Call to Worship:
We gather here in the shadow of the cross.
This can be a grey and chilling place.
We do not like to be this close to the mystery of death.
May we have the courage to dwell long enough to see
that God is alive, and at work, even here.
Let us open ourselves to God’s warmth and light.
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Good Friday Zoom Theatre: A dramatic telling of the story of Jesus’ Passion
Video: “Take me instead” (from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)
Learning Time: The Good Friday story
In the early part of Lent I was stopping in every day at a Long Term Care facility, to visit with a woman in palliative care. That meant being screened, signing in, donning a gown, and gloves, a mask, and a PPE visor. It gave me a real insight into how it has been for our front line workers. I only did it for maybe an hour each day- I know that some folks spend their whole day like that.
I went in each day to offer the woman who was actively dying a blessing, because the family let me know that the church had been an important part of her life. I was there for her, but also wanted to check in with this woman’s family, who were doing the very difficult, and important work of sitting with her, as she moved towards the transition from earthly life, through physical death, and on to life in the spirit with God.
The woman’s medical and physical needs were being met, and everything possible was done to make sure she was comfortable, and not in pain, as she lay there dying.
It was only a few months ago that my father-in-law Keith lay dying, in a similar bed, in a similar room, in another long term care facility. He also received excellent care, and his family stepped up, and we took turns sitting with him.
When we love someone, and they are ill, or in terrible pain, or their life is at risk, there is that part of us, that voice within that would like to negotiate with God, the universe, the illness, whoever or whatever holds the power of life and death, and trade our life, our pain and suffering, our health, for that of our loved one.
It’s a bargain we’d be willing to make, if things worked that way. We would trade places, to save them the pain and suffering. It’s a powerful wish, and a clear statement of love. In most cases, in real life, and in real death, it is not something we can actually do. It’s a powerful desire, and a fantasy.
We just saw that scene from the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast”. It’s also a standard in many action movies, the “no, let those hostages go, you don’t need all of them, you’ve got me…” moment, in which the hero, or heroine is prepared to trade their life, to save the life of the innocent.
It is powerful when the hero makes the offer, in order to save their partner, their spouse, their child, someone that matters to them.
It is even more powerful, when the hero is prepared to take on the pain, the suffering, the death of someone they don’t even know, simply because it’s the right thing, the noble thing, the loving thing to do.
I can understand why people hang on, and find such meaning in the notion that Jesus was doing something positive, by submitting to death on the cross.
We have called it paying the price for our sins, washing us clean with his blood. I understand, on a gut level, that this makes some kind of sense, that Jesus would give up his life as a loving sacrifice, for the good of others. It’s admirable.
Of course, we want to believe that Jesus would do that for us. What more powerful way to demonstrate, once and for all, that God loves us.
And that idea has been the focus, the theme of so much blood-soaked poetry, in scripture, and hymns, and sermons. There has been, for centuries, a deep thirst and appetite for this poetry. We so deeply want, need, deserve the assurance that we are loved. Followers of Jesus have also struggled, for centuries to make some sense of his death on the cross.
Some, not all, settled on the “no, take me” scenario, in which the hero offers their life, to pay a price for the lives of the hostages. Some of the story-tellers started putting that spin on things, even before the Gospel stories were written down, in the first 75-100 years after the first Good Friday.
I believe this interpretation has some built-in problems. Think about the action movies, and police television shows in which you have seen this drama acted out.
There is a hostage situation, and law enforcement, the good guys in the story are called in to help. Who are the characters in this drama?
In the movie set up, there are the innocent hostages- maybe we identify with them. We may feel stuck, trapped, afraid, and in need of rescue. We do have moments when we are keenly aware of being caught up somewhere between life and death, and in need of rescue.
There is the heroic figure, who puts down their gun, takes off their Kevlar body armour, and presents themselves as the substitute hostage. We can easily see Jesus in the hero role- especially since in most of the movies, this is the moment when the hero raises their arms to show they have no weapon, and they often look like they are about to be crucified.
The dramatic scene we are imagine, or remember, requires just one more character- the evil villain that up until now has been holding the hostages at gunpoint, or threatening to blow them up, or whatever dastardly means of death they have in mind.
The villain in the story has the option to accept the hero’s life in trade for the hostages. Who is the villain? Why does the villain need the hostages to die? What is to be gained, in the story, by anyone dying?
In the movies, the hero often says that, “Nobody needs to die here, today.” We can all go home safely, if you just put down the gun, or the trigger device for the nuclear warhead, or the spray can for the poision gas, or whatever the deadly weapon might be.
In the movies, and tv shows, of which I have obviously watched too, too many, there are just 2 possible reasons the villain has captured hostages, for which the hero is willing to trade their life.
