Lectionary Commentaries for April 10, 2009
Good Friday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 18:1—19:42

Audrey West

John’s Passion account is its own sermon,

extending from betrayal at a place across the valley to devotion at the foot of the cross; from Peter’s three-fold denial to Pilate’s three-fold acquittal; from the many who call for Jesus’ crucifixion to the two who remove him from the cross; from those who bind him by force at his arrest to those who bind him in love at his burial; from the beginning of the end in one garden to the end of the beginning in another.

The narrative expresses the Gospel’s earliest proclamation: “He was in the world… yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…” (1:10-12).

Perhaps it is enough of a sermon to present the Passion as a dramatic reading or oral performance. For preachers who want to say more, a closer look at some of the “players” in this drama is one place to start.

Jesus: I am he
Refusing to shy away from the threats of Judas and his henchmen, Jesus steps forward to meet them (John 18:4). As he does many times in this Gospel, Jesus maintains authority over events that seem to be spiraling dangerously out of control.

  • He orders Peter to put away his sword (18:11)
  • Under questioning by the high priest he answers openly and demands witnesses (18:20-23)
  • He takes a similar in-your-face approach to Pilate (18:33-38)
  • He carries his own cross, without assistance (19:17)
  • In his dying he establishes the bonds of a new family (19:25-27)
  • Only when he knows that “all [is] now finished” does he give up his spirit (19:30) choosing, it seems, even the moment of his own death

“Whom are you looking for?” (literally, “Whom are you seeking?”), Jesus asks the soldiers and police as they shatter the peace of the garden with their lanterns, torches, and weapons (18:3-4; meager lights against the Light of the World!). Is he challenging their display of power? Or inviting them to put down their weapons and follow, to do things another way? Or something else? We hear echoes of his question at the beginning of his ministry (1:38), and again, after the resurrection (20:15).

Whom are you looking for? What are you seeking? What do you need, at the core of your being, in that place where God alone knows the truth?

Our own answers will have a great deal to do with what we find. When the soldiers respond, “Jesus of Nazareth,” he comes right back at them with, “I am he,” (egō eimi 18:5-6; cf. 4:26; Exodus 3:14). Jesus might as well have said, “The Father and I are one,” (John 10:30), or “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” (14:9). It is no wonder they are knocked off their feet.

Peter: I am not [his disciple]
Peter has been with Jesus from the beginning (1:41-42). He has stuck with Jesus through events that he did not understand (12:16; 13:7)– even when others have not (6:60-66)– and he has boldly confessed his faith (6:68-69). Peter trusts Jesus enough that he is not afraid to challenge him (at the foot-washing, 13:6-9), nor to be corrected by him (in the same episode). He has fought to protect Jesus in the face of a deadly threat (18:10). Up until Jesus’ arrest, Peter has been the best of friends to his Lord, even going so far as to offer his own life for the sake of following Jesus (13:37).

But then he takes it all back.

While Jesus is inside, testifying boldly to the high priest (18:19-23), Peter is outside, three times denying any association with the prisoner (18:15-18, 25-27). Then he disappears.

He is not around while Jesus drags his own cross up the hill, nor is he standing at the cross with the women and the beloved disciple. He does not participate in the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial. When the going gets tough, Peter gets going– but not in a positive direction. He deserts his friend, his teacher, his master, his Lord.

Why? Does his fear prevent him from following through on his promises? Is he questioning the truth of his own experience? Is he wondering whether it has been worth it? Is he in despair over events that he is powerless to stop? Is he railing against God for not stepping in to fix it?

Would our own response have been any different?

Pilate: What is truth?
Extra-biblical sources suggest that Pilate was not a nice man. But here, in the encounter with Jesus, he appears to be sympathetic. He also appears to be a man who wants to discover the truth. Note that most of his dialogue with Jesus consists of questions: 

  • “Are you the King of the Jews?” (18:33)
  • “What have you done?” (18:35)
  • “So you are a king?” (18:37)
  • “What is truth?” (18:38)
  • “Where are you from?” (19:9)
  • “Do you refuse to speak to me?” (19:10a)
  • “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (19:10b)

Three times Pilate says he can find no case against Jesus, but when he hears that Jesus has claimed to be the Son of God, he is “more afraid than ever” (19:8). Afraid of what? Afraid of the Jews? Afraid of Jesus? Afraid of God? Afraid of the truth? Still he tries to release Jesus, until charges are flung against Pilate himself: “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor” (19:12).

Now it is personal. If Pilate continues to defend this “King of the Jews,” his own power at risk. Is the sacrifice worth it? Is the truth worth giving up a position of authority and prestige? Is it worth relinquishing what the world has to offer? Is it worth submitting to the ways of God?

