“Jesus did not blame them,
nor does he blame us.”
A sermon for Good Friday
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
Friday, April 19, 2019
Celebrant We glory in your cross, O Lord,
People and praise and glorify your holy resurrection; for by virtue of
your cross joy has come to the whole world.
When I was a graduate student in early modern European history at Fordham, I recall with surprise a comment from one of my professors: “The kind of history we write all depends on what kind of eye glasses we wear when doing the research.” Until that moment, I had a kind of “naïf” view of history. I thought that it was just a matter of doing honest research, allowing all the “facts” to be uncovered and then trying to weave the information together in some interesting way.
It had not occurred to me that the “axis of analysis,” as I came to learn the “eye glasses” for historians is called, determines which “facts” we “see” when we do research. For instance, we were told that “good history” would always include an analysis of at least gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, power structures, and faith. And, there are ways to find those things—one must learn how to “look for” what is not visible at first glance. An analogy, which I came to treasure, is that of the diamond. It has many facets. To tell the “true” story of the diamond, each of those facets have to be taken into account.
Later, I came to realize that the same tools which are useful in history are also useful in theology-and in faith in general. This evening, I would like to ask you to join me in a new exploration of the “good news” of Good Friday.
The call and response which I chose to use at the beginning of the sermon this evening—from the revised version of our Book of Occasional Services—is a paradoxical one. The same conflicting ideas are born out in the very language which we use to describe this day. “Good Friday.” One might well be tempted to ask, “What is good about it?” And what about this day would lead us to adore and bless the very one crucified?
One of the dangers of fundamentalism is that in making the Crucifixion the exclusive focus of faith, everything else becomes distorted. For instance, if Holy Week had ended with this Good Friday, there would not be much reason for hope. It would be a day full of only sadness, fear and distress. It would be a day of escalating tragedy in which events just horribly spun out of control and kept getting worse and worse. It would be a day of disappointment, abandonment, torture and humiliation. It would be a day in which evil, injustice and oppression had triumphed. What a sad day, indeed. And yet, as our scriptures remind us, that is precisely the kind of day which those who “have no hope” experience daily. That is very sad!
In our tradition, though, we celebrate the Sacred Tridiuum—three days in which the mystery of the Passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ form a single reality. So, as important as this day is, we do not stop here. We march on in faith and in hope towards the Resurrection. It is the Resurrection—and not just the events of Good Friday which is the cornerstone on which our faith rests. It is the Resurrection which is the ultimate Good News.
At the same time, it is essential that we experience each of these days fully. Today is Good Friday and not Easter Sunday. So, we are challenged to enter into the reality of this day. Previously, I shared with you an invitation to allow each of these days to unfold in our own lives—as they did in the lives of Our Lord and his friends. To take us by surprise. That is what I would like for us to reflect on this night.
We often fail to really “see” what is going on at the Crucifixion. There is so much action, so many things happening that it all becomes a kind of blur to us. There are so many details that we can easily lose focus on what is most important. There is, though, another danger. If we allow pre-conceived notions to blind us, we may not be able to notice what is really happening. To put it bluntly, we have spent so much time looking for someone to blame that we have failed to really “see” what took place.
As you are no doubt aware, tonight is also the First night of Passover. It was a feast of freedom and hope which Jesus, his family, and friends would have celebrated each year. Sadly, it has become a day which was marred over many centuries by acts of cruelty and violence by Christians against our Jewish Sisters and Brothers. That is a fact which we must acknowledge—to our regret and shame. Although there are many causes for this bizarre behavior, one of the primary reasons seems to have been that Christians in earlier times blamed all Jews for the death of Jesus. They left Church on Good Friday and attacked the Jewish ghetto crying out for death to the “Christ-killers.” This was among the very darkest moments in Christian history. That claim of “blood libel” and “deicide” against those of the Jewish faith led to horrible atrocities and may well be at the root of the persistent evil and sin of anti-Semitism in Western Christianity.
In short, the propaganda suggested that the Crucifixion of Jesus was the worst thing which had ever happened in human history! The Son of God was humiliated, tortured and abused. He died alone, abandoned and forgotten on a cross outside of Jerusalem. It was an unforgivable sin, and someone—whoever it was that was responsible—must pay the ultimate price for this horror.
This is a very human way of thinking—and a way which does not represent the best of humanity. In it there is a need for someone to be hurt, to suffer, to experience—in retribution—all the things that Jesus did. It is the logical progression of “lex talonis,” or “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” It cries out for someone to blame—to be punished. This irrational thinking has nothing to with the Faith of Israel or with the Faith of Jesus!
- There are, of course so many people who could have been blamed:
- The riled-up mob, which cried for Jesus’ death. Jesus did not blame them.
- Annas and Caiaphas—the spiritual leaders in Jerusalem. Jesus did not blame them.
