Good Friday (B): The Arc of God’s Universe
By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
The scripture passage for Good Friday is a narrative so dramatic it leaps off the page. When I read John’s account, I’m transported back to a live Stations of the Cross in Biloxi, Mississippi several years back. As we followed the man playing Jesus in the last moments of his earthly life, being hoisted up onto a cross with a crown of thorns on his head, my emotions were on a roller coaster. In the space of less than two chapters, after all, we have anger, betrayal, disbelief, unimaginable sorrow, fear, shame, impotence, bloodlust, and more. The writer of the gospel certainly has crafted a tour de force designed to bring us into the thick of the action.
Despite the pathos of the story he tells, though, John’s goal here is not necessarily to excite our empathy. Just as he started off his gospel with John the Baptist’s testimony that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, he continues to make his case in Jesus’ last mortal moments. As in the beginning, scriptural fulfilment (18:9, 32; 19:24, 28, 36) and others’ testimony are given priority; it’s as if John insists, “Don’t take my word for it.” And we get no help from Jesus himself, who confirms nothing other than his name and his hometown, pushing his interrogators to decide for themselves just who he is.
I have to admit, this is not my favorite Jesus. The other Gospel crucifixion scenes dwell on Jesus’ humanity; Jesus talks to God, cries out, bleeds, sweats, agonizes. By contrast, John’s Jesus does everything according to scriptural formulae laid out long ago; even his thirst is a pre-ordained fulfillment of prophecy rather than a matter of simple biological need. And though he shows compassion for his disciples and his mother, there is no hint of personal suffering. John’s portrait of Jesus as the cosmic Logos, somewhat distant from the upheavals of everyday life, is consistent even in death; very little humanity clouds the aura of his stoic, enigmatic Messiah.
In a way it can be deeply reassuring that Jesus is untouched by the world’s cruelty; sometimes we need a Savior who is above it all, a classically powerful, unchanging rock to which to cling. But I find more comfort in the very real dilemmas of the other characters portrayed. While Jesus may be the calm at the center, the supporting cast is anything but static. Whose inner turmoil do we identify with? When have we betrayed; when have we faltered; when have we had our hearts broken seemingly beyond repair?
To his credit, John has given us many points of entry into these mini-dramas. There is Judas, as John portrays him a pawn of the devil (13:2) betraying Jesus out of demonic compulsion or perhaps out of his own fear (which may be, in the end, the same thing.) There is Peter, eager to defend Jesus from behind the shield of violence, yet without it unable to admit his association with his teacher. There is the police officer, frustrated at Jesus’ obfuscation. There is Pilate, hemmed in by his own impotence and apparently by divine fiat (19:11), unable or unwilling to risk his authority to do what is right. There is the crowd and the soldiers, acquiescing to a mob mentality they may later regret. There are the Marys, silent but steadfast witnesses to their beloved’s torture. There is the heart-wrenching moment linking Jesus’ mother Mary and the disciple whom he loves, given to each other as a balm against the raw wound of his approaching death. There is Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both afraid to publicly admit their discipleship while Jesus lived, but clandestinely willing to care for him in death.
John’s commitment to the fulfillment of scriptural destiny means everyone is caught up in machinations they have no power change. Pilate struggles the hardest to turn the tide but ultimately fails; as Jesus tells him, none of this would have happened without having been ordained by a higher authority. This, too, can work to distance us from a God who has long ago ordered that it should be this way; or it can help us feel that we are not alone in being overwhelmed by events beyond our control.
John’s narrative is one of sweeping power and momentum; we, along with Jesus, are driven unswervingly to its end. Evil, grief, and suffering often seem this way—inexorable, insurmountable. Yet John’s dramatic arc extends through resurrection—an event of equally cosmic proportions reminding us that God’s universe is ultimately tuned to goodness, to redemption, to grace—to life.
PS: John is notorious for his use of the broad term “the Jews” to refer to those who clamor for Jesus’ death. (The Synoptics refer to a narrower group defined by their religious authority, not simply their religion.) This has long fueled anti-Jewish attitudes no matter John’s original intent. (Scholarly opinion varies from accusing John of straight up anti-Semitism to catering to an audience that wouldn’t have known who the Sadducees were to calling it a “class designation.”) When reading the Gospel aloud, I encourage you to consider using alternate translations such as “the religious authorities,” “the Jewish leaders,” or even the Jesus Seminar’s preferred term “the Judeans,” i.e. residents of Judea, a province hostile to Jesus’ ministry.
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is the pastor at Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves an outdoor run; some good thrift shopping; a dance party with her 3-year-old; and cooking something stupidly easy and delicious for dinner with her husband, Chris.