I ask that God’s Spirit may speak through me and may guide us to hear what God wants us to know. Amen.
Blessed Good Friday to you. My name is Dave Kucharski, and I’m a member of St. Thomas and part of our roster of lay preachers. I’ve been asked to preach to you today about Good Friday and John’s Passion narrative.
Before I begin the sermon proper, though, it’s important to address one aspect of John’s Passion account, and of that entire Gospel. The writer of John frequently uses the phrase “the Jews” to designate the people who oppose Jesus. There is a long and tragic history of the Christian churches using that phrase “the Jews” to hold the Jewish people in their entirety responsible for Jesus’ death. But doing so results from a gross misreading of the text. A note in the New Oxford Annotated Bible states that “. . .a careful reading of the Gospel reveals ‘the Jews’ to be a class designation, not a religious or ethnic grouping.” In other words, the phrase properly and much more narrowly refers only to specific members of the elite religious authorities of Jesus’ day and those individuals who followed them.
Glancing at recent stories in the news, you will have seen the following: In a number of separate incidents in various U.S. cities, an unarmed black man is either beaten or shot by police officers. The people of Nigeria vote in a presidential election but face violence from, among others, the militant group Boko Haram. The governor of Indiana signs into law a Religious Freedom bill.
Although these stories concern a variety of peoples, places and situations, one thread that binds all of the stories is fear. The fear of some authorities who assume that all men of a particular racial group are dangerous. The fear of violent militants that free thought and the empowerment of women are harmful to society. The fear of some religious people about having to associate with anyone they consider to be ungodly or sinful.
Fear is one of the most primal and one of the most constant of human emotions. In the Passion account of John’s Gospel, we see a number of examples of fear. In some cases, the fear afflicts Jesus’ followers. Peter, for example, when he sees Jesus about to be seized by the authorities, grabs a sword in panic and wounds a bystander with it. Then later, more famously, Peter—fearful of being associated with the just-arrested Jesus—denies three times that he knows Jesus. After Jesus’ death, his body is attended to by two followers, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who have concealed their discipleship of Jesus out of fear of social and political reprisal.
The authorities who oppose Jesus also are motivated by fear. The soldiers and police who come to arrest Jesus in the garden carry weapons, although Jesus never has been known to commit acts of force or violence. The religious authorities fear Jesus because his words and actions have been undermining their authority among the people. Even Roman governor Pontius Pilate is said to be afraid, although the text does not make clear whether that fear stems from Jesus and his power or because not going along with the crowd’s angry demand to crucify Jesus could result in Pilate losing control of the people and the confidence of his superiors.
Throughout his Gospel, John is careful to trace the extent to which fear drives the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. As I just stated, the religious authorities fear the threat Jesus poses to their hold over the people. The authorities also fear Jesus’ potential to disrupt political order, which could cause the power structure in Jerusalem to be dismantled by the occupying Roman forces. Finally, Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God provokes fear; some religious leaders and people, unable to see that Jesus is God, believe Jesus is a blasphemer and that it is their duty under threat of God’s punishment to call for his death.
With all of this fear swirling around him, what about Jesus? How is he feeling as the time of his death approaches?
There are famous Gospel passages that give us insight into Jesus’ emotions during the Passion. You’ll recall how, following the Passover meal, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John —his
closest friends—to Gethsemane to be with him as he prays that somehow, he may be spared the events that are coming. The text tells us Jesus is “deeply grieved” and “agitated.” Then, moments before his death, as he hangs on the cross, Jesus cries “with a loud voice,” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
However, and significantly, both of these passages occur in other Gospel accounts of the Passion; neither occurs in the Passion of John we heard today. Instead, John gives us a different picture of Jesus: he is calm, resolute, concerned more with the safety and well-being of others than with his own; John’s Jesus is the one who, although dying on the cross, takes a moment to ensure his mother and his beloved disciple will care for each other after his death.
In logical, human terms, Jesus would have good reason to be fearful during his Passion. John depicts Jesus, at the moment Judas and the soldiers appear to arrest him, as “knowing all that was to happen to him.” John also has Jesus allude several times throughout the Gospel to the very kind of death—being lifted on a cross—that he will die.
As a fearful human being myself, I can only imagine being filled with terror if I knew I was to die an excruciating, humiliating death. I admit I find it easier to identify with the Jesus of the other Gospels, the one who prays fervently that the bitter cup of public execution may somehow be taken away from him.
