Date: April 2, 2021

Bible Text: John 18-19 |

The gospel portion for Holy Week appointed this year is from John, but I have read all of them this week. The gospels differ in their details; there is no one seamless narrative. Matthew and Mark note that the disciples all abandon Jesus and flee when he is arrested; Luke and John do not mention this. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is in agony in the Garden; in John, he is cool as a cucumber, acting as he must to fulfil what must be. Yet in every gospel, somewhere, the disciples fail Jesus. And in every gospel, what must be is that he must die.

The last thing Jesus says before his arrest in Luke’s account, directed at the detachment of soldiers and religious leaders who have come to nab him, is “but this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”

Your hour, and the power of darkness.

 

One of the seamless narratives people of all kinds, preachers and otherwise, tend to prefer is stories of clear culpability. The world does not usually give us stories like this, and so we make them, no matter what we need to ignore in order to do it. Everyone the police ever kill is somehow dangerous, armed with a gun or a knife or a dark body or an alleged passing resemblance to someone else, like Amadou Diallo, who was killed in front of his apartment in 1999 by four plainclothes officers. Of course the police who killed him went to trial, as one must, because there are laws. But they were acquitted, because there are other laws. Even Jesus went to trial, as he must have, because there were laws. But he was not acquitted, because there were other laws.

Your hour, and the power of darkness.

So whose fault was it that Jesus was arrested and convicted? It was a bad system, certainly, a legal system with flaws, weighted against noncitizens. We can point to this as a clear example of systemic sin, a Rube Goldberg machine that in the end spits out crucifixions, just as ours spits out mass incarceration and the right to murder as long as you’re a cop who gets nervous. But the pieces of this machine have names: Judas son of Simon from Karyot. Annas. Caiaphas. Pontius Pilate. Herod the Lesser. And other pieces don’t have names, but they have jobs: Soldier, police, local leader, praetorian guard.

The power of darkness needs people to work its will. Maybe we can say yes, the ones with names or with swords, they’re guilty. But what about Peter, who denied his friend and teacher while he warmed himself by the fire Jesus’ arrestors had made? What about Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both prominent men, secret disciples of Jesus but public members of the council that sent him to Pilate? What about the judges who preside over the trials of police who have murdered people? What about the members of the juries who acquit them? What about the lawyers who use the “gay” or “trans panic” defenses when pleading temporary insanity on behalf of their clients? What about the people who say, It is a shame, but that’s what the law says? Are they guilty? And if they are guilty, who can absolve them?

 

A perpetually thorny issue in contemporary Christianity is the idea that Jesus died for our sins. There are lots of objections: That we are not bad enough to warrant death, his or anyone else’s; that the suggestion makes God a monster; that nothing is really paid for by one man’s suffering, suffering doesn’t work that way. Certainly I have these objections and more. But a fact of the world is that things are paid for by suffering all the time. Economically we might call these externalities. Our gasoline is cheap at the cost of oil spills and political manipulation of countries that produce it; our clothes are cheap at the cost of sweatshops; our vegetables are cheap and beautiful at the cost of slave labor; our society is safe at the cost of the incarceration and murder of people whom we have decided are threatening; our sexuality and gendered self-image is stable at the cost of the denegration and murder of gay and bi and trans people. We cannot opt out of any of these things.

What I am trying to say is that all of us are in the Rube Goldberg machine, our good intentions coopted by something we did not build. All of us are Peter, warming ourselves by the fire kindled by the murder-adjacent, because it’s a cold night. All of us are Nicodemus, with right opinions at night but nowhere to be found when the sun comes up, because we have relationships and responsibilities to uphold. All of us benefit from the suffering of others. We cannot live a life good enough to mean that we have left the machine. The suffering of others accrues to our accounts and we are guilty for it. I wish this were not true. But it is.

When I say Jesus died for our sins, I mean he was well aware of what he was doing and why. He died because of the Rube Goldberg machine set in motion by the power of darkness, the same one that killed Amadou and Matthew and so many others whose names we know and we don’t know. And also, in a way that no one else has ever died, he did it on purpose, afraid but determined, agonized but purposeful, abused but full of love. He did this for the sake of his disciples, and the crowds that shouted for his death, and the soldiers that nailed him to the wood, and the robbers next to him, and for all of us, because some of us love the machine and some of us hate it but all of us are trapped, and the only thing to be done was to kick it over: if the consequence of our fears, our conveniences, our common sense, our mistakes, was death, then death had to be broken. This was God’s will: the end of death, through the death of God. I wish we had not needed it. But we did. We do.

 

Good Friday is a hard day not least because we see crucifixions like Christ’s every single day and they remind us that the world is not yet fully new. That we don’t want newness. That we don’t recognize it, and at least we understand the machine. Today it looks like the machine wins. Like those with the power to release or crucify will always choose crucifixion. That those given the chance to state their loyalty to the good will deny it. That it’s our hour, and the power of darkness.

We might see something else in Joseph and Nicodemus tending to Jesus, cradling Jesus’ body like the person who found Matthew cradled his. It’s tempting to jump ahead to what that can mean. But for now, Jesus has died, just when his disciples needed him. Just when we need him. Because of how we need him. For today, it is right to mourn together, to stand at the foot of the world’s crosses and see our Lord on them, to weep, and to pray.

Amen.

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