. But in John’s gospel, there is nowhere to hide. We experience a deep sense of being bereft of our own sinfulness as the sins of those in our narrative mirror our own. These are not just the common, everyday sins of life. The sins of the characters today are the sins of denying our very own identity.
Often when we talk about Judas, we think of his failure as a thing he did to Jesus. But Judas’ sin goes deeper than betrayal of Jesus. Judas denies his very discipleship. After all those years of following Jesus, trusting the salvific work of the Christ, believing and proclaiming Jesus’ Messiahship, Judas denies his discipleship by no longer following and instead trying to control the work of God. You see, Judas follows Jesus because he believes Jesus is starting a political revolution – is becoming the conquering Messiah. Jesus is not living into that identity as much as Judas wants, so Judas gives Jesus a push.[i] But when Judas brings all of those soldiers to the intimate place where he discovered his identity as a disciple, we see how deep Judas’ sinfulness goes. The garden had been a home for the disciples – where they had gathered regularly, in intimate community. To bring those soldiers there – to the place that defined his own discipleship – is the marker not of an indiscretion, but of a complete denial of who he is. In John’s gospel, the last appearance of Judas is not of remorse, or suicide, or judgment of Judas. John simply says, Judas stands “with them.” With them is not just a physical location; with them is a theological one. By seeking to control Jesus, by walking away from relationship with Christ, and by standing against Jesus in the very place of intimate identity-making, Judas takes a new identity. He denies his discipleship, and instead stands with them.[ii] And as much as we might want to judge Judas, we all know that there have been times when we were fed up with God, and decided to take matters into our own hands. The more we think we know better, the further we step away from following Christ, denying our own identity in Christ. The more we seek control, the further we step away from our intimate relationship with Jesus, and instead stand with someone or something else.
Peter denies his identity in a slightly different way. When we read John’s gospel, we can easily conflate John’s version with the versions from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In those gospels, Peter is asked whether he knows Jesus. His response is he does not know the man. But in John’s gospel, the question to Peter is different. He is not asked if he knows Jesus, but whether he is Jesus’ disciple. To say, “I am not,” is not just a denial of knowledge. Peter is denying his very identity. As Karoline Lewis asserts, “In the Gospel of John…Peter’s denial is not of Jesus but of his own discipleship. …To deny discipleship is to deny one’s relationship with Jesus and the intimacy that makes Jesus and his followers virtually inseparable. Peter does not deny Jesus, but denies being a disciple.”[iii] Because we live in a time when we are rarely asked about our identity as people of God, we think of ourselves as immune to Peter’s temptation or somehow incapable of such identity denial. And in some ways, we may be right: our denial of identity is not usually as straightforward as Peter’s. But that doesn’t mean we do not regularly reject our identity. In small, everyday ways, we find ourselves making accommodations that fracture our intimacy with Christ – decisions that we can rationalize at the time, but when we look back realize have become of slow pattern of denying whose we really are. And before long, we get so far from discipleship that no one even knows we are Christ’s disciple.
But the denials of identity are not just limited to Christ’s disciples. Even the religious authorities lose themselves in their attempt to squash the Jesus movement. The leaders of the faith community are so convinced that Jesus is wrong, they negotiate with a secular leader to get what they want. And when Pilate, who knows what they want is wrong, pushes them to recognize they are wrong, the religious authorities say something that seems innocuous enough. But saying, “We have no king but the emperor,” is the ultimate denial of their identity as a people of God. The people of faith, who were once freed from a king over them, who journeyed forty years, claiming God as their king, who have an everlasting covenant with God, deny the covenant to get what they want. By claiming the emperor, they deny their very identity. The people of God, who are about to prepare the Passover feast – the feast that celebrates their release from Pharaoh, “embrace a latter-day Pharaoh whose overthrow the Passover is intended to celebrate.”[iv] Although we like to demonize the chief priests, we too have pledged loyalties to things other than God. Perhaps not as dramatically as the religious authorities, but we have all known those moments when a declaration slipped out of our mouths that we later come to realize was denial of everything we claim to be.
On this most holy of days, we can journey so far into the darkness of humanity, of the ways we deny our very own identity, that we can walk out of this beautiful historic chapel feeling lost – having received no encouragement for our bereft hearts. But I do not think the point of Good Friday is to walk with us into the darkness without giving us a sliver of light to hold onto in these next hours. Though our reading ends with the finality of Jesus in a tomb, where we are better left is at the foot of the cross. At the foot of the cross is where we find identity again. At the foot of the cross, we find a new community being formed. Jesus gives his mother to the beloved disciple; and to the beloved disciple, he gives his mother. In other words, Jesus creates a community of mutual care – a new family, a place of forming identity in Christ, even as Christ is departing.[v] The very reason we gather in community on Good Friday is because we need this group gathered here – this group gathered at the foot of the cross – to bring us back from the denials of our identity, and help us reclaim whose we are. Today is certainly a day for claiming how deep our own betrayal of God is, but today is also a day of claiming a community who can help us walk back.
I think that was what I was doing all those years ago in college as I sat on those cold, hard pews of the Chapel. I knew I was lost, that my angst was not just the anxiety of tests and deadlines, but was a much deeper angst about identity. And although that Chapel was mostly empty, that Chapel reminded me of all the times I had gathered in sacred spaces with the community of the faithful. Even when the Chapel was empty, the Chapel was somehow a reminder of the mothers and brothers who gathered with me at the foot of the cross. The only difference today is you do not have to imagine a community gathered with you at the cross. We are right here with you. We are struggling right along with you on this journey called discipleship. Together, starting at the foot of the cross, we will find our way. Amen.
[i] Jim Green Somerville, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),300, 302.
[ii] Karoline M. Lewis, John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 218-219.
[iii] Lewis, 222.
[iv] C. Clifton Black, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),303.
[v][v] Lewis, 229.