Good Friday – April 3, 2015
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 | Psalm 22 | Hebrews 10:16-25 | John 18:1-19:42
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?”
Those who want to arrest Jesus answer, ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ and Jesus says, ‘I am he.’
At the very beginning of the Gospel of John, we hear that same question. Two disciples of John the Baptist one day hear John call Jesus the Lamb of God, and so they start to follow Jesus. Jesus turns around and asks them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They don’t answer, but ask instead where he is staying. Jesus says, ‘Come and see.’ After they spend the day with him, they have an answer, telling their friends, ‘We have found the Messiah.’
Whom are you looking for? Come and see. I am he. A straightforward question; a simple answer.
But nobody in the story really understands the answer. Judas has his own idea of what Jesus should be, what he should have done, and he can’t stand it that Jesus isn’t that person after all. Jesus isn’t what he’s looking for in a leader. So he sells him out to those who will crucify him.
The chief priests don’t like how Jesus is gathering the crowds, and the blasphemous things he says about being one with God. Jesus isn’t what they’re looking for in a teacher. So they organize his arrest, and reprimand him when he speaks too plainly to the high priest.
Peter is scared that what is happening to Jesus will happen to him too. Jesus isn’t manifesting power and glory, and the future looks very bleak indeed. So he denies he knows Jesus, even when he’s asked three different times.
The people turn on Jesus when he stops performing signs and feeding them. Jesus isn’t their personal miracle worker after all. So they call for the release of a bandit instead of Jesus, saying ‘We have no king but Caesar.’
Pilate debates and parries with Jesus, intrigued but confused by this enigmatic figure before him. Jesus isn’t the philosopher he was hoping for, and so Pilate asks wearily, ‘What is truth?’ ignoring the truth made flesh there before him.
Each and every person in the story is looking for Jesus to be something or someone else, other than who he is. They’re disappointed, they’re disapproving, they’re scared. And so they betray him, torture him, and kill him.
It’s a simple story, really, and a familiar one. The cast of characters in the Passion story set some two thousand years ago is actually us, here and now, today. Jesus asks us, What are you looking for? What indeed – what is it we are really longing for?
Seeking and questing and looking for something is what’s gotten us here today, part of a community of people trying to worship God and follow Jesus. Some inchoate desire for meaning and rootedness, some need for structure and clarity in a confusing life, some good news in our suffering – something draws us into church in a time and place when most of the world around us isn’t bothering anymore. We are looking for something, or someone. We’ve come to see.
But when we’re given the answer to our question, we are at a loss as to how to behave. Wait, this is what we’re being offered? It doesn’t look quite right. It’s not as clear as we want it to be; it looks like weakness and not power; it’s demanding that we change, and throwing our assumptions out the window. So we back off. We put other things in priority before the one thing that should be most important. We respond with fear, afraid of the implications for us and our lives. We philosophize like Pilate, talking any and every way around the truth without letting ourselves look at it in the face. We argue over form and how we think things should look, like Judas and the chief priests, intent on making God in our own image, making Jesus fit our political and personal tastes. We run scared like Peter when it looks too risky, when it seems like this life will demand too much from us, when it feels too dangerous to stick around. And just like all of those in the Passion story, we cut ourselves off from the truth right there before us.
Whom are you looking for? Jesus answers, ‘I am he.’
What do we hope to hear in that? I am he, the one who will make everything better for you, the great fixer. I am he, the one who will affirm you in your choices, and take away any worrisome guilt. I am he, the one who is on your side against those other people, the ones you don’t agree with. I am he, the one who wants most of all for you to be happy.
No. The truth of who Jesus is, what he says when he answers ‘I am he whom you seek,’ is love. Love is the essence of the message we hear today, through the readings, the prayers, the way of the cross we will walk together. There on the cross, the God who loves us so much gives up God’s very self for us. The story of the Passion is the story of fierce, self-giving, uncompromising love, and the triumph of that love over all the forces of death and evil – the forces in us and around us. This is love that upends our lives. Love that could upend the world. That is what Good Friday is about. It is truth, it is what we are looking for, it is whom we seek – and it shakes our foundations.
Because yes, it does have implications for our lives. The story of the Passion includes a call to us – not only what we seek, but what seeks us. As you, Father, have sent me into the world, said Jesus, so I have sent them into the world, these people you have given me. In all the familiar cast of characters in this story, the one whose role we are really meant to live out is not Judas or Peter or Pilate, but Jesus. Just as Jesus gives himself, we are meant to give ourselves in love. ‘Love one another as I have loved you,’ Jesus tells us. Love as Jesus loves, give up all our pride and ego and self-serving ways, all our fear and focus on ourselves, all our attempts to hold the boundaries and define who is in and who is out. Go where love demands – even if that means giving up our very lives. On this day our model and guide, our Messiah, hangs on the cross; in that way we too must be prepared to go. It is hard to say which terrifies us most – knowing we are called to love like that, or knowing that that is how we ourselves are loved.
We think of Good Friday as a sad, empty day. But for all the grief and tragedy, this day is not empty, but full. Full of love for us. Full of the straightforward truth of the one we seek holding us there in love – arms stretched wide to bring everyone within the reach of his saving embrace. Full of the deep, glad goodness that is our call in this world. Good Friday is not the story we would write. It is a simple story, straight and to the point. What are you looking for? You are looking for love. Here it is.
There is one more time Jesus asks this question in the Gospel of John. It is a story in a garden, an event that takes place a few days from now. And the one who is asked realizes that what she is looking for is right there before her, fuller of life and love than she had ever dreamed possible. She sees clearly, and she goes to share the truth with others.
Will we accept it? Do we accept this love given to us? Can we see how deeply and completely we are loved by God in this act of complete self-giving? And will we ourselves go forth from this place and this story to love one another in the same way?
Whom do you seek? What are you looking for? Come and see, says Jesus. I am he.