Good Friday marks the darkest point in the Christian year. The point where all of our fears are made manifest. Where violence wins and hatred reigns. Where grace and peace are left are tattered on the floor.
And of course, we know where the story ends. We wouldn’t hold trust if we didn’t, but for today, to believe, we first have to lose our faith.
This is one of the deep and lasting paradoxes of the Christian faith, that once a year, we let go of hope and we embrace our doubt as central to our faith. Today we allow ourselves to sink into the darkness so that we can feel fully what it means to be hopeless.
Sunday is coming, and we cannot pretend we don’t know, but today we are all atheists.
Our Lord has died, and we struggle to see what joy could possibly be ahead. As Jude verse 22 says, "be merciful to those who doubt" because today is all about doubt.
It was only five days ago that we rehearsed Jesus entry into Jerusalem. The symbolism and the poetry, the pageantry and politics of this moment, as Jesus contrasts himself with Caesar.
It is caesar’s representative Pilate who entered the city from the west that day. Escorted by armed guards, riding a warhorse, chanting slogans of imperial power, reminding the people not to test the patience of Rome.
And then there was Jesus on the mount of olives entering the city from the east. In that same moment but surrounded by the poor and the forgotten, unarmed and riding on a donkey, toward his counterpart.
Later these two kings would, of course, meet each other and Pilate will decide to crucify this man that he knows is innocent. He will go against his conscience to protect the power he has come to wield. Power seems to have this strange ability to undermine us to project itself.
John records for us the pivotal conversation between two would be kings.
“Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.
“Is that your own question, or have others talk to you about me?” Jesus answered.
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It’s your own people and chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you’ve done to them?”
But Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest. No, my kingdom is from another place.”
“So, then you are a king,” said Pilate.
But again Jesus answered him, “You say that I am a king. The reason I am here is to testify to the truth. And everyone on the side of truth hears my voice.”
“What is truth?” spate back Pilate. And with that, he went out to the crowd gathered and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. But the custom is for me to release one prisoner at the time of the Passover.
Do you want me to release this ‘king of the Jews’ to you?”
And they shouted back, “No, not him!
It’s a pretty remarkable moment. Jesus has contrasted himself with Caesar, but now that difference is put to the test.
One of my personal traditions is that every year during Holy Week I reread a chapter from Mikhail Bulgakov’s work the Master and Margarita. Be forewarned if you’re looking for some light reading this is a strange book that sits somewhere between fantasy and farce, and it jumps fluidly between modern Russia and ancient Palestine. One of the chapters, however, revolves around this particular conversation between Jesus and Pilate.
In Bulgakov’s telling Pilate is fascinated by this wandering philosopher slash preacher, this man who appears to have very little interest in politics or power. He wonders how he has ended here on trial before a Roman prefect, and so interrogates him.
Why are here?
Are you a king?
Are you a threat to Rome?
Do you see yourself as opposed to us?
At one point Pilate turns to Jesus who Bulgakov refers by his Jewish name Yeshua and asks,
“Do you know a certain man named Judas and if so have you ever spoken to him about Caesar?
The prisoner affirmed readily, “Yes.”
“And is he a good man?” asked Pilate, a diabolical glitter in his eye.
“A very good man and eager to learn,” affirmed Yeshua. “He asked me for my views on the government, and the question seemed to interest him very much.”
“And what did you say?” asked Pilate, “Or are you going to reply that you have forgotten?” Already a note of hopelessness in Pilate's voice.
“I said,” continued the prisoner, “that all power exercised over people is a form of violence
and that the time will come when there will be no rule by Caesar nor any other man. For humankind will pass into the kingdom of God where no sort of violence will be needed.”
“And will this kingdom of God come?” asked Pilate.
“It will,” replied Yeshua with conviction.
“It will never come!” Pilate suddenly shouted in a voice so terrible that Yeshua staggered back. Many years ago in the Valley of the Virgins Pilate had shouted in that same voice to his horsemen: “Cut them down! Cut them down!” And now again he raised his parade-ground voice, barking out the words so that they would be heard in the garden: “Criminal!
“Do you imagine, you miserable creature, that a Roman Procurator could release a man who has said what you have said to me? I do not believe in your ideas!”
Then lowering his voice, he asked: “Do you believe in any gods?”
“God is one,” answered Yeshua. “I believe.”
“Then pray! Pray hard! However, (and at this Pilate's voice fell again) it will do you no good.”
