Good Friday: Were you there? | Jeff Nowers | April 19, 2019
The words of the old spiritual ask a haunting question of all of us: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Today is a day that gives us pause. We’re troubled when we consider that Jesus was arrested and put on trial, which resulted in a conviction of treason. Jesus was given the death penalty. Crucifixion was the electric chair of his day. The major difference, of course, is that those executed by the electric chair die relatively quickly. Crucifixion is a long, humiliating, tortured death, dragging on for hours.
What of that question posed to each of us by the spiritual: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? On one level, the answer is simple. No, none of us was there because the event occurred 2,000 years ago. But that’s not really the point. Were you there? is a question that goes to the heart of our Christian commitment. If a Christian is someone who imitates Jesus, who strives to pattern his or her life after Jesus’ life, how far are we willing to go in this? Half-way, most of the way, or all the way to the gallows? Good Friday is a stark reminder that even Jesus’ most devoted followers and ardent defenders abandoned him. They weren’t ready to die with him. In the crucifixion narrative just read, you’ll have noticed that some of Jesus’ followers appear by name at various points in the story: Judas, Peter, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Each of them gave up on Jesus in different ways. I’d like to invite us to reflect on how our lives and the struggles of our commitment to following Jesus might be mirrored in these four figures.
The first name we encounter is Judas. He’s mentioned first because he was the first one to give up on Jesus, and he did that intentionally. He gave up on Jesus rather quickly because of the lure of money. He knew that Jesus was a wanted man, so he used his connections to orchestrate a betrayal of the worst kind. In exchange for a few shekels, Judas led a band of religious and political leaders straight to where Jesus had gathered with his closest followers. And Judas never comes back into the picture. He took his money and ran. Judas represents the sort of lukewarm Jesus-follower who is a looking for a way out. There are those who would call themselves Christians but are nonetheless guided by the almighty dollar in whatever they do. Their baptismal promises are forgotten or ignored or perhaps relativized. Patterning their lives after Jesus, which is what baptism marks us for, is superseded by the lure of wealth. And when Jesus gets in the way of the reckless pursuit of money, it’s Jesus who is kicked aside.
The next follower we meet is Peter. He is that impulsive and misguided pilgrim. Peter imagined that Jesus was somehow going to seize political power and transform Israel to its former glory. Jesus had already tried to explain to his followers that such a scenario wasn’t going to play out. But Peter either didn’t understand, or he refused to accept it. So when he sensed that his own messianic vision was threatened by the impending arrest of Jesus, Peter took matters into his own hands. He pulled out his sword to wage war. The first casualty was the high priest’s servant, who lost his right ear to Peter’s attack. Jesus won’t allow Peter to defend him violently. He instructs Peter to put his sword back into its sheath.
Peter represents many of us who think we have a pretty clear idea of what Jesus is all about. But when our convictions are upended, we find ourselves on unstable ground. Have you ever come to a fork in the road on your faith journey where you think: I thought for the longest time that Jesus was about this, and now all of that is turned upside down. Peter, who was once so certain, is now very uncertain. And he’s incredibly afraid—because he doesn’t want to die with Jesus, despite having heard Jesus say, “Whoever loses his or her life for my sake will save it.” So Peter continues to follow Jesus, but only from behind at a distance, attempting to go incognito. When he’s found out, he bails. He denies any association with Jesus—and he feels sick about it. Following Jesus is not so hard when we think we know everything. But when we’re confronted with the realization that we’re off the mark, that what we believe about Jesus isn’t so clear and obvious, that’s when the Christian journey becomes challenging and humbling. Peter’s response, if we’re honest, is what we might be inclined to do as well: to hang around Jesus at the back of the pack, incognito, but then to give up on him when the going gets rough.
The third and fourth names we meet appear together at the end of the crucifixion narrative: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. We’re told that these two were overcome by fear of the religious and political authorities. They wanted to be disciples of Jesus, but fear got in the way. So they followed Jesus “in secret.” They stuck their necks out only after the fact, only after Jesus had died, to carry away his body and give it a respectable burial. But they missed out on the incredible experience that Peter and the other closest followers had, including even Judas, who walked and talked with Jesus, observing the fullness of his life. Joseph and Nicodemus represent those who don’t want to be known visibly as Christians, for fear of what might happen. Now, in some places of the world, that is a very legitimate and justifiable fear. But here in Canada, should we be afraid to identify as followers of Jesus? Do we fear having to explain our faith to others who may be curious about it? Do we fear that we’re not equipped to talk about our faith? Do we fear ridicule from those who view the church with disdain? Being guided by such fears, becoming closeted Christians, means that we lose out on the real adventure of following the Way of Jesus with others struggling to do the same. That’s why we gather together, like we’ve done today, to pray together, to reflect together, to learn together, to walk together, and to grow together.
Each of these four figures—Judas, Peter, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus—gave up on Jesus in different ways. Whether it was the lure of wealth, or confusion and uncertainty, or fear of reprisals, they weren’t around when Jesus died. So too with us: sometimes we must confess that we have abandoned Jesus—whether because of uncertainties, disappointments or fears, or temptations that drive us away. But today, at the very least, we can all say that we are here. We have heard the story of Jesus’ trial and brutal death. Following the Way of Jesus takes us to this uncomfortable point, which we cannot avoid. His death, and our death, is part of the journey. Even from the cross, that instrument of tortuous execution, Jesus invites us—lovingly and patiently—to return and follow him, even if it means entering the darkness of death forced upon us. For it is only in passing through that darkness that we are brought to the light of Easter and new life. That’s why the story cannot end today. It doesn’t end with today. The reality of Easter means our mourning can be turned into dancing.