February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
April 10, 2020
I always come to Good Friday with mixed emotions. On the one hand, we are remembering a horrific death. Crucifixion was a terrible way to die. The Gospels spare us the gruesome details, but even from what we read, we know that death on a Roman cross was slow, painful, and humiliating. Moreover, this particular execution represented the breakdown of all human connections. It came about because one of Jesus’s friends betrayed him and his other friends, men who promised to stand by him, denied they even knew him. Peter, the friend who confessed that Jesus was the Holy One of God (see John 6:69), who had vowed to die for him (see John13:38), denied Jesus not once but repeatedly. And as we know, there certainly was no justice from the religious or civil authorities. The story that we reread today is not a story that I am unambiguously glad to hear again.
On the other hand, I have heard this story many times before. I know how it ends. In three days, it will be Sunday. In the words of the preacher S. M. Lockridge:
It’s Friday. Jesus is praying. Peter’s a sleeping. Judas is betraying. But Sunday’s comin’. It’s Friday. Pilate’s struggling. The council is conspiring. The crowd is vilifying. They don’t even know that Sunday’s comin’.1
It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’. I know that if I can just white-knuckle it through these next few days, this story is going to turn out OK. Jesus was betrayed and killed, but God will turn this story around. This is just one bad weekend.
But, remarkably, none of the Gospels just white-knuckle it through this story, waiting for Sunday. Each Gospel tells the story of this death clearly and explicitly. Each Gospel makes this event a holy moment—perhaps the holiest moment of Jesus’s life. Even if the Gospels do not dwell on the most gruesome details, they each consciously walk us through the events which we are remembering today. This event, they say more or less directly, was the point of his life—Jesus had come for this. How then can we so remember the events of this day that we understand them as holy? How is this death an enactment rather than a betrayal of the purposes of God? To use John’s language, how do we see this as Jesus’s hour?
John’s account of this long hour actually begins the evening before (see John13:1). Jesus washes the feet of his disciples as he talks to them about the coming events. He gives them his last teachings. He prays for them. And then he goes out with his disciples to the Kidron Valley to a garden where he had often gone before with these friends. Judas would have been able to find him easily. In the garden, John tells us, this friend, his betrayer, comes with a detachment of armed men. Twice Jesus has to identify himself so that they arrest the right person.
Peter takes out a sword to defend them, acting as one might expect if he were protecting an ordinary kingdom. But Jesus reprimands Peter for his use of force, telling him to put the sword away. The kingdom of Jesus is not of this world. He will drink the cup set before him.
And so Jesus comes before the religious authorities and is questioned about his teachings. Outside, Peter warms himself at the fire made by those who arrested Jesus. Inside, Jesus insists he has spoken openly and wonders why his accusers can’t find a witness to his teaching while Peter denies his association with Jesus three times. No one will admit to knowing anything about Jesus now that he is in trouble. What Jesus must do, he must do alone.
The longest section of John’s passion narrative—longer than in any other Gospel—is the account of Jesus before the civil authorities. Pilate goes in and out of his headquarters, arguing with the religious authorities, debating with Jesus, showing by his movements and his questions his discomfort at being called to make this judgment. We can see clearly that he doesn’t want anything to do with this religious rivalry. “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law,” Pilate says (John 18:31 NRSV). But there is no backing down from those who arrested Jesus.
Then Pilate asks Jesus the critical question, “Are you King of the Jews?” (John 18:33). Jesus knows Pilate doesn’t really care about his answer, that he is only asking because he has been pressured into it. Jesus answers that his kingdom is not from this world. Which is to say that Jesus’s kingdom is not established or defended in the same way as other kingdoms. His kingdom is a kingdom of truth. And as so often happens with political leaders, an appeal to truth confuses Pilate.
Pilate doesn’t give up. He suggests that Jesus could be released as the annual pardon. But the crowds choose a criminal for release instead, and Pilate allows Jesus to be dressed and ridiculed as a king. Pilate’s soldiers flog him and give him a crown of thorns. They dress him in a royal purple robe before striking and taunting him.
Even then, Pilate looks to Jesus to give him answers that will pacify the crowd. But self-defense is not the way of Jesus’s kingdom. Jesus says that if Pilate had not been given power over him from above, Pilate would not be in the position to do anything. The statement is full of irony: Pilate is a political puppet of Rome, but Jesus is speaking of the power of God.
Finally, Jesus’s enemies demand that this imposter king be punished unless Pilate wants to be known as an enemy of the emperor. And Pilate gives in. Throughout this long exchange, John has juxtaposed Jesus’s kingdom with these other kingdoms, making it clear that Jesus’s fate was not determined by his enemies or by political powers; they did not take Jesus’s life from him; he gave it. John is making it clear that this death is an enactment of an obedient life.