What Bulgakov does for me in his fictional accounting of this pivotal moment is drive me headlong into the conflict that separates Jesus from those who play at king.
Jesus and his friends are no threat to the armies of Rome, especially since they refuse to defend themselves, but his ideas, his way, his path in the world, if actually followed threatens to destabilize even the empires that surround us.
Miroslav Volf once wrote that “Pilate deserves our sympathies, not because he was a good though tragically mistaken man, but because we are not much better. We may believe in Jesus, but we do not believe in his ideas, at least not his ideas about violence, truth, and justice.” (Exclusion and Embrace, 276)
And why would we?
After all, as soon as the conversation is over,
Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “All Hail, king of the Jews!”
They slapped him in the face.
And Pilate said to him “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
But Jesus answered, “You have no power over me.”
And so Pilate handed him over to be crucified.
During Holy Week Jesus has taught us that donkeys are better than warhorses and peace comes through grace, not war and embrace trumps exclusion and yet here, is Jesus beaten purple, and bruised beyond recognition, mocked and taunted and tortured and about to be executed.
In this moment, what is there left to believe in? It was good try, but it didn’t work.
And so Jesus is hung on a cross and as he is about to expire even his faith seems to falter as Jesus cries out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)
God, why have you forgotten me. You abandoned me. Ignored me and left me alone in this moment where I have put everything on the line for you. If even the divine son wonders if God is real maybe there is a reason to doubt after all.
Now there are a lot of different ways we have tried to make sense of this moment, but Jesus words here are actually a quote from the Hebrew scriptures.
Psalm 22 in fact, which begins,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer.
A psalm that continues,
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the LORD,” they say, “let the LORD rescue him.
A poem that ends,
And yet God has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted;
He has not hidden his face but has listened to the cry for help.
And the poor will eat and be satisfied;
and those who seek the LORD will praise him.
For all the earth will remember and turn to the LORD
They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: That God has done it!
So perhaps the reason Jesus quotes this Psalm is that he wants to believe and when he struggles to trust he remind himself of God’s faithfulness. Perhaps at this moment he even recites the whole poem, but Matthew records the first line as a shorthand reminder for us to go and read the Psalms for ourselves.
And maybe this weekend on Holy Saturday while you experience the emptiness of your doubts you might read Psalm 22 from beginning to ending and trust that God is present even in your middle where the world seems hard and full of Roman power.
And yet maybe there is more as well.
The theologian Jürgen Moltmann says that this moment here is the very centre of Christian theology. It’s the moment where Christianity transcends everything that has come before and makes it’s unique mark on history because here the transcendent God becomes the immanent divine.
God who is wholly other experiences something new.
God has always existed from before time as perfect unity, this divine dance of Trinity but now in an attempt to be near to us, and to love us, and show us a new way forward, to save us, God too experiences the despair of separation. Now perhaps Jesus knows somewhere deep in his soul, that in the end, the power of the Spirit will bring him back to God and reunite Son with Father.
But here in this moment, God is about to be alone for the very first time.
And God hurts.
And God is scared.
And God wonders if it was all worth it.
And if it's strange for you to imagine God in that language then imagine this moment for God who has never known anything but perfect union about to put God’s convictions to the test to see if love really can overcome the violence of the world, to see if grace is bigger than sin.
At Christmas God becomes human but at Easter, the human experience becomes part of God.
And our pain becomes holy.
And our doubts become sacred.
Because here your struggle is welcomed with open arms into the divine dance.
If you have encountered the way of Jesus but struggle to believe that peace can really overcome the world, if you have come to love Jesus but struggle to see how grace can redeem and transform your story, then know that this holy weekend you are supposed to doubt the truth of this moment.
You are supposed to struggle with the darkness of this story.
You are supposed to flirt with the idea of abandoning God the way that God seems to have abandoned you.
It is only once we have become the cynic that we can truly experience the beauty of being brought back from the brink.
On Good Friday Jesus dies and descends into the hell of being disconnected from God
trusting that the Spirit will do what the Spirit does bringing life and breathe back to what was once dead.
Because love wins but only because love is willing to give everything away.
A faith that has never lost itself in doubt will always be one crisis away from giving up, but the supple faith that knows the depths of Good Friday is more resilient than all the certainty in the world.
So may you doubt this Good Friday and hurt this Holy Saturday all so that you might experience the joy of the spirit’s breath as it renews life this Resurrection Sunday.