Friday, April 06, 2012

The Truth of Good Friday

Good Friday
Isaiah 52.13–53.12; Psalm 22.1-11; Hebrews 4.14-16, 5.7-9;
John 18.1-19.42

Friday, April 6, 2012 –
Trinity, Redlands

“What is truth?” When Jesus is dragged before Pilate on trumped up charges of blasphemy and treason, there is an exchange between the two about Jesus’ identity and purpose, to which Jesus responds “for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate then famously replies, “What is truth?” Was Pilate attempting to be philosophical or was he just being sarcastic? I have always imagined it as more of a sarcastic remark, a la Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar. But the more I think about this scene and what follows, I am not so sure. Maybe he was being philosophical. Maybe he was genuinely asking for his own edification and growth.

What does John’s Gospel tell us about the truth Pilate, and indeed all of us, seek?

In John’s account of the Passion, Jesus seems to be in charge throughout. He comes off as being defiant in his interaction with Pilate. He is not willing to play the game the Temple authorities would have him play. He does not wither in the face of Rome. He does not give Pilate any easy answers. He is playing by his own rules, even when up against the mightiest and most powerful.

After he is found guilty in a mock trial, this air of control continues. On the way to the cross, he appears poised. He ably carries the cross himself. Unlike the accounts in the other (Synoptic) gospels, there is no mention of Jesus falling on way to Golgatha. There is no mention of needing any help in carrying the cross.

The calm presence continues even upon the cross. Even after nailed to the cross, there are no signs of anguish. Jesus does not cry out in abandonment – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” He may have been forsaken by the Temple authorities, by his own people, by the Roman authorities, but he knows he is not forsaken by God. He knows that what he is doing will reconcile God with those who have indeed forsaken him.

Throughout the Passion narrative, Jesus is very confident, poised, and calm. He knows what is happening, why it is happening. Jesus seems determined for this to play out as he knows it must.

But in the face of this confident, poised Jesus, it is hard to see the truth. It may be there, but where? Certainly as we stand at the foot of the cross, with Mary and John, looking up at the broken body of Jesus, beaten, ridiculed, mocked, nailed to the cross, it is hard to see the truth. This scene betrays the truth of human savagery, of the senseless brutality of which we humans are capable, of the self-serving nature of our species. But this is not the truth that Pilate asked about. How can this violent scene, the broken man that is its victim, bring truth?

To begin to understand the truth we seek, it helps to turn to our Old Testament lesson. In the reading from Isaiah, we have the fourth Servant Song. This song was most likely originally intended to describe the vocation of the whole people of God, as a single identity, suffering for the sake of leading the world to God. But for Christians, the subject is Jesus Christ the Servant. From ancient times, this text has been read to make sense of the death of Jesus. In many ways, it is needed to make sense of today’s events, in a way that the Gospel lesson does not, or maybe even cannot, do.

The fourth Servant Song, while written as words of comfort to the people of Judah during the Babylonian exile, is nonetheless a particularly vivid foreshadowing of another set of events that would occur some 500 years later – the events we commemorate today. Even though not specifically written about Jesus, this passage from Isaiah provides a fitting image of Jesus and what Good Friday is all about.

As Isaiah says:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

This is all happening because of us – because we have all sinned. Of this and what it means to the Suffering Servant and what these actions mean for us, Isaiah writes:

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

The Suffering Servant, although free of sin and guilt, takes on the sins of the people. Then through his death, provides the sacrifice necessary to pay the debt of those sins.

Isaiah uses the concept of the scapegoat, familiar to the people of the day, to illustrate how this is efficacious. It was the practice in ancient Israel for the high priest to lay his hands on a sacrificial goat, thereby transferring the sins of Israel upon the animal. The goat was then slaughtered. The ritual of sacrifice was a sacramental sign demonstrating the people’s awareness of their sins and the many ways they had fallen short of living according to God’s laws, of living within the covenant established between God and his people. The ritual act of sacrifice also, and maybe even more importantly, demonstrates God’s mercy in accepting the gift of the scapegoat, of taking back from the people all the sins they have committed and laid upon the animal.

But in the case of the Suffering Servant, of taking on the sins of Israel, the scapegoat is unlike any other. An animal sacrifice would not be sufficient. What was needed was something of even greater value – a human scapegoat to take on the sins of all Israel, to provide for the forgiveness of an entire nation.

But for us, this act is not just about forgiving the sins of a single nation. More than a single nation is in need of forgiveness. All humanity is in need of this same salvific act. In this, the fourth Servant Song is not merely predictive. Rather, it points to something greater, something more far-reaching. On a grander scale, this passage reveals the continuity of God’s purpose. It shows us that God’s plan all along was for salvation – first for Israel, then for all humanity, bringing to completion a plan made in eternity and patiently worked out throughout history, from the beginning of human existence. This is a plan for salvation culminating in the events of Good Friday.

But for the whole plan to work, a goat would not be sufficient. Even a mere human would not be sufficient. Something more would be needed to take on my sins, your sins, the sins of every person to ever live – past, present, and future. Think how massive that is; how much wrongdoing that is; how much pain and suffering that is; how much sorrow that is. It boggles the mind.

That’s what this day is about. It’s about providing a sacrifice capable of taking on all that sin. The only sacrifice remotely capable of achieving this herculean task is the son of God himself. What this ultimately reveals is the lengths that God will go to so as to be with us, to heal us, to save us. God in the human form of Jesus, God as father of the one being sacrificed, will suffer for us, go through evil for us, and die on a cross for us – to ease our suffering, to take away evil and the pain it causes, to give us life. In his actions, he draws a world of lost souls to himself, and through his blood makes them clean and whole.

Jesus does all this out of love. Even in the midst of our cries of “crucify him!” he still is willing to do this for us. Even in the midst of our cries of “crucify him!” Jesus still loves us.

Pilate asks “what is truth?” The truth is not a set of propositions. Rather, the truth is a person – a man . . . fully human as we are. But also fully divine, the son of God. For only in that unique combination of human and divine would there be sufficient love for such an endeavor; sufficient power to take on the vast sin that we humans are capable of and responsible for. Only one embodying that unique combination would be foolish enough to demonstrate such love for someone like me and like you; to be willing to die for what we and countless others like us have done; to be willing to die so that we are forgiven, cleansed, and made whole; to be willing to die so that we would not have to, but so that we might have eternal life.

John’s picture of Jesus is comforting. It reassures us that, despite the brutal tragedy that is happening before our eyes, Jesus is in control. Jesus is doing this for us. Jesus is doing this out of love for us. God allows this to happen out of love for us. This is the truth that Pilate sought. This is the truth we seek this day. This is the truth that will ultimately be revealed in an empty tomb.

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