Friday of the Last Week
Today we will look at Friday of the Last Week of Jesus’ life, the day of his death. Greek Christians call it – “The Holy and Great Friday,” Germans – “Sorrowful Friday,” and for some reason, we have come to call it – “Good Friday.”
Jesus was executed on a cross. Crucifixion was how Romans executed people who committed crimes against the state – rebels, rioters, insurgents, terrorists and guerrillas. That Jesus was crucified is not debated. But what his death on a cross means, is not so clear. Christians have struggled to come up with answers and meaning since his death. Even the creeds which are affirmed by many denominations do not give the meaning of the cross. The Nicene Creed says “I believe the Lord Jesus Christ was made man and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate…. The Apostles Creed likewise says, “He Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified….”
The most common meaning given to Jesus’ death is called substitutionary sacrifice: he died for the sins of the world. For most of us, this understanding is rooted in childhood and has been reinforced all our lives in and out of the church. But this understanding was not accepted until more than 1,000 years after Jesus’ death. St. Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, used penned this argument with a legal framework in a book. It goes something like this: our sin is disobedience, a crime, against God and it requires punishment in order for God to forgive us. Jesus became our substitute and took our punishment for us. — There is support for it in Scripture, but it is only one of several different ways that the authors of the New Testament articulate the meaning of Jesus’s execution. And the idea of Jesus dying for the sins of the world is absent from Mark’s gospel. There is one statement that looks like it supports this idea. Mark 10.45 says, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” But the word ransom translated from Greek referred to the payment given to obtain the freedom of captives or slaves. People would be kidnapped and a ransom had to be paid to obtain their freedom. Also many people were enslaved because of a debt they incurred and had to give a ransom to be freed.
Some of the other meanings behind the cross include spiritual transformation by dying with Christ to the old self, radical grace through complete sacrifice where all barriers between us and God are gone, pure compassion through Christ’s pain and suffering, intimacy with God because God knows our suffering, that Jesus was making a political statement against oppressive governments, and a religious statement against the powers that be in the Temple or now church. I am sure there are many others as well.
The point is that Scripture and Christianity are not clean and neat. Our faith in Christ Jesus is not black and white. The meaning of the cross is multi-layered and complex – it is very personal but also part of our shared understanding. The meaning we each have of the cross is important and has developed from all the four Gospels plus the Apostle Paul. So as we listen to Mark’s account of Good Friday let’s listen with fresh ears. Let’s remember that Mark was not present at the crucifixion. Let’s also remember that he wrote looking back in time through the lens of the resurrection and his own experiences and feelings. So, let’s hear now the first narrative written about the Last Friday of Jesus’ life with some explanation thrown in by me. The Gospel of Mark chapter 15.
“As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole counsel. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.” Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” You – a peasant, beaten and bloodied, standing powerless before me – are king of the Jews? And mocking him right back Jesus answered, “You say so.” From that point on, Jesus was silent which took courage because it disrespected and disobeyed the Roman leader. Scripture says, “Pilate was amazed.”
On the request of the crowd, Pilate then released Barabbas, a murderer, a violent man and ordered the execution of -a peaceful, non-violent man. –Now this crowd was not made up of the followers of Jesus. His disciples were not present – they would not have been allowed in the courtyard of the Palace of the Governor. It was Romans and Roman supporters who yelled, “Crucify Him!”
After flogging Jesus, he was handed over for execution. They clothed him in a purple cloak, put a crown of thorns on his head and saluted him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” “They struck his head, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they put his clothes back on him and led him out to crucify him. They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross,” probably because Jesus was too weak to carry it himself as was the tradition.
22Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’
—this sign “King of the Jews” that was meant to mock Jesus, but really they mocked themselves as history would show.
27And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads … In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves….’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
–Notice that – The bandits who were crucified on either side for being guerrilla fighters or terrorists against Rome mocked Jesus – in Mark’s account there is no touching exchange between them and Jesus.
33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Darkness came over the land for three hours – symbolizing spiritual darkness. Jesus was truly suffering and cried out the words from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
At the moment of his death, the Temple curtain was torn in two. The curtain separated the holy of holies, where God was thought to be particularly present, from the rest of the sanctuary where the people worshipped. The curtain tearing symbolized judgment on the temple and the temple authorities, but also, that there is no longer a separation between God and God’s people.
Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’
The centurion is the first person in Mark’s gospel to call Jesus Son of God. The one who was in command of the soldiers who executed Jesus, the one whose power came from the despised Roman government was the first to proclaim his divinity.
40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
There were many women present, three were named and two observed where his body was laid.
42 When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.
Normally when someone was crucified, their body would not be allowed to be taken down and would remain on the cross until there was little to nothing left to bury. The fact that Pilate allowed Jesus to be buried might allude to some level of doubt in his mind or heart about who Jesus was. It could also have had something to do the fact that it was a Jewish leader who asked for his body, which also means that not all of the Jewish leaders were against him.
