Lenten Devotion on Good Friday

“It is God’s unequivocal promise that God is always listening, always working, always transforming death into life, always making life new.”

The devotion for Good Friday makes the necessary leap from Good Friday to the Resurrection. I say this is necessary, because as we live, and grow, and age, suffer losses, face grief, and seek ways to carry on, every one of us has plenty enough lessons about pain and death.

The gift of our Christian faith is the reminder that God has something for us. There is the hope of new life.

As a preacher, I’ve wrestled with what to do with, and what to say about the Crucifixion on Good Friday, for more than 30 years.

Below is what I said today, at Harrow United Church:

Before the American Civil War, a physician in the South, explained the behaviour of people held as slaves by saying they were mentally ill. He said two disorders were prevalent. An uncontrollable urge to escape, and willful destruction of property, disobedience, and refusal to work. 

In the doctor’s mind, the concept of slavery was not to be questioned. It was a big tool in his mental toolbox. So when he saw a problem to fix, the desire of the enslaved people to escape, and refuse to work, it would never occur to him he had the wrong tool. He held on tight to the hammer of slavery, when maybe he needed a hacksaw to cut some chains.

How we think is largely determined by where we live, and what we have been told, and have accepted about how life, the universe and everything, is organized. That’s true about how we see each other, and it’s true about how we imagine God. It’s also true of how Christians have, in the 20 centuries since the first Good Friday, struggled to make sense of Jesus being crucified.

Humans resist the idea there can be chaos, and flat out evil. It causes us great anxiety to think that random bad things can happen, or that we are not protected from evil.

We prefer to believe God is in charge. It’s a comforting idea.

The dilemna arises, however, when big bad things happen, like Jesus being arrested, put on trial, and then crucified, it must have been part of God’s plan, that it needed to happen that way.

If the starting place is to think that God intended for Jesus to die on the cross, there must be a reason. Once you are chained to that idea, the only way forward is to figure out the reason. 

The earliest attempt was the ransom theory. It said Jesus offered himself as a ransom, to secure our freedom, like buying the freedom of a hostage, or an indentured slave. But why would our freedom need to be purchased? 

The answer was that since the Garden of Eden, when the first humans disobeyed God, all humans since were held hostage, and could only be freed by Jesus paying with his life. But if his life was the price paid- paid to whom?

Some versions say the ransom was paid to Satan- which suggests Satan is more powerful than God. Think about what that means for the folks who saw the world this way- it looked to them like God was powerless against an actual devil.

A variation was it’s not Satan, but God, who needs to be paid, and that Jesus submitted to death on the cross as an honourable act, that won God’s favour. Then God owed Jesus a favour, and the favour Jesus asked for was that all humans be released from a debt collectively owed, because of what Adam and Eve did in the Garden.

If we jump ahead to medieval times in Europe, society was organized under the feudal system. If a servant stole from the lord of the manor, the crime was not only larceny, but an offense against the honour of the lord, and the feudal system as a whole, that demanded to be set right. A debt must be paid, to preserve honour. (There was no room in this mental tool box for questions about whether the feudal system itself was fair, or good.)

The feudal lord could not show their face in court, or at a banquet with other lords and ladies if their honour had been besmirched. Reputation was everything.

If the debt was the Original Sin of all humans, then that outstanding debt was a mark of shame not just on all humans, but on the feudal lord whose honour had been offended. In this way of thinking, God is imagined to be like a king seated on a royal throne. 

In the 1100’s, a monk named Anselm of Canterbury interpreted Jesus’ death as a substitute sacrifice, the price paid to restore God’s good name.

If we think God is bound by the rules of a medieval European royal court, this makes sense. If we don’t think of God as a kind of petty-minded, reputation-proud king, then ransom-based theories lose their steam.

Another way to look at the death of Jesus on the cross is the moral example theory. Jesus set aside concerns for his own well-being, and gave up his own life, in service to his cause, and his followers. This is the “greater love has no person, than that they would die” idea that inspires many acts of bravery and self-sacrifice. This is closely related to the idea of martyrdom. Modern examples include Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Another theory is that we live in a moral universe. God set it up with rules, and simply can’t abide the rules being broken. God gets righteously angry when the rules are broken, and the only way to appease the harsh judge is for a price of retribution to be paid. Jesus gave his life to pay the required penalty- like the enormous traffic ticket issued when Adam and Eve were pulled over in the Garden of Eden. Their sin of disobedience was apparently so huge, that God’s system of law and order could not be put back in balance, until the fine was paid.

This sounds a lot like the Ransom Theory, except God is a Magistrate rather than a King. But either way, these theories depend on this other big tool in the mental tool box, the idea of Original Sin. This says that even before you and I were born, we were already doomed as sinners. We inherited that, as descendants of Adam and Eve.

But what if that’s just not true? There are many modern day theologians who work with a radically different idea, they call “Original Blessing”. These thinkers, to my mind, are the ones who’ve spent time with a new-born baby, and noticed they are beautiful, and wondrous, and perfect, and deserving of unconditional love, not automatic condemnation.

In 1931, Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen published “Christus Victor”, in which he revisited the Ransom Theory. He retooled it and gave it a new name. Instead of Jesus’ death being a price paid as a ransom, Aulen said the Crucifixion was part of the larger conflict between God and the powers which hold humanity in bondage: sin, death and the devil.

Aulen moved away from the idea that Jesus’ death satisfied a legal debt. He said the crucifixion was part of a cosmic drama in which Jesus subversively condemned the powers of evil, and revealed their unjust ways, by submitting to death. The final scene is not the Crucifixion, but Easter Morning, when God raised Jesus to show he was truly innocent of any wrong-doing.

There is a more recent theory, put forth by a scholar named Rene’ Girard. He was a social scientist who said humans advance because we copy each other, because we want what others have. The good part is we are inventive. The bad part is we are envious of each other. 

Envy and the struggle for what we desire causes tensions. Every once in a while, if the society is to survive, we pick out a villain, or scapegoat, and blame them for everything broken. It is more efficient, less costly to blame a minority, or one person, than to face and fix the inequity in the society.

The sacrifice of a scapegoat releases the built up urge for violence, for a quick and simple solution to big problems, that if unchecked leads to bloody revolution. After the sacrifice, everybody sobers up, calms down, and life goes on.

I think the scapegoat is the flip side of the hero coin. The hero is the one we hope will solve all of our problems. The scapegoat is the one we blame for them.

Girard theorized that by his death on the cross Jesus exposed the lie of scape-goating, because he was innocent of any wrong-doing. He also became the ultimate scapegoat, and eliminated the need to ever turn again to this violent practice. The sad thing is that both hero-worship, and scapegoating are alive and well. All we need to do, if we doubt this, is listen to election ads, or question period in parliament.

I see terrible scapegoating going on these days in the United States. One current target is trans people. 

After the second world war, a theologian named Jurgen Moltmann wrote a book called the Crucified God, which presented the solidarity theory. 

To be human is to suffer pain, confusion, mortality, and at times hopelessness, and a feeling of being cut off from God. If the crucifixion means anything, it is that Jesus was with us, in the total experience of being human, even in feeling distant from God. 

To be human is to live in a world where evil happens. Life does not follow a divine script, with God pulling the strings of all the puppets. Sometimes there is chaos. 

The good news is we aren’t alone, and that evil and chaos are not the end of the story. The story does not end on Good Friday, but begins again on Easter Morning. 

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