Good Friday: No More of This! The End of Sacrifice
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
The Very Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Dean & Rector
At the climax of the Passion according to St. John, we hear Jesus utter those words—“It is finished,” or “It is accomplished.” What it is that is finished and accomplished on this day we call Good Friday? How can it be that Jesus' humiliating and ignoble death—mocked and scourged beyond any human semblance—can in any way be “good?” In a culture of violence, how can contemplating the cross be anything but a tacit reproduction of the very violence we want so desperately to renounce?
To answer these questions, we need to understand what it is that God has been up to from the foundation of the world. It has always been God’s deepest desire to create something that is completely other than Godself, that this creation might, through its use of free will and imagination, co-operating with grace, be united to its creator. God wants to fashion for himself a people who love justice and peace, who welcome the stranger, who care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, to shape their lives as individuals and as a community in such a way that justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God’s dream for the world is that we might be united to each other in bonds of love as a beloved community who bear each other’s burdens and give ourselves sacrificially to one another. God’s dream for the world is that there are no longer people whom we call master and those whom we call servant: “I do not call you servants any longer… but I have called you friends.” God’s dream for the world is that of a universal friendship, of reciprocal giving and receiving: of washing and feeding—being washed and washing, fed and feeding.
That’s the dream. But as we know, too often, our world more closely resembles what Bishop Michael Curry calls “the nightmare of our own devising.” A world where there are insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, those on the top and those on the bottom. A world of scapegoats characterized by accusation, casting out, and the heaping of violence on the backs of innocent victims in a deluded attempt to secure peace through bloodshed. Our nightmare is a death-based culture and you see it reflected in our seemingly endless appetite for zombie movies and disaster flicks, for blood-soaked video games, and ghoulish crime shows. It’s as if we know unconsciously that we are trapped in a culture of violence death and are deserately seeking to find a way out through a means of our own devising.
When Pilate brings Jesus before the crowd and utters those fateful words—“Ecce homo!” “Here is the man!”—it is a powerful sign for us not just of the violence directed at the Jesus, but at the violence at the heart of our existing social order stretching all the way back to Cain’s foundational rivalrous murder of his brother Abel. When we behold the man mocked and scourged, his face spit upon, his form beyond that of the children of men, we are looking at the disastrous results of our own imprisonment in a culture of death and violence. Contemplating the cross, we look in the mirror and see our own entrapment in unconscious patterns of scapegoating violence. We see violence unveiled once and for all, but we also glimpse a glimmer of possibility, the hope, of a new way of being human, a new way of constituting our common lives for and with each other.
When we gaze upon our crucified Lord and let His silence reveal ourselves to ourselves, we see that the crucifixion enacts before our eyes our stubborn, stiff-necked, unwillingness to be loved into loving. The death of Jesus on the cross does not affect a change in God whose loving-kindness was and is and will be for ever. 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 peaceable gathering, 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 wails 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 knell before it, bow, or kiss it, when we pronounce this day “good,” we are saying that we see the violence that is revealed to us on the cross and that we acknowledge 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 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 steps into the breach hanging from a tree on a garbage heap outside the city walls and 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.
To return to those words, “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, God’s dream for the world, 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 about Mary, “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. And that’s us as well. We are 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.”
And that is why, on Easter Sunday, we encounter Mary Magdalene in the garden on the first day of the week—a clear echo of Adam and Eve’s Edenic paradise. The cross represents the beginning of a new beginning. Humanity 2.0, fashioned at the cost of God’s only son, now has the opportunity to live in a new way, to be gathered together in in peace, forgiveness, and love under the wings of mercy that our lives might come to embody God’s dream for the world instead of the nightmare of our own devising it so often is. We are offered, free, unmerited, and undeserved, the opportunity to become a new community, the beloved community—where we claim our identity as a washed and washing people, a fed and feeding people—that God has made possible this day. The question is, will we live it?