Spinning the Story:
The Politics of Good Friday
[John 19:17-27] So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.
Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
“They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”
And that is what the soldiers did.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”
And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
He wasn't even dead yet and they were trying to rewrite his life. At the foot of the cross where he hung in agony, they argued about what the sign above his head should say.
"Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' said the chief priests – write 'This man said, I am King of the Jews" and Pilate replied "What I have written I have written."
It may be what Pilate wrote but it wasn't what Jesus said – is it? When he interrogated Jesus, Pilate started out by asking directly “Are you the King of the Jews?” and then – like a first century version of a frustrated prosecuting attorney –after coming at the question from several different angles he had to settle for Jesus' non-responsive response, "You say that I am a king."
Pilate said it – but Jesus didn't. The Jesus who hung dying on the cross while political leaders tried to spin his story to their advantage had nothing to do with the trappings of kingship or with earthly power or political authority – with revenge or with judgment. Instead, the ministry of the radical rabbi from Nazareth had everything to do with wholeness, with restoring creation to the fullness of the peace and justice; the truth and love that God intended – with challenging those who followed him to the high calling of loving their neighbors as themselves.
Quite a challenge, that: a challenge that required turning virtually everything the world says about life and death -- about power and control -- upside down. It's a challenge to stay "upside down" when the world around you is pointing in the opposite direction. And so it wasn't very long after the joy of Easter and the empowerment of Pentecost that the ways of the world started to leak back into the infant church.
It wasn't very long before others stepped in where Pilate and the chief priests had left off and began to "spin the story" to preserve the power of a developing institutional church rather than to empower the propagation of incarnational love. A vestige of that "spinning the story" can be found in the creeds we inherit … creeds that emerged from the early church councils having reduced Jesus' life and witness to a footnote: creeds that skip from "born of the Virgin Mary" to "suffered under Pontius Pilate" leaving an awful lot of walking in love as Christ loved us on the cutting room floor!
Verna Dozier in her wonderful book "The Dream of God" describes it thus: "The people of the resurrection made the incomprehensible gift of grace into a structure. [Rejecting] the frighteningly free gift of God go be a new thing in the world – a witness that all of life could be different for everybody – this gift was harnessed by an institution that established a hierarchy of those who "know" above the great mass of those who must be told." [pg. 4]
And so -- for generations -- those of us who "must be told" were told all kinds of things about what Jesus' life and death and resurrection meant. And a great many of them bore little or no resemblance to the actual life and witness of the one the church claims to follow – of the Jesus …
· who put table fellowship at the center of his life,
· who ate with outcasts,
· who welcomed sinners,
· who proclaimed the year of the Lord's favor,
· who was so centered in God's abundant love that he was willing to speak truth to power from that first sermon that almost got him thrown off the cliff by his irate Nazarene homies to his last cross-examination by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.
Instead we were given doctrines we were supposed to digest and not delve into, creeds we were supposed to recite and not question, Scriptures we were supposed to memorize and not contextualize. And the Good Friday story we were supposed to get in line behind is outlined by a colleague as: "Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and he's going to come down and beat you up if you don't pay him back."
And then they wondered why they were having trouble growing the church! The stumbling block for so many has nothing to do with the good news of God in Christ Jesus and everything to do with the disconnect between the stories Jesus told of a loving God calling the whole human family into relationship with God and with each other and the story the church was telling of an angry God demanding blood sacrifice as the price of relationship with him. And it was definitely a "him." And on it goes.
For just as Pilate and the chief priests argued at the foot of the cross on that first Good Friday over who got to "spin the story" of Jesus' life there is a gathering this Good Friday at the foot of the cross arguing over who gets to "spin the story" of Jesus' death. There are those insisting that there is only one way – their way – of understanding how it is that "Jesus Saves" – only one way of defining what is good about Good Friday.
And there are others pushing back – saying "wait a minute" – revisiting ancient texts and reclaiming ancient truths and coming to very different understandings about the mystery of the "goodness" of this Good Friday – understandings of how the death on the cross of the radical rabbi from Nazareth liberated the world – freeing it from the fear of death and offering to it the gift of eternal life.
And in what can best be described as a most interesting spirit of synchronicity, there has recently been quite a remarkable surge of discourse and dialogue about these matters sparked at least in part by Jeffrey John, the Dean of St. Alban's Cathedral, who offered a "Lenten Message" on BBC radio in which he shared his own journey with the cross.
