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 Rick Marshall

Discussing the Text
The Isaiah text expresses the idea that the servant “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” This is taken in Christian theology as a foreshadowing of Jesus and his suffering and death on the cross. The cause of Jesus’ suffering is placed at the feet of God. Actually, it is human transgression that is the ultimate cause of Jesus’ suffering. Isaiah goes on to describe this suffering servant as a lamb led to slaughter.

The John text, which is a long one, extrapolates the theology of the suffering servant into a passion narrative of Jesus’ suffering. This part of the story is very familiar to us. There is a sense of inevitability and necessity about it, even a sense of horror. It is easy to imagine ourselves into the story, taking on the feel of dread and resignation. The utter fear of violence ending in our death. What horror movie can come close to this sense of dread?

This point in the narrative is also the sharpest contrast between King David and King Jesus. The jarring expectation of waiting for another King David and the reality of the failure of King Jesus is expressed in the mockery of Pilate. As if placing a headstone over the event, Pilate wrote on the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” It is offered as a statement of failure. Yet, it is the heart of the irony. Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, but he turns out to represent something very different from King David, and it is that difference that is the central shift in thinking in the New Testament.

Process Theology and the Text
As part of the process of each occasion of experience receiving the past, experiencing it, and bringing it into the present moment, there is a point of isolation, when the moment is closed off in itself; a decision is made in solitariness as to how to constitute that present moment. The moment then reaches satisfaction and is available to the next moment. In other words, its immediacy of experience ends in a kind of death. The idea of perpetual perishing describes how death is infused in the whole process of everything unfolding, emerging, becoming. Reaching satisfaction, attaining a conclusion, experiencing the end of immediate experience, is a natural, necessary part of creation. Life and death operate together.

When a death occurs, something can be expected to result; we know not what, specifically. God’s creating, transforming power is constantly at work bringing new life out of death in unexpected ways. We cannot anticipate the outcome of death.

In a process world, there are no guaranteed outcomes. God does not know the future in the same way that God knows the past. The future is truly open, even to God, though God knows what the possible outcomes are. Much of our future depends upon our choices, in conjunction with others’ choices, all in response to the divine offer of possibilities. Out of this complex of various powers, the future emerges. Though there are no guarantees of outcomes, the divine guarantee is that God’s power is consistently working in each moment to provide the best possibilities for that moment. Good Friday brings us to the point of pure trust in that divine power. Without knowing the outcome of death, we simply entrust our lives into God’s hands, expecting, without specifying, that God will transform death into knew life in unexpected ways. The way Jesus faced his own death and went through it, is an example for us of how we can face the future with a mindset of trust.

In addition, all of our experiences are woven into God’s own experience and redemption is worked out in the divine nature. I know this sounds vague, but it is necessarily so because of the true openness of the future.

Preaching the Text
A nadir is reached in the passion narrative, the low point in the story. It is a moment, not only of the experience of death, but of abandonment. The other gospels express it so well: My God my God, why have you forsaken me? These words, uttered from the cross, are the clearest expression of facing the existential void found anywhere in literature. It is going to the edge and looking down into total darkness. It is more than Sartre’s benign indifference of the universe, it is the expectation that something or someone is there when they are not. The fundamental experience of being alone in the universe is profoundly disturbing. And to discover this fact at the moment of death is shocking. The whole narrative brings us to this realization by winding its way deep into the human heart and even all the way into the Divine heart, a place that puts understanding beyond human comprehension. God despaired over the human heart at the end of the Noah story, “for the imagination of the human heart is evil from its youth.” If humans are made in the image of God then what does this say about the divine heart?

A sermon for this Good Friday might create a mood that is suited for this point in the narrative. It might bring us to a very narrow point of bleakness. Death is woven into each moment of our experience and the void is continually opening before us. Life and death sit together in the middle of our lives. There comes a time when we realize that human effort can take us only so far; it cannot manage our vulnerability to a fading present and an open future. The human mind can understand life up to a point, beyond which there is a blank. Jesus, coming to the end of his life, the awareness that he brings to the moment, expresses this problem of the endgame of life. And the only fair statement at this end point might very well be the one Jesus made: “Not my will but thine.” What more can be said. This is trust in God at its simplest, most vulnerable.

There is no need to wallow in the specter of suffering and death in some gruesome celebration of the powers of darkness, as if it there was some nihilistic pleasure as a reward; it is enough to simply face death by naming its reality in life. Calling attention to this end point and being able to just sit with it for awhile, contemplating it, letting it seep into our souls, might be the best preparation for Easter. This might be part of the irony in calling this day “Good” Friday. A more apt name might be “Black” Friday.

Another approach to a sermon might be to address the central question that arises from the text: why God would do this to the divine son? What does the story of Jesus’ suffering and death say about who God is, that God would require this? I’m not sure this can be answered. Some might say that human sin made God do it. Others might say that Jesus’ death was instrumental for the resurrection. No matter how it gets parsed, the grammar of this theology implies violence in God. How would this dimension of God square with the idea that God is love?

If communion is served, then a sermon could focus on the elements as symbols of transformation. How do symbols of brokenness and death become symbols of healing and new life? Or a sermon could focus on the cost of love. Loving someone else means becoming vulnerable to them, hurting with them when they are hurt, rejoicing with them when they rejoice. Such exposure in love opens the possibility of both hurt and healing. We are sometimes broken by love and other times we are healed by it. The communion elements then take on a different aspect when contemplating what love means for God. Does God take a risk in loving us, opening the divine experience to both joy and hurt?

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.