In the face of his fear and these questions, Pilate ultimately hands Jesus over for crucifixion. Perhaps, though, he comes closer to the truth than he is able to admit when he has the inscription placed on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (19:19).

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

On Good Friday, the most somber day of the year, why should we preach on the Old Testament text instead of the Gospel lesson?

We don’t spend enough time in the church reflecting on the crucifixion anyway. Why shortchange the one day when everyone expects us to talk explicitly about the crucifixion?

Despite the strength of the argument that we need to spend more time, not less, on the crucifixion itself, we should not neglect this rich, powerful, profound text. Focusing on the Old Testament reading can make our preaching theo-centric instead of christo-centric, but we affirm the consistency of God in proclaiming this text on Good Friday.

Even though our passage has many seeming parallels to Jesus’ experience, we should not see this passage as a “prediction” of Jesus’ passion. The prophet wrote to the people of his own time, presenting the “suffering servant” as a means of redemption for the experience of the exile. The early church looked to this passage to help them interpret the person and work of Jesus the Christ. We can look at it to interpret Christ and the ways of God.

The song begins in a way that might surprise us, with the affirmation of the exaltation of the servant. The servant shall “prosper,” be “exalted,” and “lifted up” (Isaiah 52:13). We are not quite sure what the prophet has in mind for this exaltation and success.

The root meaning of the first term, “prosper,” comes from the word for prudence and connotes things like military success (see 1 Samuel 18:15). The word for “exalted” is used in Isaiah 5:15-16 to contrast God with the humility of the people. We do not know exactly how the prophet thought this prosperity and exaltation would be worked out, but clearly the servant’s oppression and degradation would be vindicated.

Part of that vindication will be the recognition by political leaders of the integrity of the servant. Such leaders (in whose presence one did not speak until spoken to) would shut their mouths in the presence of the vindicated servant.

Christians look back at this passage through the lens of the New Testament and affirm that our suffering and obedience will be vindicated by God in the resurrection, even though that is not what the prophet was proclaiming. When we focus on the Old Testament reading, we can proclaim the ways God vindicates obedience now, as well as in the resurrection.

By beginning with the affirmation of God’s vindication, the prophet makes the theological point that God is acting within the suffering that subsequent verses describe. We may begin with the “happy ending” so we know on the front end that the suffering is not without purpose or meaning. But, this affirmation does not mean that God causes all suffering. Rather, God is working in all suffering.

The poem continues with a thorough description of the rejection, shame, isolation, and pain the servant endures. It includes two important theological points. First, the suffering is God’s act; it is a “perversion of justice” (53:8).And second, the servant suffers vicariously for the sins of the people.

Although some scholars claim that the suffering servant should be considered the whole people of Israel, the poet wants the readers to look on in awe and gratitude for what someone else has done on their behalf. This is not a poem that congratulates Israel on what it has accomplished. It is a poem that calls the readers to humble contrition, recognizing that someone else has done what they should have done.

This idea of vicarious suffering is complex and should not be oversimplified in our sermons. We often hear, for example, that Jesus died to satisfy God’s demand. This poem, the gospels and Paul are all clear that we did not offer up Jesus to placate an angry God. In a mysterious way that we cannot fully grasp, God worked through the servant, and through Jesus, for the redemption of humanity and all creation.

As 53:10 affirms, the experience of the servant was “the will of the Lord.” The servant modeled obedience where Israel failed. He bore the sins of the people. His obedience became a moral force. He made others righteous (53:11). He demonstrated that God rewards obedience, redeems suffering and vindicates those who endure.

The value of proclaiming this passage on Good Friday is that it shows the consistency of God. The crucifixion of Jesus, though unique, was part of a pattern of redemptive suffering. The crucifixion is part of God’s way in the creation. God confronts evil with the obedient one, and through the obedience of the servant restores corrupt Israel to its rightful place.

One way to preach this passage is to affirm that God has acted over and over through those who obediently choose vicarious suffering, not as devaluation, but as courage in the face of the world’s evil.

The suffering servant chose obedience to redeem the people of Judah. Christ chose obedience to break the powers and principalities. Contemporary servants such as Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King, Jr. faced persecution and death but refused to back down. They unleashed a moral force into the world.

Our proper response is gratitude for the courage of those who have obeyed. We benefit from their courage. Their experiences teach us about the depth of evil in the world, but also about the lengths to which God will go to redeem the corrupt creation.

Let us trust God’s vindication.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:16-25

Dwight Peterson

Good Friday is a dark day in the church year–the liturgical color for the day used to be black.

