Good Friday: No More of This--Why We Call This Friday Good
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Good Friday—Isaiah 52:13-53:12 ; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
No More of This—Why We Call This Friday Good
Part of the liturgy of Good Friday often includes the veneration of the cross. After the cross is processed into the knave and the passion gospel proclaimed, we take time as the gathered people of God to kneel, or kiss, the hard wood of the cross. It’s both beautiful and terrifying watching the ragtag group of Christians approach the cross. Some will kiss its base, others with simply pause and gaze, but in each case it’s a striking image. We forget that for the earliest Christians the cross was a symbol of terror and execution at the hands of Roman Imperial power. Seeing a cross in a church would be like us having a sculpture of the electric chair, or a picture of a firing squad over the altar. In his poem Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot ends the “East Coker” section with the lines, “Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday Good.” When we call this day “good” what are we saying? When we venerate the cross, what are we venerating?
To edge our way towards answering these questions, we have to understand something very basic about human beings and their addiction to scapegoating violence. From time immemorial human beings, across cultures and continents, have relied on the mechanism of scapegoating violence as a way of securing the peace. Simmering resentments between different factions inevitably threaten to boil over and cast the entire society into all-out warfare and dissolve the community. Instead, spontaneous, irrational mob violence erupts against some distinctive group or minority in the group. They are accused of the worst crimes the group can imagine. The scapegoated individual or group has heaped upon them all the blame for the all the ills society currently experiences. The mob quickly becomes convinced that if they can excise this individual or group from their midst, all their problems will magically vanish, and in short order the individual or group is lynched.
For a while the peace promised by the lynching holds. But it is a temporary peace bought with the price of innocent blood. It is a peace dependent on murderous, scapegoating violence and thus cannot last for long. Sooner or later, conflict arises again, and the search for new victims begins anew. The cycle of violence—conflict, scapegoating, sacrifice, and temporary peace—begins again. Of course, scapegoating doesn’t always take the form of literal bloodshed. Think of water cooler gossips. Playground bullies. Times when we’ve been thrown to wolves as the embodiment of all that is wrong, or when we’ve fantasized about how much better life would be if we could just eliminate that one person from our lives.
Mark Heim writes in his essay, “The End of Scapegoating,”
Scapegoating is one of the deepest structures of human sin, built into our religion and our politics. It is most virulent where it is most invisible. So long as we are in the grip of the process, we do not see our victims as scapegoats. Texts that hide scapegoating foster it. Texts that show it for what it is undermine it.
When we hear that Caiaphas the high priest recommends to the Jews that it is better for one person to die for the people, we see the scapegoating mechanism laid bare. The bible—both the old and new testaments is unique in its defense of victims, of giving us the story, not from the side of the scapegoaters as most myths do, but from the side of the victims. And the crucifixion of Jesus is the text that makes most visible the mechanism of mob violence and shows us its blood-thirsty bankruptcy once and for all. In the death of Jesus, God breaks the hypnotic spell of scapegoating by stepping into the place of the victim who cannot be hidden away from view. We see, in stark, painful, and brutal clarity the price of our sin. God is willing to die for us, to bear our sins in this particular way, because we desperately need deliverance from it.
Sometimes you’ll hear talk about how Jesus’ death on the cross somehow assuaged the Father’s honor and muted his wrath that rightly should be directed at sinful humanity. According to St. Anselm of Canterbury’s model of the atonement, this is exactly what happened—Jesus takes upon himself the wrath that should deservedly be directed at us and in the process we are declared free of guilt. There are a couple of problems with this account that make venerating the cross and calling this day “good” difficult. How do we venerate a God who demands sacrifice and is filled with wrath? Does this fit with the picture of God we have in Jesus? What kind of God needs to have His honor restored? If we have been declared guilt free by the death of Jesus what does that mean for the continuing life of discipleship, of growing in love, of being drawn ever more deeply into the triune life of God that we might be fellow workers with Christ in the building up of the Kingdom?
The death of Jesus on the cross does not affect a change in God. It affects in a change in us. It is salvific in this way—it reveals to us once and for all our addiction to the cycle of violence and the deadly consequences of a culture of violence that secures its tenuous peace on the backs of innocent sacrificial victims. It’s not that Jesus volunteers for God’s justice machine, but that God in Jesus volunteers to step into ours in order to show us a new way of being in community, one that’s built on forgiveness, and love, and not on the backs of innocent victims. The cross, instead of being a symbol of the violence at the heart of the Christian faith—becomes a symbol of our entrapment to the deep and structural sin of scapegoating violence. “No more of this!” the cross sings to us in the reproaches. See what your captivity, your delusion, your self-enclosure, your enslavement to unreality brings. Jesus’ persecutors intend his death to bring peace and avoid the outbreak of violence between the Romans and Israelites, between Jews and other Jews. But God has other plans. God uses Jesus’ death to show us the end of sacrifice and how real peace, not bought with blood, is to be found and lived.
When this dimension of the cross is seen clearly, we are suddenly less likely to blame Jesus’ death on “the Jews” and thereby unconsciously reinforce in the very destructive process the crucifixion is meant to expose and free us from. We begin to see that the entire sweep of scripture, God’s story in which we find and make meaning of our lives, is about weaning us from our addiction to sacrificial violence. The averted sacrifice of Isaac, the Joseph story, the prophets’ condemnation of scapegoating the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, Job’s complaints against false accusation, and the Psalms’ preoccupation with the innocent victim of collective violence—all testify that this is what God has been up to all along in fashioning for Himself a people worthy of His name.
When we venerate the cross, when we pronounce this day “good,” we are saying that we see the violence that is revealed to us on the cross and that Jesus has shown us a different way to be. Any one of us, at any time, can become a part of the mob that seeks out victims. The disciples understand this when they ask at table with Jesus, “Is it I, Lord?” They are awakened, in Jesus’ presence, to the possibility of their own unconscious participation in this mechanism. But it is also true that any one of us at any time can also be scapegoated as victims of the mob. Jesus dies in our place as the sacrifice to end sacrifice. The work of the cross is the work of the transcendent God who breaks into a cycle we could not change alone. This is the gift of the cross. To venerate the cross and call this day “good” is to want no more victims. To venerate the cross and call this day good is to swear off scapegoats and depend on Jesus’ body and blood instead of the blood of sacrificial victims.
When Jesus dies on the cross, he utters those words, unique to the Gospel of John, “It is finished.” What is finished is God’s project of creating a truly human being, a project he began with Adam and Eve. In the death of Jesus we see revealed to us what a perfected humanity really looks like. Jesus, in this sense, is the only truly human human being. And the death of Jesus inaugurates a new community of believers who gather not in opposition to scapegoated victims, but in solidarity with all victims, that the whole cycle of insider and outsider might collapse under its own weight and the Kingdom of God be ushered in.
That’s why Jesus says to Mary about the Beloved disciple, “Woman, here is your son.” That’s why he says to the Beloved disciple, “Here is your mother.” This is the very beginning of the Church, the new community formed at the foot of the cross that will gather together around the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine instead of around innocent victims. It is a community that says, in solidarity with victims throughout time and space, “No more of this!” and seeks to live out the gift of the end of sacrifice Jesus’ death holds so starkly before us. That is something we can venerate. No more victims. The end of sacrifice. The celebration of God doing for us what we could never do on our own by stepping into our mechanism of justice to reveal to us the scapegoats on whose backs we have secured our tenuous version of peace which is really just violence delayed. The swearing off scapegoats forever, that is why we call this day “good.”