Good Friday – March 29, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9John 18:1-19:42

By Bruce G. Epperly

What are progressive Christians to do about Good Friday? How do we preach good news that transforms on a day whose purpose in many churches is to celebrate the shedding of blood and the necessity that Jesus die for our sins? I do not believe preaching or teaching is intended to deconstruct without providing a new constructive vision. But, what constructive theological vision can we affirm on Good Friday? If we just celebrate a toned down version of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” we might as well leap from Palm Sunday to Easter. In skipping over Good Friday, however, we evade the realities of suffering that are everyday experiences for some of our congregants as well as many people in the developing world.

As a process theologian, I take seriously Whitehead’s affirmation that the aim of the universe – God’s aim in the creative process – is toward bringing forth beauty. Still, there is real suffering and agony, and the reality of death, sometimes as a result of human decisions, natural events such as tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis, DNA, genetic flaws, and accidents of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Many people find comfort in the vision of a God who is control, whose sovereignty insures happy endings for the elect. But, to be in full control God must be the source of suffering as well as healing, agony as well as recovery. Good Friday challenges us to take the pain of the world, and our pain seriously. Episcopalian spiritual guide Alan Jones notes that spirituality deals with life’s unfixables, whether human-caused or due to our mortality, and Good Friday presents us with one of the most devastating of life’s unfixables – the reality of institutional violence and evil.

The problem with God being in control is not just God’s involvement in our suffering but also God’s disengagement from our pain. If God is the source of the most important negative and positive events or characteristics of our lives, often intended to test and deepen our faith, it is difficult to imagine God feeling regret for pain God has caused, especially to those who fail the tests.

In contrast, theology must take the suffering of God seriously and the reality that God may experience pain and struggle to overcome events that are to some degree outside of God’s control. Though God brings forth the galaxies, it seems as if God cannot thwart certain cancer cells, pulmonary embolisms, or cerebral hemorrhages. God’s powerlessness to defeat blood clots and cancer defies linear theologies, but this reality must be faced by honest theologians. The poet of the world must seek to achieve “tragic beauty” in difficult situations. God’s quest is to bring something of value out of life’s wreckage; but this tragic beauty must emerge not only in God’s experience but in the transformation of the world – this world – and, possibly, in the future transformation of our lives – in eternity. It is not enough for the child sold into sex industry to be redeemed in God’s personal vision of reality; she or he must experience transformation in her or his experience, and this is the primary argument, from my perspective, for personal identity and future growth beyond the grave. Still, any benefit we achieve in light of sufferings we experience cannot nullify the pain we or others are experiencing right now. On Good Friday, God and humanity must take defeat seriously because there is so much of it!

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 speaks of redemptive suffering and the image of a faithful sufferer bearing our sin. Yet, we must ask, is it God who crushes the suffering servant so that we might experience healing? Interpreted as it often is in light of the cross, the passage from Isaiah begs the questions: Is suffering God’s will? Must Jesus die to liberate us from our sins against the Creator? Sacrifice is part of the human story: as every parent and beloved knows, we often are forced to suffer, or give up important things, for the well-being of children, spouse, partner, or parents. But, these sacrifices reflect our choices and are acts of love and fidelity grounded in solidarity, empathy, and identification, not predetermined or ordained by a transcendent God.

The words of Psalm 22 beg the question, Where is God in our experiences of suffering and abandonment? We try to justify our sufferings, and take God off the hook, by asserting that suffering is part of God’s plan and all will be well in the end. Theologically and experientially this affirmation is unjustified. All is not always well – at the graveside, in traumatic experiences, and in agonizing deaths.

Psalm 22 is, as Walter Brueggeman asserts, a Psalm of disorientation. There is a scintilla of hope for a new orientation, but in this particular moment God’s presence and victory are equally uncertain. Why has God forsaken us? Where is God in my pain? When I hear the testimonies of others to God’s fidelity in tough times, cures of cancer, or gifts of prosperity, it fair to ask: “Why not me? Why wasn’t I delivered from the pain? Why wasn’t my child cured? Trouble is near. Is anyone here to help? Will God deliver us from our agony?”

The passage from Hebrews 4 affirms the solidarity of suffering that joins Jesus and ourselves. Jesus reveals God’s suffering with us and Gods’ ability to bring forth healing in life’s rawest moments. God’s initiative in addressing our pain is grounded in God’s empathetic embrace of creaturely pain. The divine pathos (Heschel) is made manifest in God’s apparent powerlessness to save Jesus. If Jesus was able to avoid the cross or call upon angelic forces, then why didn’t he? Why didn’t the Holy One provide a way out for Jesus? Perhaps, this is the case because divine power is always subject to the limitations created by human and non-human agents. God cannot fully control Pilate, the crowd, or the religious leaders. God had to live with their obliviousness to God’s vision of Shalom.

Surely Mel Gibson had sections of John 18 and 19 in mind when he produced “The Passion of the Christ.” John sees Jesus death as ambiguous: 1) God has ordained the Cross for our salvation and 2) the religious leaders, Pilate, and the crowd are choosing to murder Jesus. Jesus dies a heinous, and avoidable death. The crowd and leaders could have let go of their hatred of Jesus. They are real agents and not puppets. Still, can we affirm that in this tragic event, God is still working to bring about redemption, moving within events God did not choose or control to bring about our healing?

An important side note: John’s gospel often uses the blanket word “the Jews” to describe those who call for Jesus’ crucifixion. I suggest that the preacher amend scripture to read “the Jewish crowd,” “certain Jewish people,” or “certain Jewish leaders.” Given Christian-Jewish relationships, our language must never stereotype the Jews or identify them as evil; frankly, we are no different. Our institutions still destroy people and promote self-interest rather than care for the whole and the most vulnerable.

We may still feel ambivalent about Good Friday and wonder if anything can come from our Good Friday services. We still may feel uncertain how we can preach good news in the context of the Good Friday lectionary readings. Perhaps, the tragedy of Good Friday can be addressed and healed by recognizing that God is with us, that God also must deal with limitations, and that God seeks wholeness in life’s most tragic events.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty four books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He recently served as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  Contact him by email for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).