Yet there must be a reason why John gives us this other picture of Jesus, the one who shows no trace of fear. I think that reason has to do with Jesus’ sense of who he is and why he carries out his public ministry. John’s Gospel is careful from its very beginning to assure us that Jesus is God. The very first verse of the entire Gospel tells us that Jesus is with God and is God. John’s Gospel has what Biblical scholars call a “high Christology”: a Christ whose divinity is strongly emphasized, at times perhaps to a greater extent than his humanity.
John’s Jesus does experience human feelings: for example, he weeps upon the death of his close friend Lazarus. And in the days leading up to his Passion, Jesus alludes to being disturbed about what is to come. “My soul is troubled,” he tells his followers.
But after telling us Jesus feels troubled, John has Jesus continue: “And what should I say— ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason I have come to this hour.” Jesus knows that his ultimate destiny, the reason he has come into the world, is to fulfill the will of God, to bring salvation to the world by dying and being raised up again. As Jesus says earlier in the Gospel, when speaking with his fearful follower Nicodemus, “So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus’ single-minded focus on his destiny allows him to proceed toward it, to embrace it, without questioning or hesitation. This Jesus does not ask that the cup be taken from him, but instead simply says, “God, thy will be done.”
Once again, it is hard for me, as an anxious and fearful human being, to identify with this single-minded and fearless Jesus. He does not seem very much like me.
Yet perhaps John’s aim is not for us to identify Jesus with ourselves. Instead it is to see Jesus as someone greater than ourselves, as a goal to aspire to. We may not be able to face our destinies with as much courage and determination as Jesus does. But we may be able to echo in our hearts Jesus’ words: “God, thy will be done.”
Now it should be stated, there is nothing wrong or shameful about fear. Fear is a natural human emotion, one that all of us experience at different times and in different situations.
But what we do when we are fearful is important. When fear is allowed to run wild, it can lead to distorted thoughts that result in harmful actions. Fear can tear us away from God’s will and push us down a path of envy, greed, hatred and violence.
Think of those news stories I cited at the beginning of this sermon. Think what a powerful and tragic role fear plays in our world’s events: sending countries into war with each other, causing those with much wealth and power to steal from those who have little, pitting one people against another due to clashing political or religious ideologies.
Think what role fear plays in events on the more personal, intimate scale as well. Consider how fear leads people to fixate only on their own needs in relationships; how it results in selfishness and hardening of hearts; how it breeds distrust and hatred for anyone who is different, whether in race, belief or sexual identity.
When we are feeling fear, when events are pulling us down into anxiety and panic, what can we do? How can we keep doing right and avoid doing wrong?
A scene from the movie Selma gives us something to consider. In the scene it is late at night, and the Rev. Martin Luther King is troubled. He has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent activism and spiritual leadership in the struggle for full civil rights for African-Americans. Yet his work has taken an awful toll on his family, and he and his colleagues are in conflict over what steps to take next. To ease his troubled spirit, he places a phone call to the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and tells her, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.” And she begins to sing, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
When the Rev. King is besieged by doubts, he follows the example of John’s Jesus: he focuses on hearing God’s voice, on discerning God’s will, and then he carries it out. He marches on toward his destiny, refusing to be held back by fear.
On this Good Friday, it’s good for us to reflect: how is fear holding us back from God’s will? What fears must we overcome to be able to follow God’s path?
- Does our fear lead us to demonize others, to refuse to see the spirit of Jesus in those who do not share our race, our faith, our economic status or our sexual identity?
- Does our fear lead us to look for security in things of this world—power, possessions, substances, sex—rather than trusting in the eternal promise of God?
- Does our fear cause us to close in on ourselves, to become reluctant to share our time, our resources, our faith with others who may need it?
- If we are faced with need or loss—in relationships, employment, finances, physical or emotional health—does our fear cause us to give in to despair rather than holding fast to God’s ever-present care for us?
There may be times in our lives when we, like Jesus, will be faced with our own Good Fridays, with a trial or ordeal that seems too overwhelming to endure. Perhaps, like the Jesus of the other Gospels, we will wish the bitter cup will pass us by.
But then, perhaps we will remember and be inspired by the Jesus of John’s Gospel: the one who trusts completely in the saving power of God. Perhaps we can join that Jesus in believing whole-heartedly that the sufferings of Good Friday will be followed by the joyful glory of Easter.