Good Friday Sermon (2011)
Good Friday sermon
The thread running through today’s service relates to expectations and their power to influence our experience and action. I want to ask and have a go at answering the following few questions:
- What were the disciples’ expectations about Jesus leading up to his crucifixion?
- How did his crucifixion match their expectations? With what consequences for them?
- What if the story ended here?
What were the disciples’ expectations about Jesus leading up to his crucifixion?
I’m going to take a look at two key encounters in the text, which I think reveal how the disciples viewed Jesus – and by implication, what they expected him to be and do. Firstly, we have a record in all three synoptic gospels of Jesus asking his disciples who the crowds say he is.
From Mark 8:27 (NIV)
27Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” 28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
From Luke 9: 18-21
18 Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?”
19 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.”
20 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.”
21 Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone.
From Matthew 16: 13-20
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
There is a striking difference between these texts and in order to explore it a little, we need to have a look at the Hebrew concept of ‘mashiach’, which lies behind, but differs from our Christian concept of ‘messiah’.
Firstly, belief in the coming of the messiah was (and remains) a core part of Judaism. Whether or not Jesus was this mashiach is clearly a key point of difference between Judaism and Christianity. The hebrew word ‘mashiach’, is the term used throughout the OT. It literally means “anointed one” a reference to the practice of Anointing kings. In line with this, the mashiach is commonly referred to as “mashiach, ben David” – The messiah, son of David.
The expectations of the mashiach include him being a great political leader who will lead Israel into battle. He will be well versed in the Jewish law, and will make wise and righteous decisions. He will inspire others to follow. He will be a human being. There is no implication of bringing salvation in a spiritual sense.
These political expectations of the one known as the Messiah can be seen in the acclamations Jesus received on his way in to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday – which we celebrated last week – one week before the Easter events we remember today.
9The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Mark 11: 9-10
Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”[b]
10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”[b]
“Blessed is the king of Israel!”
There is a clear recognition, or a hailing of Jesus as the coming political king of Israel.
So… if we accept that the Jewish conception of Messiah was primarily a political leader, which seems to fit well with the crowds’ view on Palm Sunday, where does it leave us in terms of the disciples? Let’s go back to the “Who do you say I am?” texts we looked earlier.
It seems clear from every description, except in the Matthew account, that the standard Jewish conception was uppermost in their minds. Jesus was seen as the Messiah, the one who would lead Israel politically into independence, or at least autonomy. You can see why Jesus warned them, in every account, not to spread this idea around – political revolutionaries that come to the attention of the government don’t last too long.
The thing that is striking to me, is that the one departure from this description of the expectations held by the disciples - Matthew’s add-on that Jesus is the Son of the living God - is met with an astonishing barrage of praise, name changing, power granting and eternal significance… It seems to me a little out of proportion – but then this is the game changer, this is the key distinctive that the dominant threads of the early church cemented into the core creeds of what would become a new religion entirely, rather than the radical grouping of forms of Judaism that it began as. Is this an example of a nice piece of retro-fitted conversation which served to justify the dominance of Rome in the political landscape of the early church in the centuries that followed?
No matter how you view this text, it is clear that Peter’s profession of Jesus as the Son of God departs from the general expectations of Jesus expressed by all others in these texts. Indeed, it is this very assertion that the Jewish authorities pressed Jesus on until he finally answered their question more or less directly as he was being tried immediately before being crucified (I aspire to be able to respond to awkward questions with other awkward questions and get away with it as Jesus did).
From Mark 15:1
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” 62 “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
63 The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. 64 “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They all condemned him as worthy of death.
And the sense I get from this is that the Jewish leaders were not reacting to Jesus assertion that he was the Messiah, as provocative as it would be to claim this, it is a political claim, one that would not concern the priests as much as the local authorities – they were reacting to the assertion that he was the Son of God – only the latter could be considered blasphemous.
I’ve experienced something like this horrified response myself, from a 4 year old girl.
Here we are in a more relaxed situation – couldn’t resist the chance to drop this pic in. Hannah’s family were living as Muslims amongst the urban poor in Cairo, as part of their vision to share their love of Jesus in a way that made sense to the people around them. What I didn’t realize was that to Hannah, a ‘maseehee’, the Arabic word for Christian, meant someone from the traditionally Christian Coptic ethnic group in Egypt. Hannah had internalized her identity as a Muslim to the extent that when a cross on a necklace dropped out of my shirt one day as I was bending over to pick her up, she screamed as though I was the enemy. How could I, who was a friend of her parents, be one of those maseehee, those other people who believe strange things about God that me and my parents don’t believe?
Broken expectations are powerful. And when the expectation centres on something as core as who Jesus is, all the more so.
Perhaps we can get a little more perspective on this by examining how the disciples responded to Jesus’ crucifixion. Unmet expectations have a habit of provoking strong responses in all of us.
How did his crucifixion match their expectations? With what consequences?
The biblical record is surprisingly reticent about how the disciples reacted to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. The accounts that we do have portray a group of confused, fearful and grief stricken people, all of which are pretty normal reactions if your expectation had been that you were about to follow Jesus as he freed Israel politically – an aspiration completely destroyed by his death by crucifixion.