The first reason is that villain is cornered, about to be captured themselves, and is using the hostages to bargain for safe passage. They want to trade the lives of the hostages for a city bus to take them to the airport, where they can catch a plane to someplace beyond the legal reach of the good guys.
The second typical reason is the villain is insane, and wants to kill people. They don’t expect to get away. The hero appeals to the last vestige of human decency in them, to let the innocents go, and accept the hero as a substitute. If the hero has been an annoyance to the villain up to this point in the story, a thorn in their side, they might say, “Let these folks go, I’m the one you really want.” And sometimes, in the movies, it works. The villain goes for it, releases the captives, but keeps the hero captive.
Sometimes, in the movies, the hero has one more trick up their sleeve. They know a clever way to de-fuse the nuclear warhead, or they’ve secretly swallowed an antidote to the poison gas. Maybe they wrestle free before the bad guy can carve them up with the meat cleaver, or they duck, and only suffer a flesh wound, when the villain shoots at them.
If it’s a movie with a satisfying end, the villain is captured, or dies while trying to escape, and the hero survives, and then the last scene in the story has the hero being yelled at by their spouse, or partner, or boss, “What were you thinking? You could have died in there!”
But in the Good Friday story… if we are the innocent hostages, and Jesus is Bruce Willis, ready to trade his life for ours, who is the villain? Who is one who needs the hostages, or Jesus to die? And why?
The way it has usually been explained is the universe is a moral place, with rules and laws that have to be upheld. If a crime is done, a price has to be paid. If our sins are crimes, offenses against the universe, God the Judge needs for the price to be paid. There aren’t actually any innocent hostages, because we are all guilty. Jesus takes our place, and pays the price.
This has been a powerful, manipulative tool, used in the worst kind of evangelism. It’s kind of like when someone says, “After all I have done for you, the least you can do is…”
I struggle with the idea of a God who would operate this way. It just doesn’t connect for me, with the picture of God that I get from Jesus- the source of all the love in the universe.
This story about a God, who acts like Judge and Executioner rolled into one scary figure, and who would accept the hero as the substitute hostage, does not seem like the God Jesus wanted us to call Abba, the loving parent.
What parent in their right mind, and with a loving heart, would set things up this way? Did the Supreme Lover set up a whole universe in which we are all found guilty without trial, and sentenced to death, and the only escape is to kill the hero?
Why? Why set it up that way? What the actual hell is this all about?
Unless God is not the villain. Maybe the villain in this story is plain ordinary human evil, and Jesus faces it, sacrifices himself to it, and God is not the writer, the director, the creator of this scene at all. Maybe God did not want it to happen this way at all.
When I watch Bruce Willis or some other action hero ready to die to save the innocents, I also get to see the villain as insane, or evil, and I don’t shed any tears when they are defeated, even if they are killed. I can applaud the hero’s willingness to die for the sake of others, and still hope it doesn’t have to happen that way.
So, if Jesus is the hero, I can applaud his willingness to play his part in the drama. I just don’t think it’s the only way the story could have gone. I think that God loves us, and can forgive our sins, if our sins need forgiving, and accept us, without killing the hero. Which means I don’t think God killed the hero.
I don’t think God is the crazy, bloodthirsty villain this story seems to need God to be.
God is actually more like the hero’s best friend, or spouse, or partner, or boss, at the end of the story, who says, “Are you okay? I was so scared. You’re okay? Good!” Then they punch the hero in the arm and say, “What the hell were you thinking? You could have been killed!”
But that’s not the scene we end with today. Good Friday ends with Jesus dying on the cross, with nothing to take away the pain, for him, or for us watching. It’s kind of a terrible movie. I don’t think God wrote, directed, or produced that movie. Amen
Video: The United Church Creed
Loving God; We pray for all those who suffer in our world. We pray for those who are sick, for those who are dying, and for those who are burdened with grief. We pray especially for those who are living in war zones. We pray for those who are victims of racism, or religious hatred.
We pray also for those individuals, and groups that are easily scapegoated: those who are weak, or who bring a challenging message, or seem different or strange to us.
Help us to listen carefully when people in power are offering us quick and easy solutions to complex problems.
Help us to place our lives, and our hopes in your hands God, and to practice patience and perseverance, so the solutions we discover will grow out of love, and not vengeance.
Help us to recognize the parts of our own hearts, our own character, that are still in some way satisfied by violence. Let us not mistake our own darker aspects for God’s will, or God’s plan.
God, help us to remember to look to you, not for justification for our hurtful desires, but for the love and forgiveness, and grace we need to rise above, and move beyond them.
Help us to look at life, and faith in new ways. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen
Video of “We are not alone” from Eastminster United in Toronto
May the God of creation, the God of generous provision, the God of new life be with us.
May the Christ of grace, the Christ of forgiveness, the Christ of reconciliation be our example.
May the Spirit love, the Spirit of peace, the Spirit of hope, go with us. Amen