Sermon for Good Friday, April 14, 2017 || The Passion according to John
The story of Jesus’ Passion, which I just read, overwhelms me. Truly. After reading it aloud, I feel like I’ve hiked a mountain. The beauty and grief of the Passion takes my breath away. Because the Passion overwhelms me, I find that when I sit down to write sermons about it, I must focus on a single moment in it: one detail that can help tell the story as a whole. They say the devil is in the details, but when it comes to the Gospel, the divine is in the details instead.
The detail that caught my eye this year comes at the very end of the narrative directly after Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit. The detail is a simple marker of time: “Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity.”
Since it was the day of Preparation. Preparation for what? For the Passover, for the great commemoration of God’s liberation of Moses and the Israelites from slavery in the land of Egypt. Nine plagues had come and gone and only the last and most devastating plague was still to come, the death of the firstborn. During Moses’ infancy, Pharaoh tried to control the Israelite population by killing male offspring as they were birthed. The tenth plague mirrored this terrible act, and one night the firstborn sons of the Egyptians perished. But the sons of the Israelites were spared. The hand of death passed over their houses because of the blood they painted on their doorways.
The blood with which the Israelites adorned their doorways came from lambs they sacrificed. In the years following the original Passover event, the Israelites remembered God’s saving act by performing the sacrifice again. The day they killed and cooked the lamb was called the day of Preparation. This is the day the Gospel sets for Jesus’ crucifixion. And just in case we might miss the subtle nuance, at the outset of the Gospel – way back in Chapter One – John the Baptist twice calls Jesus the “Lamb of God.”
Do you see the connection? By setting the crucifixion on the day of Preparation, the Gospel invites us to see Jesus’ sacrifice as a new liberation from slavery.
The interplay between freedom and captivity threads through the Passion narrative. Jesus has every opportunity to escape captivity. His power throws his would-be captors to the ground when they try to arrest him; but then he goes with them willingly. Indeed, he’s concerned only that they will let his friends go free. His captors bind him and take him to the high priests, and Jesus says nothing to aid his case. Instead he stubbornly remains a captive, even when his opponents send him to the governor’s mansion for further examination.
But Jesus does not need to be set free because he is free already. He might be bound by the Roman authorities, but still he reigns in his own domain, the realm of truth. He says as much to Pontius Pilate, who counters with the famous question, “What is truth?” We know the answer. We know the answer from reading the Gospel. The answer is Jesus himself. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” And lest we get too far from the idea of freedom and captivity, remember Jesus also says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
After their exchange, Pontius Pilate tries to release him, as is the custom at the Passover. In a mockery of the first Passover (when all the Israelites found freedom), the Romans set free a single person to remind the Israelites who was really in control. But Pilate’s scheme fails; Jesus opponents demand someone else. Later when Jesus is once again in Pilate’s presence, the Roman governor cries out in frustration: “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Pilate keeps trying to release Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t budge.
Jesus doesn’t budge because Jesus knows his role. John the Baptist gave it to him back in the first chapter. Jesus is the Lamb of God, whose blood saves us from the power of death. Jesus is the Passover sacrifice, the prelude to the end of slavery, to all that binds us to that which does not lead to life. Jesus endures the flogging and insults. He carries that cross by himself to Golgotha. He lets the soldiers nail him to its wood.
At so many points during his Passion, Jesus could have gotten away, fled, run off, skedaddled. But he never does.
He remains a captive to set us free.
Art: Detail from “The Crucifixion of Christ” by Tintoretto