Scholars of biblical history like to ask each other why Jesus died. Was it because the Romans saw him as a potential trouble maker, likely to rouse a rebellion amongst the oppressed Jewish people, especially at the time of the Passover when Jerusalem was flooded with visitors and pilgrims and emotions were already running high? Or was it through a plot by the religious authorities who considered that Jesus had made blasphemous claims to be the Messiah?
Or was it an act of desperation by those same authorities who genuinely feared that Jesus’ actions leading up to his death would indeed inspire some kind of rebellion against Roman rule? A small-scale and unsuccessful rebellion would have been disastrous – the Romans were not known for being merciful and considerate to the nations they occupied, and the last thing the Jewish leaders needed was someone who would stir up trouble and bring down the wrath of the Romans on everyone. Can it be that silencing Jesus suddenly looked like the only way of preventing bloodshed on a massive scale?
But if we really want to know why Jesus died, then we can join the two thousand year old tradition of the Church’s interpretation of the events of Good Friday.
Today we recount the tale of our betrayal, complicity, duplicity, and collusion in the death of Jesus. It’s all there, the worst parts of our collective psychic anatomy:
We see the betrayal of a leader by a trusted disciple, and we never even know what drove him to it – the money? Impatience with the pace of Jesus’ ministry, or misunderstanding of its nature? Simple disaffection? Do we, in Judas, recognise our own secret thoughts and doubts about those to whom we have pledged our allegiance or our friendship, even if we have not acted on them?
We see the cowardice of Jesus’ very best friends, who all deserted him at the last, and supremely we see the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter, who only hours before had sworn that he would follow his Lord to the death. Do we recognize our own potential to be surprised into denial by sudden questions from strangers? Perhaps we could withstand the very worst persecution for the sake of our faith, but fail, like Peter, at the thought of being ridiculed, judged as ‘one of them’?
We see the anxious conniving of the authorities, the way priests Annas and Caiaphas play right into the hands of the Romans. We see the potential for law to come before justice, and uncomfortable truths swept under the carpet of perceived necessity. ‘It is better for one man to die for the people’. Do we recognise the reasonableness of our own leaders, or perhaps even of ourselves, in neglecting the plight of the minority?
We see a weak and nervous Pilate, checking the latest public opinion polls, intent on ensuring his own survival, no matter what the cost, and unable to exercise any real authority. Jesus even tells Pilate that he only has power over him insofar as it has been granted to him from above, yet even that he is unsure of how to use. Do we recognize in ourselves an element of self-preservation preventing us really from loving neighbour as ourselves? Do we recognize in the structures that govern our society a misunderstanding of what power and responsibility are about?
We see the mob, democracy in action, just a few days ago shouting “Hosannah!” now screaming for blood and crucifixion. Do we recognise ourselves, swayed into glibly accepting received opinions about who deserves condemnation, and not daring to think differently?
We see soldiers, who after all are only doing their job, desperate to establish their superiority by mocking the easy target, and numbing themselves from the reality of what it is they are doing by taking refuge in games and casting lots for a dying man’s clothes. Do we understand the real cost of our everyday choices and habits for those around us, for the world, and for our own souls? Are we complicit, however remotely, in systems that deny the dignity of fellow human beings?
And finally we see the crucifixion itself, surely the most cruel and degrading form of execution that ingenious humanity has ever devised to inflict on itself. It is not just about physical anguish, but also about mental and emotional torture: even the wild animals crawl away to die – but even this privacy was denied to our Lord. Do we see and understand this as simply the supreme emblem of the sort of cruelty and desire for power and dominance that can be found in all human societies – societies of which we are a part.
At every stage, the passion is possible because of the human capacity to sin. Is it not, in fact, in the nature of human sin that if ever someone perfect were to come into the world we would surely kill him? God could count on human sin to crucify his Son. Of course that’s what we’d do.
Yet in the midst of all this, it is true – and we must hang on to this truth – it is true that we are – each of us, and all of us – made in the image of God. He created us to be good people, to be people at one with each other and at one with him, and it is to this that he continues to call us. Our capacity for sin is the sign of how distorted this divine image has become in us.
It is popular to suggest nowadays that humankind is making moral progress, that we are basically OK in ourselves, and getting better all the time. Sometimes we can kid ourselves that we are – collectively and individually – doing OK. And perhaps we could go on thinking that, were it not for today. It might be possible to get by on our own, to delude ourselves in thinking our capacity to hate and deny and delude are not that great, if were it not for this day, this Friday we call ‘Good’. If we are to believe in our own self-sufficient goodness, we shall have to dispose of this story, of this day in the church’s year.
Our capacity for denial and deceit about the truth of the worst in us is incredibly great, but this story that knows the truth of us so well and depicts it so graphically, challenges even our powers of evasion.
We really are in a mess. If Golgatha or Calvary were only one place, one moment in time, we have at last grown beyond it. But no, there is Auschwitz, Rwanda, Belfast, Kosovo, and Baghdad, and the list of Calvarys keeps getting longer. We really are fallen. We really have corrupted the image of God in which we were created. We really do need someone, somehow, to save us. Sin means that we needed – we need – a redeemer, to restore in us the image of God, so that we can overcome the power that sin has over us, and become the people we were created to be.
On this day, Good Friday, we are revealed, exposed, reproached. But if that were all there was to the story, then Calvary might be remembered like a good novel for its realistic depiction of human evil, and those who recognized their own sin in the passion story would despair.
But looking back on this day, Jesus’ people realized that there was more. There, on the cross, with Jesus’ arms outstretched, God was embracing us, entering into our evil, our sin. Later, we came to speak of something so horrible as the cross, as the source of our redemption.
Yes, it was our sin that sent Jesus to the cross, but we do very wrong if we ignore the complicity of Jesus in his own passion and death. Just before the Passover Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Presumably he knew that this would incite the crowds into claiming him as the Messiah promised by the prophets. And he knew that the political situation at the time made this an action almost guaranteed to get him into trouble. He predicted his own death (and resurrection) several times, explaining what it meant and why it was necessary. And he refused to defend himself at his trial. These are not the actions of an unfortunate victim of circumstance. No, these are the considered decisions of someone who knows that they have a task to perform, a vocation to fulfil, no matter what the personal cost.
It is human sin that brought Jesus to the cross, but it was and is the choice of God to submit to that sin and become its victim. From the moment that Judas betrayed Jesus, the tragedy of human sin unfolds and gathers strength, and through it, God nevertheless achieves his saving purposes.
For we have no hope, except for a God who is willing to meet us where we are, fallen as we are. God met our fallen-ness and brokenness at each and every point of the unfolding passion. He met each one of our sins: our betrayals, our denials, our willingness to sacrifice justice for expediency, our cowardice, our cruelty; and took them onto himself. On the cross, Jesus met head-on the very worst that humanity could do, and by the resurrection proved that the love of God is stronger. On the cross, we meet God, and above all else that we see, we see that God is willing to go to any extreme to have us, just as we are, so that he might transform us into who we were made to be.