In the name of the +Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Once more, on the only day the church calls good, we gather around the cross, and we hear the story and say the prayers. Once more we face the mystery and the power of sacrifice. We watch an execution, and, in what seems an ironic parody of God’s words at creation, we look at all we have made, and we say that it is good. Good Friday.
Have you noticed that the passion according to St. John is strangely passionless? Compared with Mark’s telling of the story that we heard last Sunday, John’s account seems without much feeling, without much conflict. There is no agony in the garden, no suspense in the trial, no indication of how anyone involved in the drama is moved, or affected by what is happening. Even Peter’s betrayal is reported factually, without reference to emotion or feelings. The entire story, from Jesus’ arrest to his death, moves with a smooth certainty, a controlled, almost casual, flow that leaves no doubt or tension as to the outcome.
One of the things this Gospel is telling us is that, for almost everyone involved, the crucifixion was not a big deal; it was not a particularly important event. There is even an ancient legend saying that Pontius Pilate was asked, late in his life, what he thought about the crucifixion of Jesus—an event by then much discussed. His response was that there had been so many crucifixions, he simply could not remember the specific one that had caused so much notice in later years. (I can maybe believe that.)
At the time, as we just heard, Pilate certainly did not think this crucifixion was important enough to handle differently from any other. He had, at the request of the chief priests, disposed of other troublemakers before; he would doubtless dispose of several more later on. Such accommodations to the religious leaders were simply part of the uneasy truce that existed between the Temple and the Palace. It was business as usual—doubtless regrettable if an innocent man got caught in the middle, but overall the system worked pretty well. It was worth a few mistakes to keep Jerusalem quiet and to avoid a rebellion.
In the same way, the crucifixion was a matter of small interest for the religious leaders.
Caiaphas counseled Jesus’ death because it was expedient. (That’s all). Not because it was right, or because it was necessary; not because it was vital or important or essential to the fate of the nation. Just because it was…. expedient. All in all, Caiaphas no doubt thought it a shame that the situation was such that an occasional execution was necessary. But that’s the way the world was put together. After all, it was necessary for someone in Caiaphas’ position to be realistic, and to do what needed to be done for the larger good.
Indeed, Caiaphas may well have hoped that, one of these days, maybe when the Messiah comes, things would be different, things would be better—and such regrettable incidents will no longer be needed. But for now, it was business as usual.
Notice also that there is no indication of personal malice. Pilate liked Jesus. The other officials did not know him very well. Decisions were made, not because of personalities or theology, but because of fear—fear that, somehow, this Jesus fellow would mess up the way things worked.
Reading John’s account of the crucifixion, I always remember a horrible scene in The Godfather. It happens a couple of times: some “soldiers” or whatever the folks who did the dirty work were called, were going to murder another soldier, an old friend, for some reason or another. They knew their victim well and assured him that his being killed was “nothing personal, only business.” Nothing personal. Even worse, the victim understood. Life is cheap; business is what matters.
Nothing personal, Pilate could say. Nothing personal, Caiaphas could say. We have our way of doing things here; and you endanger that. ||It is only when we pause to consider the meaning of this that the horror becomes clear.
No one decided to kill the Lord of Life out of hatred, malice, pride, greed, rage or envy. There are no powerful emotions, no great, visible evil at work here—no Hitler or Stalin. It just turned out that way.
There was no room in the world for his life; just as their was no room in the inn for his birth. Jesus was not crucified by a world gone rabid with hatred and violence. He was killed by a world gone numb, and indifferent, and slightly bored. It took nothing special to put Jesus on the cross. No extraordinary laws were passed or broken; no unusual actions were taken; and John’s Gospel goes to great lengths to make it clear that not one single exception was made to any religious or legal rule or custom.
Sometimes, truly monstrous evil is too big to see. So we like to trim it down to size and blame somebody—Judas, Pilate, the Jewish leaders, anybody. After all, such blame distances us a bit from what happened and makes it easier to understand.
But this didn’t work that way. The point is simply that the world, going about its business, executed Jesus Christ as a routine and ordinary event. (The evil goes that deep). The point is simply that everyone involved was only doing his job—and the evil goes that deep.
The sin that is shown here is sin buried deep—deep in our lives, deep in our habits, our reflexes, our institutions, and our sensitivities. It is sin rooted so deeply in our world and our lives that most of the time we do not repent of it, or feel ashamed by it. At best, at the very best, we regret it.
John’s Gospel is reminding us that we crucify our Lord in ways we seldom consider. On the one hand, we know that we crucify him anew. We know that we do that when we act like Judas or Peter—when we deny who Jesus is, or try to live as if we do not know him, or put ourselves first. We know about those moments. | They trouble us.
On the other hand, the sin we see on the cross is also found in other ways; in ways more subtle. The sin we see on the cross is found when we look at the tragedy of human pain and suffering and regret that things just seem to work out that way. This sin is found both when we realize that not just the technology, but the actual food necessary to end starvation in the world is available right now—yet people continue to starve; and when we say that it is really a shame that things work out that way. That is another way to crucify him anew.
The sin that put Jesus on the cross is in front of us whenever we watch lives being chewed up in the vicious, unforgiving, competitive structures we build around our schools and our egos, our games and our families, even our jokes, and our wardrobes || and watching that destruction we hear, or we say—that’s the way it is—it’s a tough world.
And Jesus was telling the truth when he said of his executioners, and of us, that they did not know what they were doing. And we can thank God that Jesus prayed for mercy, and not for justice.\\ The sin that we see in the cross is, to a large extent, a silent sin—so built into our lives and our world, so much a part of how things operate, that we hardly notice it.
Today, we see the power of that sin. Today we see what happens when things are simply carried on as usual. Today we realize that the very worst the world can do, it does naturally, and easily, and with some mild regret for a messy necessity.
This is the power that Jesus accepted and refused to resist on its own terms. This is the evil that fell full force on one man on a cross, and was met by love. The crucifixion was inevitable. But it was not inevitable because God wanted Jesus to die; and it was not inevitable because Jesus wanted to suffer. It was inevitable because this is the way the world meets God. This is what happens when God is with us. It is not a big deal to the folks in charge; but this is the world’s automatic last word to God.
We have a day or so to think about that before the first light of Easter flickers in front of us. Of course we know that Good Friday is not finally about sin and evil. It is finally, and fully, and really about the power and depth of God’s redemptive love in the world. For God looked even at this, and even at us and the world we have made—and God said, “let there be light”.
And there was light.