Friday, April 15, 2022

No One Else To Blame


April 15, 2022 – Good Friday

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 30:45.

The ceilings of St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Montgomery are painted a rich, vibrant blue. On each magnificent wooden panel is stenciled a giant golden image—either a cross surrounded by a sunburst or a Star of David with “IHS” written in the middle. The images repeat, alternating across the ceiling of the church, unmistakable to any sighted person who walks through the door. But it hasn’t always been that way.

Decades ago, the stencils on the ceiling were hardly recognizable. Before electric lamps were installed throughout the church, worshippers gathered by the light of candles and oil lanterns. Over the years, the black, sooty smoke deposited a thick residue on the ceiling, obscuring its beauty. A costly but successful restoration brought back the brilliance of the ceiling, exposing to the congregation what no one really remembered having been there before. It was like discovering that that piece of art, which has been hanging mostly unnoticed in your living room for decades, is actually a priceless masterpiece. 

I used to walk into that church just to look up at the ceiling. One day, I came upon a man who had walked into the church to do the same thing. He looked at me and asked, “Are you the minister here?” “One of them,” I told him. With a cautious, almost embarrassed tone, he asked, “Is this a…Christian church?” When I told him that, yes, Episcopalians are Christians, he responded, “Well, I see the crosses and all, but, if this is a Christian church, why are all of those Jewish pictures painted across the ceiling?” When I tried to explain to him that Jesus was, in fact, Jewish, he refused to believe me. And, to be honest, if the only story he had ever heard about Jesus was John’s passion narrative, I wouldn’t blame him.

John seems to go out of his way to make sure that we are left with the impression that the Jewish people were responsible for Jesus’ death. But there is no doubt that the One who was crucified was killed under the authority of the Roman Empire using a distinctly Roman form of execution. The Empire reserved the brutality of crucifixion for slaves and seditionists—a warning to its subjects of what it would do to any who dared to challenge its power. But John’s gospel account makes it seem like the only people who actually wanted Jesus to be killed were his Jewish compatriots. Over and over again, to identify the group that begged Pilate to have Jesus killed, John used the Greek word Ἰουδαῖος, properly translated as “Jews.” But, given that Jesus and his followers were just as Jewish as anyone else, we need to push beyond the indiscriminate labels that John used to understand what really happened that day. 

In a very real sense, the Church has always been in the business of telling this story a little carelessly, continually pushing the reality of Good Friday off onto someone else. Initially, it was Judas who became the focus of the Christian community’s anger, and the gospel tradition quickly identified him as the Satan-inspired reason for Jesus’ death. By the time John’s gospel account was written, only sixty or seventy years after these events took place, Christianity had broken away from its Jewish roots, and a rivalry, fueled by the threat of imperial persecution, began to shape the Way of Jesus in anti-Judaic or even anti-Semitic ways. That made it a lot easier for John to use the term “Jews” without having to explain what he meant. And, after that, it was hard to look back. In every generation since, whether during the Crusades or during the Reformation or during the rise of Fascism, Christians have routinely attacked Jewish people, blaming them for what happened to Jesus. Even now, our Jewish siblings know that they are more likely to be assaulted during the Christian Holy Week because of the way our sacred scriptures describe the Passion of our Lord.

More recently, scholars (and preachers) have attempted to recover the ways in which Jesus’ arrest, torture, and execution were the actions not of the Jewish people but of a Gentile state. The sign over the cross—the Titulus—in particular lets us know that Jesus was killed by the Romans for pretending to be a king no matter what spin the gospel stories might have put on the historical record. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book The Last Week, try to weave together the two strands of blame, showing the ways in which Jesus’ prophetic actions were a threat both to the Roman Empire and to the Jewish authorities whom the Romans had allowed to set up shop in Palestine. I like their synthetic approach and think it probably gets closest to the historical truth, but, even then, it still feels like we’re trying to find a way to blame someone else for what happened to Jesus. What if it wasn’t any of those people? What if the point of Good Friday is to show us that you and I are the ones responsible for Jesus’ death?

The Way of Jesus is the way of salvation, and Jesus—in both life and death—shows us that his way always involves the radical reversal of power in this world. That is the truth to which he came to testify, and it is the truth that neither Pilate nor the Jewish leaders nor you nor I can fully understand. No matter who we are, because we are human, when we are asked to renounce all our power in order to accept the salvation that is presented to us, we balk. We stumble. We fail. And then we look for someone else to blame. That’s why following Jesus always leads to the Cross, the ultimate expression of our failure to let go of our need to be in control of the outcome, to put down our desire to be found on the winning side, to give up our say in who comes out on top. And, whoever has the power to tell the story of who is right and who is wrong will always find a way to push the blame off onto someone else. 

And that is why I need to recognize not only my own complicity but even my willful participation in the death of Jesus. I need to know that my own failures—the very limitations and flaws within my mortal nature—are embodied in the one who hangs upon the cross. I’m not looking for someone else to take my place and suffer God’s wrath in my stead, but I need to know that the tragedy which unfolds on Good Friday belongs not to someone else to me. I need to recognize that I, too, cast my lot in favor of execution or else I will never know that what follows on Easter is meant for me.

We need to hear ourselves within the story of Christ’s death in order to find our place in the miracle of his resurrection. We need to do that not only because the anti-Semitic ways in which this story has been told throughout the centuries are an abomination to the one whom we come to adore this day but also because, as long as we are intent on blaming someone else, we will never know that God’s great reversal of the world is also the reversal of our own failures. Of course, none of us wants to look upon the manifestation of our self-seeking impulses, but that is where true healing starts. If it were up to us, we’d much rather find someone else to blame, but thanks be to God that we don’t need to.

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