Putting the 'Good' in Friday
As our bulletins tonight remind us, Christian tradition calls today ‘Good Friday. ’ But even long before I became a preacher, went to seminary, got a few degrees in religion and theology and all that, even before all of that, as much as now, I have never been able to make much sense of what is considered ‘good’ about today.
I know that with the lenses of Christian history, we now look back and see the good that came out of the crucifixion. We see the other side of the picture, the empty tomb of Easter morning, the forgiveness and reconciliation with God and one another shown to us through Jesus.
But according to all the gospel accounts, we pretty much see nothing but the worst of humanity on ‘Good’ Friday. We see brutality and violence inflicted upon another human being. We see Jesus, who spent his life teaching love of enemy and forgiveness for wrongs, we see him scourged and mocked.
We see the state carrying out capital punishment against someone whose only crime was proclaiming that the kingdom of Rome did not reflect the kingdom of God. And we see good religious people complicit in all this.
In John’s gospel, one of the two from which we read, these crowds are referred to by the term ∆Ioudai÷oiß. But in the synoptic gospels, they are the o¡cloß – the crowds. They are no one special. No one significant. No one with power or influence. They are just people, people packed in the square, along the streets of the town. Not unlike downtown Greeneville during Christmas parade or when The Band Perry played. In other words, they are us. People who stood by and watched the events unfold.
No doubt the crowd was as diverse as any crowd of people. Some probably hated Jesus. Maybe they hated him because he had overturned their table in the temple a few days ago, chastised them and chased them away, costing them business, threatening their livelihood. Maybe others hated Jesus because of what they heard he had done. Rumors they chose to believe about how he didn’t respect the religious faith, about how he openly ignored the religious rules prohibiting interaction with tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, or how he claimed to be a religious leader and a rabbi, but was better known around town and a glutton and a drunkard. Maybe there were people in the crowd that hated Jesus.
But maybe there were other people in the crowd who were ambivalent. Who didn’t know Jesus, hadn’t encountered him, but didn’t want to create waves. Who trusted that if their neighbors hated him, then they probably had a good reason to do so. Those same neighbors could point to any number of passages in scripture that Jesus ran afoul of. You couldn’t throw a rock in Jerusalem without hitting a religious expert who could tell you all the reasons why Jesus was a bad person, a menace to the society and values held dear.
There were probably even other people in the crowd who thought Jesus was innocent. Maybe someone whose relative Jesus had healed, or someone with whom Jesus had shared a meal. Maybe they saw what was happening and it made them sick to their stomachs. But maybe, like Peter when he denied Jesus, they were just flat out frightened of speaking up in the midst of the crowd.
Surely not everyone in that crowd wanted Jesus killed. Some certainly did. Some probably did not. Maybe thought it was wrong and cruel to kill him. Others may not have cared either way. They were just there for the show.
But none of them spoke up. All of them stood by while Jesus was tried and executed. Some shouted their encouragement. But none of the gospels talk about dissenters’ voices in the crowd.
So what is ‘good’ about a day that these crowds, this microcosm of humanity, helped put an innocent man to death?
Nothing is good about it, any more than it is ‘good’ every other time we participate in the brutality enacted against another, whether we swing the lash, or shout encouragement to the abuser from the crowd, or stand silently by and watch. Every time we stand as part of that crowd, and make no mistake, all of us stand as part of that crowd sometimes in our lives. And every time we do, we most certainly are not ‘good.’
But easily overlooked among all we have read and heard this week focusing on the passion and death of Jesus, often overlooked are these few verses from John we heard tonight.
“Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple, went and asked Pilate for the body of Jesus so that he could give it a proper burial. Nicodemus, the religious leader who came to Jesus at first under cover of the night, came to assist, bringing with him a sizeable contribution of myrrh and aloe, an expensive token of devotion.”
These two men, the text tells us, were both afraid to be associated with Jesus. Joseph was afraid of what others would think or say about him, or what they would do to him. So he remained a secret disciple. Nicodemus, fearing the same thing, would only approach Jesus in the dark of night, while everyone else was asleep, so no one would see him associating with Jesus, maybe cost him his position as a religious leader and certainly his reputation in the community.
In other words, both these men feared the crowds. The same crowds that stood outside Pilate’s palace. The same crowds that stand by every time we are complicit in humanity’s verbal violence and physical brutality to others.
And yet those two men, Nicodemus and Joseph, summoned the courage to a small, simple act of human compassion. Certainly there have been great men and women who have boldly shouted out calling the crowd to find a better path, to love rather than hate.
But Joseph and Nicodemus are remembered not for turning the tide of the crowd, but for being brave enough to go against it, fully aware of what it may cost them. They didn’t do much. They didn’t stop the violence and the execution of Jesus.
But they did something. Some small act of compassion. They summoned courage where even Peter, the faithful disciple, the Rock, could not.
What is ‘good’ about Good Friday? Joseph and Nicodemus are good. They are good because they show us how to be good. They show us that it is possible to act in small ways even when we know we cannot turn the tide of history.
We could read the story of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion and skip right over these few verses about Joseph and Nicodemus. We could do that and perhaps not even realize they were missing. Certainly the story would read the same. It would end the same way. Jesus would still be dead at the end of the day. And if Joseph of Arimethea hadn’t donated his garden tomb, Jesus would still have been taken down and buried somewhere.
The empty tomb we find Sunday morning would have just been a different empty tomb. Otherwise, we’d be reading the same story.
Except that our story mentions these two men who buried Jesus. They aren’t mentioned because they turned the tide of history, or even because they changed the story at all. And that is perhaps little consolation at those times when our own brave acts of compassion go unnoticed or fail to change the larger narrative of history. But they are mentioned. And they are mentioned because someone noticed. Someone noticed their act of compassion and it made a difference. It made enough of a difference that their story survived. Enough of a difference that someone remembered.
You know and I know that most of us will probably never make much of a difference in the world. Wars and violence and poverty and hunger and all kinds of horrible things will continue to be done by people, by individuals and by crowds, even by crowds who think they are doing the right thing, who think they are making the world a better place, as the crowd shouting for Jesus’ death certainly did, thinking they were making their city better without this troublesome rabbi masquerading as a King.
We may never make much of a difference in the narrative of history. But what if we made a difference to one or two people. What if we found, deep down within us somewhere, some time, the courage to go against the crowd, to overcome our fear of what others may think or say or do to us, and to be agents of compassion? What if our stories were no more memorable than two men who buried the body of a condemned and executed criminal? But those stories join with others in here, with others in our churches and our community and our world?
Would we notice something else in the events of today? Something ‘good’?