- The Sanhedrin. Jesus did not blame them.
- King Herod. Jesus did not blame him.
- The Apostles who got scared and ran away. Jesus did not blame them.
- Peter, who denied Jesus three times. Jesus did not blame him.
- Judas Iscariot who conspired against Jesus and caused his arrest. Jesus did not blame him.
- Pontius Pilate—the only one with the power of life and death. Jesus did not blame him.
- God, who could have stopped the Passion at any moment. Jesus did not blame God.
In fact, Jesus did not blame anyone! Jesus forgave everyone! What beautiful and compassionate words, “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus was not about playing the blame game. And, even, in his pain and sorrow and agony, he chose to love, to forgive, to heal and to reconcile. He chose love over hate and forgiveness over claims for justice or retribution. Now that is good news!
Why then was Jesus crucified? I suspect that this is one of those questions which everyone will have to answer for herself or himself. After long prayer and reflection, I have come to this understanding. God did not cause, intend or want Jesus’ death. Jesus was more than some sacrificial lamb who had to die to atone for the mistakes of Adam and Eve. Jesus’ death was not necessary to appease an offended God or to pay the price for the sins of fallen humanity.
A reflection on Facebook by a “Southern Pastor’ recently phrased this well:
- Jesus died on the cross because he offended those in power.
- Jesus died on a cross because he challenged the status quo.
- Jesus died on a cross because love would not sit silently by as those who had little were being stepped on, used, and abused by those who had so very much.
- “Why did Jesus die on a cross?”
- Jesus died on a cross to show us what love looks like in action.
The answer that I find in the story of Jesus’ passion, is that we humans nailed Jesus to the Cross—all of us. Why?
- Because we were afraid of the message that Jesus proclaimed.
- Because Jesus threatened our safe and secure faith.
- Because Jesus said that we must love the poor and needy.
- Because Jesus said that we could have no part in violence, racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and blaming and still be his followers.
- Because Jesus said that we had to love and care for everyone.
- Because Jesus said that we would have to change and grow to fully enter into God’s realm—in a word, conversion.
- Because Jesus refused to exclude, shame, or condemn anyone.
- Because Jesus taught that true leadership is found in loving service.
- Because Jesus put his words into action and modeled what he preached—showing us that it is possible to live the life he spoke of.
- For all these reasons and a million more, we nailed Jesus to the tree.
- Because we did not understand Jesus and because we did not know what we were doing!
Now here is the miracle! Jesus’ loving Abba did not strike us dead, or curse us, or punish us for what we had done to God’s beloved child! God accepted our sacrifice and transformed it. He raised Jesus from the death which we imposed on him. And, he offered us—as he had already done so many, many times in the past—the possibility of a new beginning. God offers us the fullness of life: physical, mental, and spiritual—now and always. God’s unconditional love will not be limited by human frailty, fear and sin. God does not blame us. Just the opposite—God loves us and wants only what is good for us. Now that is good news!
At our recent Bicentennial Quiet Day, Mother Barbara Crafton shared a powerful insight. “It is not that Jesus’ death was worse than the death of anyone else. The important thing is that Jesus’ death was our death.” It is true that there are even worse forms of death than Crucifixion. But what is also true is that God knows what it means to live fully—and totally—as one of us. God also knows what it means to suffer our death. As St. Paul tells us, “in Baptism, we have died with Christ—we also rise with him to newness of life.” We gave death; God gives life!
It is also important to remember that Jesus was not abandoned or alone in his Passion. His mother, the Beloved disciple, and some other women were present to him and ministered to him when he was most vulnerable and afraid. Not everyone ran away! A few loved Jesus so much that no power on earth would have kept them away from him. The arms that held him as a baby in that manger in Bethlehem now held his lifeless body as it was taken down from the cross. As that beautiful hymn, Stabat Mater Dolorosa reminds us, “She beheld her tender Child, saw Him hang in desolation, till His spirit forth He sent.”
Make no mistake. Jesus died and was buried. We do not have to be afraid and run away anymore. Fear is useless. What is needed is trust!
Even on that altar of the cross, Jesus blessed us with healing, forgiving, and reconciling love. From his wounded side flowed water and blood. The healing waters of new life—of Baptism. And the blood of his abiding sacramental presence with us: “The blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation. The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.”
What can we take away from this? God loves us totally, completely, and unconditionally. Jesus proved that love in laying down his life at our demand. Just as Jesus gave himself over to our death, he invites us to take up his life.
There is a beautiful hymn by Nancy Honeytree which expresses the promise of Good Friday so well, “Live for Jesus. That’s what matters. And when other houses crumble mine is strong. Live for Jesus. That’s what matters. That you see the light in me and come along.”
Jesus does not blame us! Let us be done with blame and guilt! Let us learn to truly live—in Jesus’ resurrected life—as members of God’s beloved community.