The instinctive feeling that suffering must be a punishment sent from God seems to lie deep in the human soul - or it does in mine anyway. In my case it may have something to do with the fact that I was brought up in a tradition …which took a pretty firm line on sin and retribution.
The explanation I was given went something like this. God was very angry with us for our sins, and because he is a just God, our sin had to be punished. But instead of punishing us he sent his Son, Jesus, as a substitute to suffer and die in our place. The blood of Jesus paid the price of our sins, and because of him God stopped being angry with us. In other words, Jesus took the rap, and we got forgiven, provided we said we believed in him.
Well, I don't know about you, but even at the age of ten I thought this explanation was pretty repulsive as well as nonsensical. What sort of God was this, getting so angry with the world and the people he created, and then, to calm himself down, demanding the blood of his own Son? And anyway, why should God forgive us through punishing somebody else? It was worse than illogical, it was insane. It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this we'd say they were a monster.
Well, I haven't changed my mind since. That explanation of the cross just doesn't work, though sadly it's one that's still all too often preached. It just doesn't make sense to talk about a nice Jesus down here, placating the wrath of a nasty, angry Father God in heaven. Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate. As he said, 'Whoever sees me has seen the Father'. Jesus is what God is: he is the one who shows us God's nature. And the most basic truth about God's nature is that He is Love, not wrath and punishment.
Hardly radical stuff to those accustomed to sermons from this pulpit, but Dean John's willingness to challenge so directly this particular "spin" of the salvation story as contrary to a whole list of things drew lots of attention – including an across-the-pond attack by two evangelical bishops decrying John's theology (while admitting they hadn't actually read his talk yet) and accusations by self-described orthodox Anglicans of abandoning the foundations of the faith.
Never mind that substitutionary atonement – that's seminary lingo for the issue Dean John is addressing – is not and has never been a "doctrine" of the church. As Dan Martins, a priest in the Diocese of San Joaquin and a significant conservative voice in the Episcopal Church clarified "... there are other equally biblical and equally plausible theories of the atonement, and to the extent that this may be Dean John's point, then he indeed has a point. As C. S. Lewis wisely observes in his classic Mere Christianity, none of the possible theories can alone account for the mystery of the cross, and none have ever been declared official dogma by the Church." It is a theory – one among many – and it makes as much sense to insist that we have to "believe in a theory" in order to be saved as it does to insist that we have to "comply with a report" in order to be in communion with each other.
So when I read this morning that one bishop declared "the truth that Jesus died as our sin-bearing substitute carrying the punishment for our sins on the cross is the glorious heart of the Gospel" I was right back at the foot of the cross with Pilate and the chief priests arguing about what kind of king was this man who never said he was a king.
And I am convinced that if we were able to ask Jesus the question "Are you our sin-bearing substitute carrying the punishment for our sins on the cross?" his answer to us would be the same as it was to Pilate: "You say that I am."
All of this inspired our friend Giles Fraser, vicar of Putney, to write: "Easter is a time for stringing up the innocent. And this year, once again, the sacrificial victim is the dean of St Albans, Dr Jeffrey John. Of course, we all know the reason… [it's] because he’s honest. And it’s this same honesty that has got him in trouble again. For, once again, what he has been saying is nothing other than a truth known by most people in the pews: that the idea of God murdering his son for the salvation of the world is barbaric and morally indefensible. It turns Christianity into “cosmic child abuse.”
And it spins the story into something the institutional church has used for far too long avoid what Verna Dozier names as its high calling: to claim the frighteningly free gift of God go be a new thing in the world – a witness that all of life could be different for everybody.
That is the witness we have to offer the world – the witness we call turning the human race into the human family. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with swallowing morally indefensible theories of blood sacrifice and everything to do with living morally accountable lives of service and self-offering. It has to do with what Frederick Buechner names as "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need." It has to do with being the Body of Christ in the world -- it has to do with these words to the hymn we sing as one our presentation hymns on Sundays:
A world in need now summons us
To labor, love and give;
To make our life an offering
To all that all may live.
The church of Christ is calling us
To make the dream come true;
A world redeemed by Christ-like love
All life in Christ made new.
All life in Christ made new is the Easter promise we claim even as we stand at this moment at the foot of the Good Friday cross – a cross which Jeffrey John describes in this way: On the cross God absorbs into himself our falleness and its consequences and offers us a new relationship. … From Good Friday on, God is no longer "God up there", inscrutably allotting rewards and retributions. On the Cross, even more than in the crib, he is Immanuel, God down here, God with us.
God is with us – and that is good news: on this Good Friday and always. Amen.