On Good Friday, we remember Jesus' persecution, torture, and death at the hands of the Roman military occupiers of Jerusalem. I choose my words carefully here: I do not want us to look away from the human experience of the man Jesus of Nazareth. We also ought not forget that we too live in a security state committed to the use of violence to guarantee its own stability.
We hear often, rightly, that Jesus died in order that we might have forgiveness for our sins. Paul writes,
Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person some might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from from the wrath of God.
Likewise, the Book of Common Prayer says,
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us…from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.
We have heard it said many times. Jesus hung on the cross to accept the punishment for our sins so that we may live faithful and penitent lives.
There is a great danger in thinking this way. For one thing, it is an idea not supported by the gospels. Though all the gospels depict Jesus as subject to the power of sin on Good Friday, neither Matthew, Mark, Luke or John ever identify the cause of Jesus' death as paying the costs of sin in our place. The closest we come to that view is in Luke, where one thief "derides" Jesus and the other responds,
We indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.
But this is to say that Jesus is innocent, which is not the same at all as saying that he died because you and I have sinned. Of all the evangelists, John is the most explicit in laying out the reasons for Jesus' death. He shows us a Jesus who is fully in command of the situation around him, in order that he might testify to the truth, and in order that he might establish a new kind of unity between himself and his followers. In the gospel of John, just before Jesus is arrested, he concludes his night of prayer for his disciples by saying,
*Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these [disciples] know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.
Jesus and Pilate engage in a long back-and-forth over his true nature and just who has the power in this situation, with Jesus saying at one point,
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
And on the cross, we hear no words of forgiveness, nothing at all about the sinful nature of humanity. Instead, Jesus sees his mother among the crowd gathered around, and he commends her into the care of the beloved disciple. This is more than simply Jesus making sure that his mother will be cared for after his death. In giving his mother to the disciple and he to her, Jesus forges a new kind of family, one in which the love with which God the Father has loved Jesus will now be in the disciples, and in their successors, the church. In that love of God that they—we—share with one another, Jesus lives on, triumphing over all the powers of darkness that would obscure the truth of God's love.
The danger of saying that Jesus died in punishment for our sins is that it obscures this truth. Jesus dies for us, but he also dies with us. This is the truth to which he testifies and the truth that we re-present at every mass: that Jesus dies in solidarity with our suffering and death.
With every child who dies, Jesus dies.
With every person who starves, Jesus dies.
With every person tortured and executed, Jesus dies.
With every woman raped and murdered, Jesus dies.
With every soldier killed in combat, Jesus dies.
With every junkie who overdoses, Jesus dies.
With every gay man, lesbian, or transgender person killed by fear, bigotry, and hatred, Jesus dies.
With every suicide, Jesus dies.
With every last one of us who dies, whether alone and afraid or surrounded by family and friends and full of days, Jesus dies. He dies with those taken by heart attacks, Alzheimer's disease, and cancer and with all those lost to violence. He dies with the just and the unjust, with those on the margins of our society and those at its center. He dies with us because God loves us and wants us to love one another.
Jesus dies for us, and with us, and if we are honest, the truth is that he dies against us as well.
Though we are of the light, we are surrounded by the darkness, and as Peter was drawn to the fire in the courtyard, so we are tempted to trust in the artificial light of the world than in the true light of God. Like Peter, we are tempted break our relationships. We are tempted to deny the truth of who we are and to whom we belong.
Like Pilate, we mistake the power of empire to impose order for safety.
Like "the Jews," we believe that ridding ourselves of troublemakers and those different from us will bring us peace.
And like Judas, we fall for the lure of easy money. You and I benefit from the injustice of the world. Our food and our shelter and our cars come about through the exploitation of earth's natural resources and by denying them to people in other, poorer, parts of the world. Our clothes are made by people paid next to nothing in places like Bangladesh, Guatemala, and El Salvador. We enjoy the security of American military might, and its vast espionage system.
All of this is not meant to be a rallying cry to a particular vision of justice, but to point out a simple, uncomfortable truth: we sustain ourselves through unfairness, injustice, and violence. In doing so, we become complicit in the sins of the world. We could choose to live otherwise, but to do so would be difficult, very difficult, harder than most of us have strength or courage for. So we take part in sin.
But more than that: we become sin. We become the death that haunts us. And so against us Jesus must die that we might live. Jesus came into the world to testify to the truth: that God is love, and so we ought to love one another. His death on the cross stands as judgment of our failure to do so.
And the judgment is this: we wait.
We have heard it said many times that Jesus will rise from the tomb on Easter morning. We have heard it said many times that he will return in glory to judge the living and the dead and to give life everlasting to those who trust in him.
These are the promises of God given to us, and we acclaim them as the truth. But the awful judgment upon us and upon our sins is that we must await their fulfillment. On Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the world holds its collective breath and a hush falls over the church as the faithful people of God pray for the return of the light. We ache and we yearn to hear the words of Jesus again: "Peace be with you."