Good Friday

April 6, 2007
See Also: 

Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

John Cobb on atonement
John Cobb on redemption
John Cobb on Jesus

Reading 1: 
Isaiah 52:13 –53:12
Reading 2: 
Psalm 22
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 10:16 –25
Reading 4: 
John 18:1–19:42
By Paul S. Nancarrow

On this day, the liturgical reading of scripture is centered on the solemn proclamation of the Johannine Passion. While the passages from Isaiah and the Psalter and Hebrews of course have their own integrity in their own contexts, on this day, for Christians, they are interpreted in the field of force of John’s account of the crucifixion. Our commentary, therefore, begins with the passage from John.

John 18:1–19:42
There is a verbal ambiguity in John 19:13 which, for me, provides the interpretive key for the entire Johannine Passion story. When Pilate has finished interrogating Jesus and is about to render his verdict, he brings Jesus out from the praetorium and sits on the judge’s bench at Gabbatha. In the original Greek of the passage, the verb used here for “sit” can be used either transitively or intransitively; that is, it could mean to say that Pilate seats himself on the tribunal, or it could mean to say that Pilate seats Jesus on the tribunal. Most Bibles translate it as Pilate taking his seat; the New Jerusalem Bible makes a point of translating that Jesus is the one who is seated; the New Revised Standard Version has Pilate sitting, but includes a marginal note of the alternate translation. Raymond Brown, in his Anchor Bible commentary, says it is more historically likely that Pilate was the one seated; it would be completely out of historical character for the ruthless enforcer of Roman law to cede authority to a peasant charged  with insurgency in such a  manner. But John’s Gospel is full of verbal ambiguities, words that can be taken in two senses, and often it is precisely the tension between the obvious “historical” sense and the less-obvious “unlikely” sense which reveals the spiritual meaning John intends his readers to read. Pilate may indeed have been seated on the judge’s bench; but the hint that Jesus is actually the one overseeing the judgment is a key to the meaning of the entire Passion story. John invites us to see that Jesus, though ostensibly the victim of imperial power, undermines imperial power through the persuasive power of God.

Throughout this Passion story, Jesus does not exert power over anyone, yet no one is able to overpower Jesus. When the guards come to arrest him in Gethsemane, they actually retreat from Jesus when he identifies himself; it is only when Simon Peter resorts to violence with his sword that the guards are able to take Jesus by force. When Pilate questions Jesus about the accusation that he claims to be king, Jesus redefines the terms of kingship: his kingship is not about having followers who will fight for him, as Pilate’s imperial authority is, but about attracting people to him through testifying to the truth. When the soldiers dress Jesus in the purple robe and crown of thorns in mockery of the trappings of imperial authority, and Pilate displays him to the crowds, it is that very mocking display which makes clear that Pilate finds no case against him. In the end it is Pilate in his imperial authority who is afraid—afraid of Jesus, afraid of the crowd, afraid of the riot that is brewing, afraid of the accusations of sedition that might be brought against himself if he is seen to be supporting Jesus—in the end it is Pilate who is afraid, not Jesus. Pilate is powerless to exert his will, while Jesus is powerful in fulfilling his role in the drama of salvation.

Even on the cross, Jesus is not overpowered by suffering. Where the Synoptics record that all the disciples ran away and hid from the crucifixion, John states that the disciple whom Jesus loved remained, standing with the women; Jesus power to draw all people to himself through his testifying to the truth is illustrated in this detail. Similarly, Jesus’ committing his mother and his disciple to each other’s care shows his relational power, undiminished by the oppressive power of the cross. Jesus says he is thirsty to fulfill the scripture, and his final words— “It is finished”—could also be translated “It is complete” or “It is perfected”; that is, the words are not an admission of defeat but a witness to accomplishment. When the soldiers make sure he is dead by stabbing his side with a spear, and blood and water flow out, even this detail becomes a form of testimony.

At each point of the story, Jesus revealed as powerful, while those with the supposed power are brought to powerlessness. The powers of violence and coercion are in the end unable to destroy Jesus; instead, Jesus takes each violent act into himself and transforms it into a testimony to the truth, and that truth is a persuasive power to gather and transform others.

On this day of all days, the church is called to live in the Way of its crucified Lord. In what ways do our churches, our judicatories, our congregations confront the powers of violence and coercion, the powers of empire and oppression? In what ways are we tempted to be complicit with those powers? In what ways are we tempted to employ coercive powers of our own—powers of judgmentalism, exclusion, moralism, puritanical hyper-piety, overscrupulous religious legalism? In what ways do we bear witness to Jesus’ power of persuasion? In what ways do we meet violence with non-violence, oppression with liberation, coercion with transformation? How can we in our own very particular times and places testify to the truth of Jesus’ divine power to draw all things to himself in redeeming love?

Isaiah 52:13 53:12
This passage is the fourth of Isaiah’s Servant Songs, and in its original context it probably referred to the “faithful remnant” of Israel as the servant of God, rather than an individual person. Since at least the time Luke composed the episode of Philip and the Ethiopian in the Book of Acts, however, it has been the Christian custom to see Jesus as the servant in this song. While acknowledging the danger of supersessionism in such a reading, in the specific context of Good Friday it is appropriate to preserve this perspective. As Jesus in the Johannine Passion undercuts all imperial and coercive power through the persuasive power of his testifying to the truth, so the servant in the song unmasks the hollowness of “kings” and “many nations” who “despise” and “reject” the servant, and yet are “startled” and “astonished” when the servant “prospers” and “sees light” and is “allotted a portion with the great” because of his faithfulness. The worldly powers which understand only oppression and destruction can not comprehend the servant’s silence and non-resistance; yet it is that very non-resistance which allows the servant to take on the transgressions of many and transform them into righteousness. As a companion-piece to the Passion, this Servant Song is a deeply moving witness to the power of persuasive love.

Psalm 22
This psalm is chiefly associated with the Passion because of Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts that Jesus quoted its first line from the cross—a quotation which is not reported in John—but the entire psalm serves as a kind of template for the Passion story, including such details as the gloating of the bystanders and casting lots for the sufferer’s clothing. Yet the psalm is not entirely about suffering: of the songs thirty verses, fourteen are given to praise of God. As with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, the sufferer in this psalm overcomes oppression and destruction not by fighting back with coercive power, but by trusting in God to save and restore. The final verses of the psalm hint at the promise of resurrection—in their original context no doubt no more than a hint, but in the context of Good Friday a glimmer of the promise of Easter morning.

Hebrews 10:16 25
The Hebrews reading steps away from the contrast between coercive power and persuasive power we’ve seen in the other readings, focusing instead on Jesus as the great high priest who, by offering himself as sacrificial victim, has opened the sanctuary of God to all the faithful. “Sanctuary” here can mean the nearer presence of God, as in a holy place; it can also mean a place of refuge and relief from oppression; it can also mean a process of “sanctification” and growth in Christlikeness of the individual soul. Because this way is now opened for us, we can be “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience,” and without guilt or fear work faithfully toward “love and good deeds” in the name of Jesus. This work will be transformative in the world, in that we become, like Jesus, priests who offer up the substance of our lives to be made holy by God. It is of the essence of this “priestly” power that it does not coerce or destroy—the author makes it clear that the offering of Jesus puts an end to sacrifice—but attracts by the persuasive power of its divine ideals. The passage’s image of Jesus as the priest thus helps to make a bridge between Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and John’s crucified Jesus,  rounding out the theme of the non-coercive power of the Cross.

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World. and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.