Our Need: Good Friday 2023

If you don’t follow me on social media, you may have missed that we are in a Holy Week series entitled “Our Need.” You can catch up on Instagram or Facebook.

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

Matthew 27:15-23 NRSVUE

Reject, for a moment, the 21st Century tragedy of Christ’s death. His hanging, the flogging of him in the public square, his naked body bleeding all over the ground, the twisting of the thorns into his skull and brain matter, is not sad. It’s not something to cry about or be horrified of. It’s the sheer ecstasy of watching your biggest adversary punished.

It’s Donald Trump being marched into a New York City court room.

It’s democrats being expelled from a Tennessean legislature.

It’s trash talking my least favorite colleague in a cidery with my friends.

It’s your idolatry of a politicized fear at the expense of a person sitting in front of you.

This public, political execution is a victory, not a funeral.

I don’t imagine the chief priests and elders were entirely different from those today. Perhaps things were a little more bipartisan, a little less divisive, but I imagine that there were thick and deep divisions. There were public debates and profound disagreements. Yet when it came to the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of the Christ, the people were in agreement. There was no division on this day. There was no debate about the merits of Christ or the failures of Barabbas. “Let him be crucified!” the crowd cheers not once but twice, emphasizing their certainty.

They watched Jesus’s bloodied, soiled, naked, body with glee, not sadness. This was the ancient equivalent of a superhero movie, a packed house on opening night. Entertainment of epic proportions. As I look around our country and our world, I see a lot of this dark entertainment, a lot of this celebration of torture.

I see the exposed sexual shame of a powerful man and a blatant embracing of our nation’s long and recent history of omitting Black people from spaces of power. I see in my own self a conscious choice to choose derision and defamation in dark corners over empathy and conversations held in the vulnerability of the light. I see my neighbors celebrating fear and fearing celebrating authenticity. I hear the blood hungry chanting for Barabbas and I am horrified at the rawing of my own throat in celebration of this rebel being sent to the gallows.

This is our need this Good Friday, friends. In the midst of national and global upheaval, violence, and division, we need to make a decision.

In front of us, on social media and in conversations with friends, in state legislatures and depicted in the national media, we are being asked to make a decision between the releasing of one prisoner and the releasing of another. We can free the guilty and crucify the chargeless. Both Barabaas and the Christ await your verdict. Who is worthy of our sympathy? Who is worthy of freedom?

We are being asked to kneel at the foot of a throne of the almighty Pilate, entrusted to do the will of the people, or fall on our face at the foot of a bloody and urine-soaked cross. One of these men has the power to kill a man, and the other has the power to rise from the dead.  Who is worthy of our worship?

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Matthew 27:45-54 NRSVUE

There is another decision we have to make on this Good Friday. We are being asked to respond to the cry of suffering. We can hold out a wine-soaked sponge or we can sit idly by and test the intervention of a god we only worship with our mouth. How will we respond to the suffering that is pervasive in every corner of our community?

I see suffering that is indignant and profound. I see suffering that is historical and current. I see suffering that is poisoning our relationships and our bodies, individually and communally. How will we respond to this tension between our ideology and our idolatry?

And when it erupts in profound destruction, when everything is made as plain as day in the earthquake and the tearing of a legalistic curtain, what will our response be then? Will we recognize our faults or will we close our eyes and blame the weather?

It is Good Friday, my friends, and it is time that we face not only our individual shortcomings but also our local, national, and global ones. We need this reckoning and reframing of the crucifixion, not as a somber and sorrowful day where we lock hands with the Marys on our way to bury our savior, but where we chant with glee and mockery at the assassination of a champion of the disgusting and irredeemable other. We need to face our mockery in the face of suffering, our apathetic attitude in the face of injustice.

We are not so sad to see our Messiah forfeit his home in heaven to land on a hill and die for us. We are happy to see our political prisoner, our enemy, this King of the powerless bleed out and extinguish in front of our eyes. We are content to wait on the sidelines for God to prove God’s authority.

But when that earthquake comes, I hope we have at least the courage to interrupt the suffering with a piercing and harrowing regret, “Truly, this man was God’s Son!” I hope we recognize our limitations and our failures and embrace this coming Kingdom where everyone has the chance to come in and be made whole again.

I do not fear the tyrant and yet I am the enabler of the tyrant’s power. I mourn for the death of my King and yet I am happy to let him suffer lest I be swept up in the persecution.

Come for us, Sunday. Come for us, Christ. 

Let justice and grace tear down our walls of warfare and apathy that we might someday walk in peace among our siblings and our God.

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition Bible, copyright © 1989; 2021 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America and are used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Bryce Van Vleet is the #1 selling author of Tired Pages and Before We All Die Let’s Have One Last Chat by the Fireside. He also hosts the podcast Death in Dakota and sells poetry art here. You can support him by clicking through blog posts or donating (scroll to the bottom of the page).

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