The heart of the good news

The heart of the good news
Detail from Christ of St John of the Cross, Salvador Dali, 1951

Good Friday
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
2 April 2021

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A week or two back, a colleague and friend from the USA shared with me some reflections on Good Friday and Easter through the lens of the killing of George Floyd, the African American man who was strangled to death by a white police officer on 25 May 2020. The officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds — yes, 9 minutes and 29 seconds — until he ceased to breath. He was dead. 

That essay offered some powerful reflections on lethal imperial violence against innocent oppressed persons and resurrection/resistance, but what struck me most was a simple observation Brandon Scott made concerning the emphasis which the Apostle Paul placed on the death of Jesus:

It is important to notice that Paul preaches the Anointed crucified (1 Cor 1:23). He does not say he preaches the Anointed raised.

Those words are quite matter of fact, since they simply quote Paul’s own words from our second reading this morning: “we preach Christ crucified …”

Yet they invite us to go deeper into the mystery of Easter, and indeed the meaning of the Gospel.

The Paul who says that he preaches Christ crucified doubles down on that point in the next chapter of his letter to the Corinthians:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. [1 Cor 2:1–2]

And a few lines later he writes:

But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. [1 Cor 2:7–8]

This is the same Paul who, in this very same letter (1 Corinthians) will devote a whole 58 verses to asserting the centrality of the resurrection in chapter 15! He even says that our religion is meaningless if Christ was not raised:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. [1 Cor 15:17–19]

Yes, Paul is deeply invested in the resurrection, but the core of his gospel is to be found in the death of Jesus. Like George Floyd, it is not enough to say, “Jesus died”. We need to say, “Jesus was killed. Jesus was murdered. Jesus was eliminated by the empire.”

The student protestors in Myanmar these past few weeks, are not just people who died; but people who are being killed by their government, by the ruling elite.

When we say with Paul that Christ was crucified, we are not simply saying that he died. We are saying—boldly, plainly and as an act of resistance against those who control our world—that he was publicly killed and made an example of in order to keep people like us in our place.

George Floyd was murdered by a man wearing the uniform of the Minneapolis city government.

Jesus was killed by solders wearing the insignia of the Roman emperor.

The Indigenous people of this Valley—who were poisoned, shot, incarcerated, and raped—were victims of European settlers acting with the protection of the colonial government and often with the tacit blessing of our churches.

Paul never knew about George Floyd or the First Nations of Australia, but he realised that in the way the Jesus was killed we catch a glimpse of the ways things are and of the ways things are going to be from now on.

This Paul was himself a Roman citizen, someone who enjoyed privileges not available to many people in his society. 

As a Roman citizen, Paul had a “get-out-of-jail” card. Jesus did not have such a privilege. 

Paul could appeal to the emperor. Jesus was at the mercy (sic) of the mean-spirited provincial bureaucrat, Pontius Pilate. 

As a Roman citizen, Paul could never be crucified.

Yet he proclaims Christ crucified.

In this person and in this event, we can discern (if we have eyes to see) the ways the empire of God (basileia tou theou) is organised, and it is very different from the way the privileged elites of our world—then and now—see things.

Paul says as much in his fascinating comment in 1 Cor 2:8: “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory …”

When “the rulers of this age” see Jesus hanging on a cross beside the main road to Jaffa, they think they have reinforced their power and their privilege. They have eliminated a threat. They have warned everyone else to toe the lines drawn by the people with power, or else …

But when God looks at the abused and battered body of Jesus strung up beside the highway, God sees someone who has said yes to the reign of God. 

God sees someone who has total faith that even in his death God will be shown to be in charge of the ways things work around here.

Don’t think for a moment that God wanted Jesus to die.

In saying that, I am reflecting the work of the Roman Catholic theologian, Elizabeth A. Johnson, in her essay, “The Word was Made Flesh and Dwelt Among Us. Jesus Research and Christian Faith.” in Doris Donnelly (ed), Jesus. A Colloquium in the Holy Land. New York: Continuum, 2001. Pages 146–66:

To put it simply, Jesus, far from being a masochist, came not to die but to live and to help others live in the joy of the divine love. To put it boldly, God the Creator and Lover of the human race did not need Jesus’ death as an act of atonement but wanted him to flourish in his ministry of the coming reign of God. Human sin thwarted this divine desire yet did not defeat it. (page 158)

Rather than being an act willed by a loving God, [the cross] is a strikingly clear index of sin in the world, a wrongful act committed by human beings. What may be considered salvific in such a situation is not the suffering endured but only the love poured out. The saving kernel in the midst of such negativity is not the pain and death as such but the mutually faithful love of Jesus and his God, not immediately evident. (page 159)

So, while we need not think that God wanted Jesus to die, we should never doubt for a moment that God’s response to the murder of Jesus was not only to enfold the dead victim of human evil into God’s own life, but also to embrace each of us and all of us in the same way.

For people of faith, the murder of Jesus was a tipping point in the cosmic story, a moment when we see what really matters and how the universe is actually structured.

The “curtain was torn,” and we see that those with privilege are not the ones with real power.

The knee of that police officer who killed George Floyd on 25 May last year not only killed George. He also showed us what is wrong with our world. He extinguished the life from one black man. But he shone a light on all the violence directed against black people by a system from which some of us here prosper and under which some of us here still suffer.

Good Friday is not just about happened to Jesus on 2 April (note the date) in year 30 of the Common Era. 

Good Friday is about the event in which we glimpse the brokenness of human power systems and the vindication of the crucified one (all of them, millions and millions of us, down the millennia).

This is the day when love checkmates hate.

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