From all outward appearances, Good Friday is a failure. Jesus’ mission, rolled out over three years, and coming to a crescendo at his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday has come to a screeching halt. One of his own betrayed him. His inner circle scatters. Even his closest friend Peter sleeps through Jesus’ night of agonizing prayer in the garden, only to flat-out deny knowing him at the very moment that his leader, his rabbi, the one he called “Lord” is on trial for his life. The religious establishment presents Jesus on trumped-up charges to the military governor, who then has an awkward and seemingly-futile exchange with him on the nature of truth. When that doesn’t produce results, Jesus is beaten, and the guards take the opportunity of his weakness and pain to mock and humiliate him – the crown hastily twisted together from the branches of a near-by thorn bush, a purple robe that might have been left behind by a merchant on a previous “visit” to the guard house. Ultimately, the governor puts the question to the people – Jesus’ own: life or death? Thumbs up, or thumbs down – according to the Roman blood sport of gladiators. And the people choose thumbs down. So Jesus is put to death by state-sanctioned torture, the brutality reserved for those who sought to undermine the power and authority of the Empire in ways large and small. Those few of his followers who attend the execution beg for his body, so that he can be buried according to custom, and not left to be tossed into a common grave, or even the city garbage dump. A large stone is rolled across the entrance to the tomb, and that is that. Done. Finished. No hope. Death triumphant. Failure.
But that’s looking at the account of Good Friday from the outside. When we focus on Jesus himself, and the conversation he has with Pilate, in particular, we see something different.
Pilate: Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?
Jesus: My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over … But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.
Pilate: So you are a king?
Jesus: You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
Pilate: What is truth?
When Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd and they call for his crucifixion, the conversation continues.
Pilate: Where are you from?
Pilate: Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?
Jesus: You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.
Pilate is attempting to exercise his authority; he claims the full power and backing of the Roman Empire, which is his right and responsibility as the Emperor’s agent. But Jesus undercuts all of that. True authority belongs to God. He is saying to Pilate: “You have not much power. There are forces at work here that are way above your pay grade.” Woah! Roman rule was intended to strike fear and awe into its subjects, yet Jesus is not afraid. That disturbs Pilate greatly; he really just wants to walk away.
What are the powers and influences playing out here; larger, unseen forces that run continually in the background, but come into sharp focus as the kaleidoscope of this trial unfolds? Some of them are brutality, violence, control for its own sake, lust for power, the idolatry of the imperial system, cruelty, maintenance of position, sin, death. Of course, these powers were not only operative during Roman times; they are universal, part and parcel of human life on this side of the Garden of Eden, what it means to live in a fallen world. And we today are not immune from any of these powers.
We need to be clear that however strong these powers may be, Jesus’ Passion – his arrest, trial, suffering, and death – is not a struggle between Good and Evil, although both goodness and evil abound here. This is not a contest between equal and opposite forces. The powers that throw themselves against Jesus with screaming force are the dark and twisted remains of God’s good creation that have turned inward on themselves, becoming idols – offering to those who seek after them and embrace them a false promise of glory and power.
In JRR Tolkein’s epic spiritual fantasy novel “The Lord of the Rings” one of the characters, a Hobbit named Sméagol, comes into possession of the One Ring of Power, drawn to its promise of utmost power over others. Sméagol call the Ring “My Precious” and willingly gives it his soul. Over time, this Hobbit is deformed and enslaved in both body and mind by his idolatry of power, becoming the creature known as Gollum. While this is a graphic and fantastic depiction of the results of idolatry, Tolkein, a faithful Christian, knew what he was about. Those who make a god of anything less than the true Creator and Lord of the Universe will fall into idolatry and reap its rewards – at some level.
So in Jesus’ conversation with Pilate the powers are unmasked. And in Pilate’s exchange with the crowds, their betrayal of the sovereignty of God is stunning: “Take him away! Crucify him! We have no king but Caesar!” Ae these not the very same people who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, the festival of freedom and new life given by the Lord God? Are these not the very same people who acclaimed Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna”? How quickly they deny their whole history and identity.
But if we try to distance ourselves and say that we would never deny Christ, that we would never engage in idolatry, we are sadly mistaken. Just by the fact of our humanity we are drawn to the promise of power and its misuse. Sin seeps into our hearts and minds, and we find ourselves thinking, and saying, and doing things that fly in the face of our best intentions, of our loyalty and fidelity to God.
And in the midst of it all, Jesus silently embodies and reflects God’s love – the greatest power of all – into the world; to Pilate, to the crowds, to the soldiers and the mocking passersby, to the disciples, and to us – because we all have a place in this story.
God’s love is the greatest power of all, poured out in the Crucifixion. What appeared to be a failure will show itself to be, on Easter morning, a triumph, a victory, a setting to rights the ways of the world. God’s strength and power and ultimate authority will re-order the creation around the New Life that is given in the Resurrection. So for now we stand in the shadow of the Cross, but we know that Sunday’s coming, and death will be defeated, and the Risen Christ will share generously his New Life with all who offer their trust, praise, loyalty, and love.
Let us pray.
O God, Author of the world’s joy, Bearer of the world’s pain; At the heart of all our trouble and sorrow let unconquerable gladness dwell; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. ~ “For Christian Gladness” from A Prayer Book for Soldiers and Sailors, 1941
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
April 14, 2017