First, we have the well known story of Peter denying he knows Jesus. Mark’s account describes how before denying Jesus for the third time, he called down curses upon himself. Afterwards he went away weeping. To me this fits pretty well with someone whose expectations have been dashed.
In the days afterwards, there seems to be a lot of fear and confusion … According to John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene discovers the tomb is open, gets Peter and John, and they confirm the tomb is empty, which adds some confusion to the lament that Jesus’ subsequent appearance in the garden interrupts. Interestingly, in Luke’s account of this, the disciples did not believe the women, and Peter, who returned to the tomb by himself, sees the strips of linen without a body and merely wonders to himself what has happened – which sounds to me like the reaction of someone still in shock.
Shortly afterwards, the disciples are huddled in a locked room “for fear of the jews”, when Jesus’ appears. Then, a week later – still with the doors locked! – Jesus appears again and Thomas gets to verify his doubts. On Sunday, I’ll have a go at exploring how these appearances of Jesus radically transformed the disciples – and these words feel too limited to do justice to that transformation. For now, I want to keep the focus on how the disciples felt and behaved in the days after the crucifixion event – for their reaction is typical, I believe, of people whose expectations have been obliterated by circumstances they did not foresee.
Finally, Luke’s account of the road to Emmaus, where the disciples were “downcast” gives us perhaps the clearest picture of how the disciples felt about what had happened. From chapter 24 verse 19, where they are talking with ‘a stranger’:
“He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”
Before I move on to the third question I posed, lets take a moment to consider how we react when our expectations are not met. If you’re willing, I invite you to share how you experience this process.
What if the story ended here?
I want to finish by exploring what kind of impact the life and death of Jesus would have had if the story ended here. Clearly Easter Friday is intimately connected to Easter Sunday. While I don’t want to lightly skip over an indwelling in the heart wrenching grief and sense of loss that surrounds Easter Friday, neither is it complete without making reference to Easter Sunday. We can only meaningfully understand the impact of the resurrection in the context of the deeply broken expectations that the disciples were dealing with after Jesus crucifixion and death.
If the story ended here, I wonder what the disciples would have done? It seems to me there would have been a serious amount of dissonance reduction going on. Cognitive dissonance is a state of internal tension that occurs when either two beliefs conflict with each other, or a belief conflicts with an action or experience. Typically, we choose to relieve the tension by altering either our beliefs, or our actions. Beliefs are much easier to alter. Examples that I think we’ll all be familiar with are the re-telling of how things were after a relationship goes sour, or when we don’t end up achieving something that we originally intended. On a larger scale, this occurs in relation to the stories countries tell about their own history, particularly where colonization is part of the story. We do this in relation to our experiences of church also.
In this case, the disciples had invested at least three years of their lives following a guy, who had suddenly been killed, which wasn’t how it was meant to go. Their beliefs about who he was were not matched by reality. Something had to give. If they followed the normal processes of dissonance reduction that we observe in our every day lives, some of the ways forward might be as follows:
- The past three fishing seasons have been really bad anyway so I couldn’t have kept on in that business. I hear its picking up again…
- I was always a bit skeptical about Jesus and now I’ve been proved right (Thomas probably has the best shot at pulling this one off…)
- I was really in it for the networking – Now I know I can work really well with James and John, so we’ll head off on another adventure shortly
- I blame my genes - following slightly nutty Jewish rebels runs in the family – My great great uncle was in that Maccabean revolt a few years back.
- I’m a bit gutted that I got sucked in – Jesus was so convincing – anyone would have done the same thing if they’d been the one asked to “follow me”. (this graphic is only tangentially relevant, but came up when I searched for “Anyone would have done the same” … )
The one thing you can’t really imagine them doing is getting all fired up, preaching in public (in multiple languages nonetheless), and heading off in all directions spreading Jesus’ teaching, often to the death…
But that is what they did.
And therefore something must have happened to transform them from the broken, fearful confused group of people they were at the time of the crucifixion into the bold, confident and inspiring people that they clearly were after Pentecost. And that something must have been miraculous, incredibly powerful and transformative.
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to one of the Oxfam trailwalkers just after they returned from the big event. Their team was called “The long Dark Night of the Sole”, for good reason and with pun intended, I believe. And despite enduring pain, darkness and exhaustion as they walked 100 kms through the night, I was blown away with the almost manic high that oozed out of the phone. I wanted some of what they had! (maybe I’ll do trailwalker next year…) But the euphoria they were experiencing on completing the challenge successfully only makes sense in the context of how hard it is to do the event – how many hours training, how many blisters endured, how many marginal jokes from team mates…
And in the same way, an understanding of how deeply the disciples were broken by Jesus’ death on the cross is necessary, if we are to approach a real sense of how utterly amazing it was that somehow, through the transformative encounters they had with the risen Jesus after Easter Sunday, their lives were imbued with a purpose, gifting and inspiration that we too can aspire to.