Good Friday

March 21, 2008
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

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 Russell Pregeant

The passion narratives in all four gospels are virtual minefields of problems for those who preach from a progressive theological stance. To begin with, they are riddled with passages and motifs that have fed anti-Jewish sentiments through the centuries. And, particularly when combined with the lectionary readings such as those from Hebrews and the Hebrew Bible, they can easily be read in such a way as to lend support to notions of atonement that call God’s essential goodness into question and stretch the limits of reasonable thought. The substitution and satisfaction theories are deeply ingrained in the minds of many Christians, and it is important to avoid giving unwitting support to them. Happily, however, these same passion narratives also contain some enticing nuggets that suggest different understandings.

There is no doubt that the Johannine account of Jesus’ condemnation plays up Jewish guilt as over against that of Rome. Pilate states three times that he finds no case against Jesus (18:38; 19:4; 19:6), but in 19:5,7 Jewish voices demand his crucifixion. “The Jews” also choose the bandit Barabbas over Jesus for release (18:40). Lest the reader miss the point, moreover, Jesus himself declares in 19:11 that those who handed him over to Pilate bear the greater guilt. And when Pilate inquires whether he should crucify their king, the chief priests reveal their ultimate unfaithfulness to Israel’s God: “We have no king but the emperor.”

This declaration, however, also cuts another way. To pit loyalty to Jesus and God against loyalty to the emperor is to reveal Rome’s alliance with the forces of evil. Thus when the Roman soldiers (only in John) accompany Judas to arrest Jesus, they bring lanterns and torches, which are, in keeping with John’s pervasive metaphorical usage of the images of light and darkness, symbolic of the fact that they serve the forces of evil and are without understanding. And if the Jewish leaders’ expression of fealty to the emperor places them also on the side of darkness, that can be no less true of Pilate himself, who is after all the emperor’s official representative. As 19:12 makes clear, it is precisely his own obligation to Roman power that tips the scales for him; for it is out of fear that he might show himself “no friend of the emperor” that he brings Jesus out before the people. And his cynical question in 18:38 (“What is truth?) is, in Gail R. O’Day’s words, evidence that “he does not belong to the truth, that he does not listen to Jesus’ voice” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 9, p. 818).

It is often observed that in John’s account Jesus appears to be in full control of the final events leading to his death. Judas has no chance to identify him to the soldiers, because Jesus willingly presents himself for arrest. His statement, “I am he,” moreover—the reiteration of John’s revelation formula (ego eimi) that signifies Jesus’ divinity—causes those who have come to take him away to fall on the ground. And in 19:11 Jesus asserts that Pilate in fact has no power over him except that which has been given to him “from above.” As many commentators have observed, in John it is not Jesus who is on trial, but the world; far from a victim, Jesus is in fact the judge. And it is in keeping with this that we find no parallel in John to the synoptics’ account of Jesus’ agony on the night of his arrest.

The danger in the Johannine portrayal of Jesus’ arrest and condemnation is that it can easily obscure the political dimension of Jesus’ death through its emphasis on that death as pre-ordained by God and thus play into substitution and satisfaction theories. Paradoxically, however, Jesus’ command of the situation can also be read in another way. In 16:33, as Jesus is bidding his disciples farewell, he makes this startling declaration: “I have conquered the world.” What is startling is that he can say this before his death and resurrection—indeed, even before his arrest. Although many commentators have (with good reason) seen here a disturbing tendency toward docetism, the positive gain is that from this perspective it is precisely Jesus’ status as the incarnation of the divine Logos (1:1) and his revelatory testimony to God/the truth (1:18, 3:11, 18:37) that are victorious in the world against the forces of evil. This motif may de-center the death/resurrection, but it does not replace it altogether. In 1:29, John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” and Jesus himself alludes to his death/resurrection as “his hour” as early as 2:4.

Despite the minefields, then, John’s passion narrative holds great potential for Christian witness from a progressive theological position. In it we find the image of Jesus—as the representative of God’s light and truth in a world of darkness that is incarnated in fearful political functionaries who worship at the feet of imperial power—boldly speaking truth in the face of suffering and death. And we have the paradoxical declaration that in his nonviolent confrontation with those powers, which leads to his condemnation and death, he also overcomes them. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

The reading from Hebrews, in partial contrast, offers no counterpoint to the sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death. And it is precisely the once-for-all, unrepeatable character of this event that the author contrasts with sacrifices offered under the “first order” (10:9). It is debatable, however, whether we must see here motifs of substitution or satisfaction. (See J. Frederick Denny, The Nonviolent Atonement, pp. 61-66). In any case, if we read this passage in conjunction with the Johannine passion narrative, and if we emphasize the critique of sacrifice-theology in vv. 5-7, then it is possible to value it in a different way. Substitution and satisfaction theories assume the necessity of violence—sin must be “paid for” by the shedding of blood. Hebrews 10:5-7, however, actually calls this notion into question. And the presentation of Jesus’ death as an offering coalesces with the Johannine motif of Jesus’ sovereignty over his own arrest, trial, and death. It is thus possible to understand Jesus’ nonviolent response to the violence of the empire and those who serve it as the source of his victory.

Good Friday, of course, is not Easter, and we should not move too quickly to the motif of ultimate victory over sin and death. The readings from Psalms and Isaiah can legitimately play up the costliness of God’s involvement in the world and hence the suffering in God’s own heart that is the price of the world’s redemption. Yet it is in fact only against the background of Easter that Good Friday is entitled to its name.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).