Reflection on the Readings : Good Friday, 2013
Sacrifice, blood poured out, a broken body on a cross – the redemptive power of a life freely given. There’s a reason a lot of people avoid Good Friday services. They take us places many of us would prefer not to go. Many of us in the liberal/progressive church really struggle with these kinds of images and themes – or reject them outright. But that’s a hard thing to do, when the cross is the central symbol of our Christian faith. It’s hard to do, when our tradition clearly tells us that our Christ was crucified, and that his death has meaning for us.
Most of us in the North and West of the world are inheritors of the “sacrificial or penal substitution atonement” theory of the cross – the idea that because the penalty for grave sin is death, then someone must die in order to appease the justice of God. This idea comes out of the world-wide practice of sacrifices offered to deities – a practice by no means unique to Judaism. It seems to be engraved in the DNA of ancient humans that the giving of one life can change the life of another for the better: whether that is the life of a plant, an animal, or even a human being. If humanity has wronged God, then a sacrifice must be made to put us right – and that sacrifice, in this traditional understanding, was Jesus – a sacrifice freely chosen. “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, and with his stripes we are healed.” This idea is embedded in our hymns, our anthems, our prayers, and some of our readings for Good Friday. It’s pretty hard to avoid, frankly!
But there are other understandings of the significance of the cross – understandings even more ancient. St Paul himself said, not that Christ died for us, but that we are united with Christ in both his death and his rising. When we come into relationship with Christ, we share in that dying to sin and the power of death and evil, and we come alive again into a life grounded in the love of God, as well as the promise of life to come. To walk the path of life with Jesus is to continually participate in that dying and rising.
As far back as the 2nd or 3rd century, theologians focussed on the moral influence of Jesus: the influence of his life, his teachings, his martyrdom, and his resurrection, as a totality. In seeing the life of Jesus, we are confronted with all the broken and warped places in our own lives, and we are called by his example – even the example of his self-sacrifice – to follow him in all things, and to give our lives over to God, to be renewed and restored.
Whatever sense we will make for ourselves of this story – this tragic, frightening, yet life-changing story – this much is true: the cross was not a one-time only event. Every place the innocent suffer, every place injustice is done, every place human dignity is violated, there we find Christ again – and we are again confronted with the need to be transformed, the need to be changed, so that the world will change with us. And until it does – God weeps.