Good Friday Homily

Do you remember when Mel Gibson’s blockbuster epic, The Passion,first came out ten years ago? One publicity poster featured an image of Christ wearing a crown of thorns. and the caption that went with it read: Dying was his reason for living. Whether or not you saw it, I’m sure you know that the movie itself was about Christ’s supposed last hours, cobbled together from the various accounts in the gospels and other traditions. It was an incredibly violent and bloody depiction, typical of a Mel Gibson film.

Why are some people so obsessed with the death of Jesus? Dying was his reason for living. Really?

You have to understand that I oppose those strains of Christian theology that express more about guilt and shame than they do wholeness and empowerment. You know: Human beings—you—are so bad that Jesus had to die on the cross. The bloodier and more painful the death serves to underscore the depth of our depravity. We deserve all that beating, but Jesus took it for us…out of love. That is default Christianity across many denominations. I consider it spiritual abuse.

Jesus had a life before he died. The things he did and the things he said were provocative enough to put him on the wrong side of the authorities. From the stories that have been passed down to us, he was critical of the authorities. He was critical of the religious authorities and of the political authorities. That is what got him killed.

He challenged systems of power that took advantage of the marginalized: widows and orphans, the poor, and the outcast. He was on the side of people considered unclean and sinners by the status quo. He reached out to them in the name of God and touched them. That is what got him killed.

He was on the side of people who were oppressed by the economic policies of a corrupt religious system and an occupying military force. He created a movement to stop them. And it was threatening enough that those in power felt the need to stop him. Perhaps to make an example of him. That is what got him killed. 

Jesus is remembered for telling parables and stories that upset people because he said he was talking about “the kingdom of God.” That phrase means little to us today because we have tamed it. Most folks, thanks to the theologians, think it is just another phrase for heaven, a place the true believers go when they die. But in the mouth of Jesus it was a political statement. It was a social statement. It was a statement of hope and distributive justice. As opposed to the kingdom of Caesar, imagine what the kingdom of God is like. It wasn’t just a fantasy, a story. It was a movement. This is the kingdom to live for, to work for, perhaps even to die for. It is a kingdom of compassion and the redress of wrongs. In this kingdom, in this political economy, the hungry are filled with good things and those who oppress them are sent away empty. Here’s what you can do to make it so. That was Jesus’ message. Jesus was about making changes in this world. That is what got him killed.

He talked about compassion, feeling with, suffering with your neighbor. He talked about moving the definition of family beyond ethnic boundaries and divisions. He talked about forgiveness, given freely even to those who persecute you. Not something you go to the priest for or even to God for, but your neighbor. The neighbor is who we hurt, not God. The neighbor is the one from whom we need forgiveness. We get it as we give it. Jesus worked to bring people together: Samaritan and Jew, Greek and Roman. He practiced an open table, rich and poor, male and female. He challenged unjust boundaries and rules. That is what got him killed.

Dying was not his reason for living. Living was his reason for dying. For life, he died. For integrity, he died. For compassion, he died. For justice, he died. For change, he died. He was in the way. He was in the way of progress. He was in the way of Rome. He was in the way of the religious authorities who had sold out their people to Rome. He was killed as were many just like him.

Jesus was a victim of imperial terrorism. Not only Jesus, but thousands of people were tortured and executed methodically in a spectacle of brutality and control. There was and is nothing sacred and holy about the execution and torture of Jesus or of anyone.  If anything, remembering the death of Jesus should summon us to honor life not death. It should give us the courage and commitment to speak out and not remain silent in the face of torture, execution, violence, injustice, and needless suffering around the world.

The Easter acclamation, “Christ is Risen!” meant what to the early Church? I think it meant that they, the people, those who told and wrote the stories about Jesus had had enough. They had had enough of living in submission. They said, “Every time we gather for a meal of bread and wine we will remember. We are Christ’s body. Christ is alive with us. We will continue to remember and to resist. We will show hospitality to those who are victims of imperial terrorism, to the outcast, to the slave, to the stranger. We will lean on and support each other. We will remember and tell the stories of those who resisted before us. And we will dream, hope, and work for the day in which the kingdom of God, the empire of God, the empire of justice and peace will be realized on Earth.”

Obviously, Christianity evolved and moved in all kinds of directions and embraced many different mythologies and interpretations, and some of them are quite good and helpful. Others, like the theology fueling Gibson’s bloodbath epic, are not so. If we are to glory in the cross, as we will say in our liturgy in just a few minutes: let us do so not because it was a shameful instrument of torture, but because it is the ultimate example of love that is stronger than death. The earliest interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus is this: In Christ, the brutality of Empire is overcome by the justice of God. So it is important not to lose sight of our roots. The cross I venerate is a symbol that reminds me whose side I need to be on.

Jesus’ life was fast. He died before reaching forty. But his life burned with passion and fire. He burned out for compassion and justice. Apparently he believed that it is better to have burned out than never to have burned at all. Whenever any of us stands up for those who are oppressed or marginalized or who suffer injustice from bullies big and small, we practice true religion. We live in the example and spirit of Jesus. Only if today helps us to live a life that matters can we dare call it Good Friday. Amen.

Adapted from a sermon written by John Shuck of the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tennessee and posted online; April 6, 2012.