On this day, our Lord was unfairly convicted, tortured, and put to death in a most cruel fashion on a cross. Those closest to him deserted him, with Peter dramatically denying that he even knew Jesus just as dawn broke. When he died, his body was taken down from the cross and hastily buried before the onset of the Jewish Sabbath. The plan was to attend more adequately to his body the day after the Sabbath.

And yet what occurred on Good Friday, despite the appearances at the time, was in fact good news. The death of our Lord resulted in forgiveness of sins for the people of God. It enabled those who would follow Christ to approach God’s presence, to hold fast to the hope provided by God in spite of life’s difficulties, and to consider how to encourage one another to live in a way characterized by love and good works.

At least that’s what the writer of Hebrews thought, and expressed in the reading for today.

Since Hebrews 7, the author of Hebrews has been conducting a complex argument in which he compares Christ, our high priest, to the Levitical high priests of the Old Testament. In the same way, the sacrifice of himself that Jesus offered is compared to the sacrifices stipulated in the Old Testament. In this comparison, Christ and his self-sacrifice turn out to be better, more effective, and more efficacious than the old priests and their sacrificial system.

Christ, it turns out, is the means by which God institutes a new covenant with his people. That new covenant and the hopes associated with it were articulated by Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). Hebrews quotes this passage in 8:8-12, and repeats part of that quotation at the beginning of today’s passage, 10:16-17. The parts of the new covenant passage repeated in Hebrews 10 are important, and make two significant points.

1. The new covenant differs from the old in its interiority. The Lord puts his laws in the hearts of his people. He writes them on their minds. The people don’t have to be taught the covenant, they know it because it’s in them (Hebrews 8:11). It also means– and this is important– that the people of God are able to abide by the terms of the new covenant. The children of Israel, the recipients of the old covenant, were not able to continue in the covenant (Hebrews 8:9). But the scene is different in the new covenant. Because of Christ, we can do it!

2. The new covenant differs from the old in its effectiveness. As a result of the death of Christ, God “will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more” (Hebrews 10:17). The author of Hebrews thinks that the sacrifices of the old covenant were ultimately ineffectual because they were “only a shadow of the good to come” (Hebrews 10:1). Christ’s sacrifice, on the other hand, was effective, and dealt finally and fully with sin. “Where there is forgiveness of [sins and lawless deeds], there is no longer any offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:18).

In Hebrews, the theological arguments– which are made in gloriously complex detail– are not made just for the sake of being made. Instead, these arguments always have ethical implications. The indicative in Hebrews is always followed by the imperative… or in this case, by the hortatory subjunctive.1

In Greek, verses 19-25 are a single sentence with three main verbs, all hortatory subjunctives: let us approach (verse 22), let us hold fast (verse 23), and let us consider (verse 24). Verses 19 and 20 give the basis for these hortatory subjunctives. Quickly summarizing the argument of the preceding chapters, the author states that the blood of Jesus (a way of referring to Jesus’ death that highlights its sacrificial nature) has given us the necessary confidence to enter the presence of God, and Christ is our high priest. As a result of these actions on our behalf, the author of Hebrews tells us to do three things:

1. Approach. While it is not specified, we are told here to approach God. This word is at home in the sacrificial cult of the Old Testament, referring to the worshiper’s approach to the presence of God. Here it is “used in a broader metaphorical sense to refer to the Christian’s appropriation of that access to God made available in Christ.”2

2. Hold fast. The original recipients of Hebrews seem to have been at risk of loosening their hold on the faith in light of pressure exerted on them from outside (see 6:4-6). But, the author of Hebrews wants his audience (and us) to hold fast.  One of the results of the accomplishment of Christ in his death ought to be our steadfast adherence to the hope of the Gospel, even in the teeth of opposition or suffering.

3. Consider. In particular, we are to consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. The implication of the previous two verbs, given that they are cast in the first person plural, is that approaching and holding fast are more ecclesiastical activities than individual ones. The church does these things together. That implication is now made explicit here. One of the results of the death of Christ for us is that we, the people of God, ought to work together to encourage one another to live lives that are more faithful to God. The author of Hebrews recognizes that real faithfulness cannot be done alone. It requires community.

Good Friday is indeed a dark day. And yet, it is the day that allows those who would follow Jesus to live faithfully together. And of course, Easter is just around the corner.

1A hortatory subjunctive (always in the first person plural) is very much like an imperative, except that, where in the imperative speakers tell others what to do, in the hortatory subjunctive, speakers (or writers) associate themselves with their audience: “Let us do this,” or “Let us do that.”
2Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 288.