I have always been taught that Jesus had to die – but I know that Jesus’ death was not the will of God. God does not desire crucifixion for a righteous person. So maybe things could have happened differently? Judas could have remained loyal instead of selling out. The High Priest and other Temple authorities could have advocated for another solution. Pilate had all the power and could have given a different sentence. Different decisions could have been made all along the way, but there is no denying that Jesus’ crucifixion was inevitable.
It was inevitable because that is what Rome did to people who challenged the Roman domination system. It was inevitable because Jesus challenged power systems – those of the Romans, of the culture, and those of the Temple. His entire ministry challenged the people then and challenges us now.
The last week of his life began on Sunday with a public march. He rode to town on a young donkey while peasants waved tree branches mocking the extravagant entrance of the Roman Governor who entered Jerusalem from the other side of town. Pilate would reside at his palace inside the temple walls for the biggest Jewish festival of the year which celebrated God freeing God’s people from the Pharaoh. What an irony! The Roman Governor came to town in all his glory bringing fear, suffering and death to oversee the Passover which celebrated the escape of the Hebrew people from just that kind of rule.
On Monday Jesus overturned the tables and chairs in the Temple. The Temple leaders had become more concerned with things running smoothly and with keeping the Romans happy than worshipping God and doing justice.
On Tuesday he debated Jewish leaders in the courtyard of the Temple. He did not back down and challenged their reading of Scripture, challenged their thinking about God, and challenged how they saw the world and he did it in a public way.
On Wednesday he ate at the house of a leper challenging the social boundaries that were so strict and prominent in Roman Society. He allowed a woman to anoint him with expensive perfume telling those who protested that this woman would be remembered wherever the gospel is told in a time and place where women had no power.
On Thursday Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his friends and in the midst of the wonderful meal and great festivities, he let them know that he was about to be betrayed, that his end was drawing near. He added to the symbolism of the bread and wine that were part of the meal. In the Passover meal, the flatbread reminded them of the flight of the Hebrew people from Pharaoh that was so rushed, they did not have time to let the bread rise. The wine, also called the cup of blessing, symbolized God’s faithfulness and many blessings. Now Jesus asked them to remember his broken body in the bread and his blood as a covenant in the cup. After the meal, Jesus’ spent his final moments of freedom in heartfelt prayer.
Jesus’ last week of activities, just like his life and ministry were devoted to his passion, God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom includes lepers and women, poor peasants and wealthy tax collectors. God’s kingdom is one of peace that grows out of justice – where all people have enough to eat, where all people are respected and included, where the most vulnerable, like widows and orphans, are given special care and consideration. God’s kingdom is very different— opposite from the Roman kingdom which was violent and unjust.
In the middle of my sermon work this week I learned about a Facebook post by Franklin Graham. I read his post and an open letter response through the lens of Jesus’ crucifixion according to Mark. Franklin Graham said that the answer to the police shooting problem is simple. People need to obey and respect authority. He said even if you think the police officer is wrong, you should obey. He quoted a passage from Scripture that says we should submit to our leaders and authority.
I have to say that I was surprised by this post, that a white man of privilege, who has no firsthand experience of discrimination or oppression would make a public statement on this issue. But what bothers me the most is that he is a follower of Christ. He knows the words of the Bible better than I do. He quotes from it whenever he makes a point. I read his post after just having read and studied the Last Friday according to the Gospel of Mark where Jesus was executed for not obeying and respecting Roman authority. Jesus who marched and demonstrated against authority. Jesus, who refused to answer the Roman Governor’s questions as his last act of disobedience.
Please know that I want children to be respectful. I want them to obey their parents, their teachers and coaches, their pastors and police officers – if those people with authority are righteous people. Our society runs best when all of us respect the law and people in positions of authority – if they are just laws and righteous people. Many children and adults have been the victims of abuse at the hands of teachers, coaches, pastors and police officers. People all over the world have suffered discrimination and oppression due to unjust laws – Native Americans, women, Jews, Black people – to name just a few.
It is the people who have resisted, who have disobeyed laws and authority that have brought about change, that have shined light on oppression and discrimination, that have won justice for all. Jesus died on a cross followed by Stephen, Peter, James, Paul and many, many others for disobeying authority. Gandhi was killed, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others for disobeying authority.
Jesus’ death was inevitable because Jesus did not obey Roman authority in order to shine light on injustice and unfaithfulness. Jesus challenged the leadership of the Temple and the constraints of the culture. Jesus lived his life with passion and it was His passion that resulted in his suffering and death. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus did not die for our sins, but because of our sins – our collective, corporate, go along with the status quo that supports oppression – sin.