They shall look on him whom they pierced. John 19.37
On Good Friday we have to reckon with the statement, that appears in all the Gospels in one way or another, that the death, the crucifixion, of Jesus is chosen, is anticipated by him and even necessary. The Gospels talk of Judas’ betrayal, and that might indicate that without the actions of Judas, another end for Jesus was possible, but to focus on that betrayal, as the cause and reason for Jesus’ death, is to contradict much else that is said – about Jesus deliberately setting his face toward Jerusalem, being clear about what awaited him there, and nevertheless choosing, it being God’s will that he should walk that road.
To talk of it being God’s will brings us close to what many Christians down the centuries, although not all, have wanted to say – that the necessity for this act, this death, lies in God. God wills it because God’s justice demands it it is sometimes said. The death of Christ, the offering of himself on humanity’s behalf, is to satisfy the Father, make right a relationship that is broken – broken, for sure, by humanity’s fall, but in need of repair because God is God. And so the solution to the problem is God sending his Son to die in our place, to offer himself for us, and so make things right.
There are many reasons why I think that understanding of the cross needs to be questioned, pushed back against, but that is for another time. The aspect that has been nagging away at me during Lent, however, is that understanding, the clear articulation in our Gospels, that Jesus walks toward his death in uncompromising fashion – his face is set. And nothing, not even the understandable doubts and agonies of Gethsemane, or the pleadings of his disciples, will deflect him from this course. And that way of understanding Jesus’ walk to the cross has nagged away at me during Lent because I, like many others, have spent much of the last few months praying for those in positions of power in our divided and fractious country, to have the humility to compromise, to be flexible enough to appreciate that there are different ways of viewing things, to find new and creative ways through the political messes we find ourselves in. And so my prayer has been questioned, put in doubt, by the simultaneous seemingly implacable walk to the cross of Jesus. He appears little interested in compromise, or finding a middle way, or in reconciliation with the powers and authorities of his day.
They shall look on him whom they pierced.
Alongside the insistence that this death is chosen, is God’s will, however, lies another insight from our Gospels. In the first part of our Gospels, Jesus is the initiator, the maker of the story – he moves around the countryside in a blaze of healings, and insightful teaching, and generous, gratuitous, feeding. Here is the Word, the giver of life, coming among his people in all the creative energy that we might expect. But as he makes that turn toward Jerusalem, walks this way into the midst of the gathering storm – a storm provoked and focused by his action – so things change. Jesus ceases to be the initiator, the man of action, but becomes the still centre of that gathering storm, the silent recipient of all that is now thrown at him. It is not that this walk to the cross is the walk of an uncompromising idealist; refusing to give up his principles no matter the cost. Jesus is not uncompromising in his following of his Father’s will. Rather, walking that path, means that he is deeply compromised – willing to take upon himself, be compromised by, what others will do to him, will do to that expression of God’s love in action.
They shall look on him whom they pierced. We shall look on him whom we pierced.
The cross is a place of brokenness, of ultimate vulnerability to the world, of weakness in the face of sin and death.
Today, in the stark reality of this man on a wooden cross, we meet an image that penetrates our stony exteriors, penetrates the protective layers with which we guard ourselves. It is an image that embodies, shows us, our own experiences of being broken, experiences that are often denied, well-hidden buried deep, or sometimes all too painfully present. Good Friday is about a moment of recognition – yes. Yes, I know suffering: my own, my neighbour’s, the suffering of our fragile earth. And yes – I have lived within that meaninglessness, that bewilderment at God, or even that total absence of God, that sense of nothingness embodied in Jesus’ despairing cry: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’
But as well as recognition, an honesty about the reality and cost of suffering, the cross goes deeper as it names our betrayals, our collusion in, and causation of, the suffering of others; our place in the crowd, our standing alongside Peter in betraying all that we thought we held dear. To see this man compromised, put to death at our hands unmasks our pretensions of order, our desire to be in control and in the right: here is one who has lost control, who is utterly in the hands of others, who is done to; one who, even as his disciples flee and scatter, can only trust by placing his life in the hands of an absent God. And yet he is love, love incarnate, love embodied.
We shall look on him whom we pierced. And in that looking we are undone.
And as we are undone, so shall we be re-made. Our Easter faith is not simply a declaration that spring shall follow winter, not simply a celebration of light following darkness, Easter Sunday does not simply come after Good Friday like some unwritten law that good shall always come out of evil.
It is as the cross uncovers our brokenness, our complicity, our weakness, our need for God, so we are healed. As we are drawn into that Christ-like movement of sacrificial self-offering, so we discover God at work within us and beyond us. This death of love incarnate, the Son walking that way of love in obedience to the Father who is love, asks us what is important, what is vital and true, where are we going and where have we come from. In becoming open to that insistent questioning of Good Friday, so we become the place of God’s redeeming work on Easter morn. Amen.