Good Friday Sermon: Participating in the Crucifixion and Denying our Discipleship

Text: John 18-19

At the Palm Sunday service this past Sunday, we read this same passion narrative, but from the book of Mark. There were a number of different readers throughout the congregation, each one speaking out as a different character in the story. It felt very real to me for some reason. I was moved, but I was also unsettled by it, especially when we were all asked to responsively say together, “Crucify him, Crucify him!”

Because everyone takes part in the crucifixion at some level. The Pharisees, Pilate, the disciples, the crowd… they’re all committing sins that, together, condemn Jesus. And Jesus in turn takes on those sins, and absorbs them fully, on the cross, rather than retaliating, and as Christians we believe that this is what allows us to be reconciled to God.

The thing about the sins in this story too though, is that they are more than just the sum of the act or acts committed by a few individuals. The sin that kills Jesus are evidence of deeper and more systemic problem with society. There is a kind of invisible quality to it that pervades the very social structures of civilization — as well as the minds of the people in the crowd. A herd mentality appears to take over them. Like Judas, they’re infected with a demonic spirit, for what else could possess them to build up such hatred and contempt for an innocent man in such a short period of time?

It’s true, you really can’t pinpoint systemic sin on any one person or group. We want to, so bad. We want it to be easy — throughout history, one group thinks the problems in the world are another group’s fault, so that justifies trying to kill them. I mean whose fault is it, really, that Jesus dies? Pilate’s? The crowd’s? Maybe most of all, the religious leaders, but they had a lot of help! And their fears that motivate them to plot against Jesus are brought about by many factors beyond their control, namely, a whole history of domination by foreign empires, and Jesus calls into the question their very security system — the Temple.

The cross means that we are all in the same situation regardless of our differences, because what happened on Good Friday is that when God personally met us as a human race, face to face, it was for practical purposes the unanimous decision of that representative company that he must be destroyed. — Lesslie Newbigin

There’s no flag-waving alongside the cross, in other words, by one group against another. We are all unmasked as enemies of God. At the same time, God also identifies with the victims who have themselves been crucified in history.

You know in our justice system today in the United States, before DNA evidence was allowed to be introduced into the courtroom, it’s been estimated that as many as one in nine people who were put to death in our country were innocent. And it’s by no means a perfect system now. But who’s fault is it that the system did this? Who gets blamed for that sin? Who gets to pay the price, when an innocent person already has? Or, as I think about crowd-led executions in our country’s history, how do you prosecute a lynching mob, for example? That’s what the religious leaders and Jewish crowd sounds like to me: a lynching mob.

A the Fourth Century Christian monk named Telemachus who sensed God’s call one day to venture into the city of Rome, taking a pilgrimage away from his life of prayer and solitude for a time to engage society. As he entered the city, Telemachus came upon one of the Roman Ampitheatres, the Colliseum, where the Gladiator games were being held. Horrified by what he witnessed, Telemachus proceeded to step into the arena himself, and tried to stop one of the fights. He pleaded with two of the soldiers, but angry voices eventually drowned Telemachus out and demanded that the spectacle continue. Finally, the order was given by the official of the games for Telemachus to be killed.

Tradition tells us that the crowds were so shocked and moved by Telemachus’ brave protest after the fact, that the games ended that day in silence, and soon after in the year 405, the Emperor put an end to the gladiator fights altogether.  The sobering lesson about Telemachus is that his life was worth much more after his death. See sometimes it takes the suffering or death of innocent person to expose the sin of society, to wake people up to the corruption of their deeds, and to enable their transformation. Telemachus bore the sins of the crowd that day, you might say, much as Jesus bore sins of Jerusalem on Good Friday.

Obviously, as Christians we know and believe that the death of Jesus is supremely significant. But on this Good Friday, if only today, and maybe tomorrow, on Holy Saturday, I invite you to stay in the story. Remain immersed in what the disciples must have felt, and Peter in particular. In John’s Gospel, unlike the other gospel accounts, it does not say that Peter denied knowing Jesus, or that Peter denied even being with Jesus — as he does in Mark, for example. What Peter denies in John, is being a disciple of Jesus…. It is probably fairly unlikely that any of us will soon be put in a situation of such great danger that confessing our faith would lead to our death. But you and I are in a position every day to affirm or deny your discipleship.

Jesus died because of his unwavering commitment to do the will of God, which is basically the essence of discipleship. Jesus died because God’s own nature and faithfulness was fully present and operative in him. Jesus died because he exposed the moral bankruptcy of all human kingdoms and revealed the hypocrisy of religious self-righteousness. And as Jesus died, he held up a mirror to all of our own deceitful, self-serving hearts. As Rachel Held Evans commented this week, “whatever you believe about Jesus, it’s clear that humanity gave him the very worst it had to offer, while he gave us the very best he had to offer.”

Now, despite appearances, I do not think this story is not intended to overwhelm us with guilt — though that is often what it’s used to do. It is intended to open our eyes though, not just to by allowing us to see our own sin in the sins of those in the story, but to open our eyes to the depths of God’s loving and relentlessly faithful character.

And The good news is that this story of Peter’s denial of his discipleship does not get the last word, and it’s not the last word in our life either. I don’t know what the crosses are in your life that God is calling you to bear, but I do know you’re not to fear them. Rather, you’re to be encouraged, for Christ has already born them ahead of you, and promises to always be there to bear them with you even now.