And so Jesus is taken out to Golgotha. He is crucified between two others. And at Pilate’s insistence, a title plaque, “King of the Jews,” is put on the cross. The soldiers divide his clothes and gamble for his tunic. From his elevated position, Jesus sees his mother and commends her to the care of a disciple. He asks for a final drink and dies. The soldiers do not break his legs but pierce his side to ensure he is dead. Two religiously observant men take him down from the cross because they do not want to leave him hanging over the holy days of Passover. They lay him in a nearby grave. The long hour is ended.
So how does careful attention to John’s story help me with my mixed emotions on this day? Can we understand how John has depicted Good Friday as a holy moment, not just a moment of disappointment and confusion?
I think there are two important strategies at work in John’s Gospel that help me handle the ambiguity. First, John is very clear that this is Jesus’s moment and no one else’s. Jesus goes where he will be easily found by his betrayer. He refuses Peter’s violent actions in his defense. He controls the dialogue with his religious and civil interrogators. He distinguishes his kingdom from the kingdoms of this world, claiming that those who belong to the truth will listen to him. He points out that Pilate would have no power if it had not been given from above. He carries his own cross. Throughout the entire account, Jesus’s posture and words communicate that this hour is necessary, that it would not have come about if it were not permitted by God, and that Jesus takes it on willingly. The suffering of this day belongs to his vocation—he came to do this. This dark hour establishes a kingdom of light for all people: he is giving his life for the life of the world; no one is taking his life from him.
And second, John is very clear that, as unpredictable as the events of Jesus’s hour are, their meaning is penetrable. These events are to be interpreted based on what God has done before. Jesus’s words and the Hebrew Scriptures are the guides to make sense of this event. He requests that his disciples be left in peace when he is arrested in order to fulfill words spoken earlier in the Gospel (see John 17:12). Jesus is taken before Annas, but Caiaphas is also named—Caiaphas is the one who prophesied earlier that it was better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed (11:49–52). Jesus’s death is by crucifixion in order that it be a lifting up, like the serpent in the desert (3:14), such that Jesus would be recognizable as the one who did what the Father had instructed (8:28). Likewise, Pilate says at noon on the day of preparation, “Behold your king”—noon was the time when the slaughter of lambs for the Passover celebration began. The soldiers gambled for his garments as the Psalm had foretold (Ps. 22:18); Jesus was thirsty and took the sour wine as the Psalm said (Ps. 69:21); they gave it to him on a hyssop branch, the herb used at the Passover (Exod.12:22). The soldiers did not break his legs, as was proper for the lambs sacrificed for the celebration (Exod.12:46), and then blood and water come from his dead body, the one who promised living water (Exod. 8:37). Then, in death, he is treated with a religious respect he did not garner in life (Deut. 21:22–23). It is clear that John makes sense of this senseless death by locating it in the actions and words of the Scriptures and Jesus’s life.
Finally, I think that we cannot hear this story of Jesus’s suffering on this particular Good Friday without also thinking about the suffering of our world. I think it’s possible that the strategies that John uses in telling about Jesus’s death can help us in our present hour. This is the first Holy Friday affected by COVID-19 in my life, but as one who participates in God’s kingdom, I will take my cues from John.
John reminds me, for example, that our suffering is not like Jesus’s suffering—his belonged to his vocation. The Son of God chose to suffer to enable life for the world. His dark hour establishes a kingdom of light for all people. He gives his life for the life of the world. In contrast, our dark hour derives from a world gone awry. For us, it is an invisible virus in the physical world that is creating havoc, disease, and death. It was to overcome even this kind of death that Jesus came.
John also teaches me that we should not shortcut this moment. Although John’s account of Jesus’s death does not include the gruesome details, he does paint enough of a picture that we are drawn into it. When I read the story, I grieve the betrayal and denial by his friends. I dislike Pilate’s political maneuvering. I am frustrated at the miscarriage of justice. I feel Mary’s anguish as she stands and watches her son die. This is a dark day, and John does not pretend it is anything else. So also, we need to acknowledge our dis-ease with our disordered state of affairs. We can try to white-knuckle our way through this lockdown, hoping for its end, but that is not the mode of John. The first step is to dwell in the grief and confusion, to recognize it, to acknowledge the heaviness, to own our disappointment and fear.
And later, we can do as John did. We can learn to tell the story within the frame of how God has always been present for us. Meaning is made in retrospect. As John recalled the Psalms and words from the life of Jesus, as the early church recalled the words of the prophets, we are invited to recall the story of how God has been for us and to speak of even these days in a way that acknowledges God’s hand in our lives. The events of earlier will make sense of the events of now. And the words of Lockridge will also be our witness. It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. This is a dark time; it is a holy moment.
Jo-Ann Badley is dean of theology at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta. She has studied and taught New Testament and hermeneutics for thirty years, reading and writing about what it means to read the Bible for Christian life and practice. She is actively involved in ecumenical dialogue. When she is not working, she likes to weave, walk, and read biographies.