Good Friday Sermon (2003)

Good Friday
Texts: John 18-19;
Isa. 52:13-53:12

WHY DOES JESUS’ DEATH MATTER?

I heard a news story on the radio yesterday. A Jewish man, from I’m not sure where, was suing his municipality because his voting booth is in a church, directly under a cross. He said that the last time he voted he was sick for a week.

I think we need to take this man’s experience seriously, especially today of all days, when we once again ponder the meaning of the cross. We need to take seriously that too many Christians have used the cross to justify persecuting and even killing Jews. “You killed Jesus!” we Christians have cried, just before killing a Jew. This is not just a tragedy. I submit to you tonight that it is a direct betrayal of what the cross is about. The cross is the means by which we might be saved from our violence, not the excuse to do more. All the violence committed under the banner of the cross should make us sick, too.

A week or so ago I received an email which flabbergasted me. It notified me that my website, “Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary,” has been nominated for a 2003 Webby Award in the spirituality category. I guess it’s kind of like an academy award for Internet sites. At first, I wondered, “Is this a joke or something?” Upon checking it out, I found it’s legitimate and quite an honor. The technology writer for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel called this week to interview me for a story that will be in the technology section this Tuesday.

This has been truly flattering and humbling, a great honor. But I share this with you tonight because of some thought-provoking responses at the Webby Award website. On the page at which visitors can vote for their favorite spirituality website,(1) quite a debate is raging around my site, the other four sites nominated in the spirituality category, and a growing number of write-in candidates. Among the promoters of write-in candidates are many voters who proudly call themselves “pagans,” and they are seriously nominating websites such as “Witches Voice.” These respondants are also critical of the fact that the spirituality category is so focused on the Judeo-Christian traditions. One person posted this response:

If this (the Webby) is the most prestigious award in American websites, why are the nominees for the award wholly Judeo-Christian in tradition? This does not reflect the state of American religion, nor that of religious-focused websites on our net…. You know what, I have these words for all Christians out there: You destroyed the native peoples of all lands that you have trodden … but many of us are still here, please don’t ignore us anymore, you will know us because we are the religions that actually love the earth and other humans. It is time for your murderous, genocidal and abusive cult to wake-up and grow-up. You are not here alone, and your methods, if you choose to continue to embrace them will cause the downfall of all humans because of the greed and ignorance that they breed. The God you know, my friends, is a deceiver.

Again, although it’s difficult, I think we Christians need to seriously listen to such criticisms. With all the violence we have committed in the name of God, isn’t that God precisely what that writer says, “a deceiver” — in other words, an idol? When Christians commit violence in God’s name, who are the real pagans? In fact, hasn’t violence carried out in the name of Christ unwittingly driven many people to more traditional paganism?(2) Check out the “New Age” bookshelves the next time you go to Barnes & Noble. After so many centuries of bloodshed, people are sick and tired of the violence done in the name of religion and so are more inclined to side with the victims of our violence. Many folks are turning to Native American religion, for example.

I share this reaction and raise these questions because they relate to why I do this website in the first place: I fervently believe that the Church of Christ is still in need of significant reformation. Luther brought us a huge step forward when he personally faced the violence of the church in his day, namely, the very real threat of being burned at the stake as a heretic. In the face of such violence, Luther helped us to emphasize the gracious and loving God we meet in Jesus Christ.

But Luther didn’t quite finish the job when he left intact in his theology a hidden part of God in which violence and vengeance can reside. He didn’t take us the last step of seeing that this violent part of God, held in reserve, is precisely the false idol of a god we use to justify our violence — precisely the kind of violence we have used too many times against Jews, for example. Luther himself, especially near the end of his life, came to support the kind of violence connected with the cross which quite rightly made that Jewish man sick when forced to vote under a cross. It should make us sick, too. It should help us to finally recognize our sickness — and the forgiving grace that can help us get well.

The perspective which has helped me, the one to which my website is dedicated, is the Gospel anthropology of René Girard. It is a Gospel understanding of who we are as human beings — one that calls attention to the violence of the cross in order to both show us the depth of the problem we humans have with violence and the amazing grace which enables us to change. The cross had to be about violence in order to reveal our role in it. And it does so in the only way that God could do it without becoming violent right along with us. God doesn’t use divine violence to stop us. Instead, the Father allows the Son to die on the cross to our violence, and then raises him up so that we might finally see the impotence of violence. We can finally see that there’s another way. God is a God of life, so much so that not even Jesus’ death on the cross could thwart such a power of life. Jesus stood against the powers of violence, having faith in a God whose power of life cannot be vanquished. And we can, too.

But there’s still something that’s almost impossible for us to see here — the reason why we still need a reformation of the church almost 2000 years after the cross. And the importance of an anthropology, as opposed to theology, is that this thing we are blind to is about us, not God. The thing we are so resistant to seeing is precisely what the cross is — not just violence, but an act of righteous violence. Those who killed Jesus saw it as an act of justice, following their law. God wanted them to kill this blasphemer Jesus, or so they thought. And then Christians throughout the ages have seen themselves as righteous when they blamed Jews for killing Jesus and persecuted them.

We need to be absolutely clear about the difference of what I’m calling righteous violence. What is always our solution to unwanted violence? Isn’t it to bring another counter-violence against it? We see that counter-violence of ours as righteous. As such, we don’t really see it as violence, at least not in the same way as the unwanted violence we are trying to stop. The other person’s violence we can see as violence alright. But when we use violence to stop the other person, it’s different, right? It’s a righteous violence. We probably don’t even call it violence. We use words and phrases like “capital punishment,” or “collateral damage,” or my favorite oxymoron “force for peace.” I submit to you this Good Friday that the point of the cross is for all of us to finally see the problem we have with our righteous violence.

Examples abound. A couple years ago I could hold up the example of Timothy McVeigh, as he was about to be executed. That whole mess, if you remember, really started with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, who believed it righteous, commanded by God, to stockpile dangerous weapons. Our government saw itself right to use violence to stop the Branch Dividians. Timothy McVeigh disagreed, and so he deeply believed himself to be righteous in carrying out his act of violence in Oklahoma City, on the anniversary of the Branch Davidian holocaust. And we can ask ourselves: when we took Timothy McVeigh’s life, were we righteous in doing so? This year, of course, the example I so often lift up to us is our struggle against the horror of terrorists who see themselves as righteous. And the only answer that seems right to us is to use violence to stop it — right?

It is this sin of righteous violence that I believe the crucified God in Jesus Christ is desperate for us to see. We Christians have gotten good at copping to a whole variety of sins. There’s the juicy sins like sexual immorality or drunkenness or adultery. There’s the more subtle sins like pride and shame. But the sin we still haven’t seen is the sin that the cross specifically is. The cross isn’t directly about sex. It isn’t directly about pride or shame. No, the thing the cross most directly involves is violence — and not just any violence, but an act of righteous violence.

Dear People of God, in Jesus Christ God is trying to show us the only way to peace. Violence will never end as long as we think that our righteous violence is the only way to stop it. So, in Jesus Christ, God submits to our righteous violence in order to show us another definition of righteousness which is completely nonviolent. Rather, it is a righteousness that takes our violence upon itself and responds with forgiveness instead of vengeance. Talk about grace! The cross is our violence meeting God’s unconditional love and forgiveness — and God’s unstoppable power of life (but that celebration is for “in three days”). Today, as we once again ponder the mystery of the cross, it is the answer we need to finally let God begin leading our feet into the way of peace. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, April 18, 2003

1. The Webby Awards: People’s Voice. You must register, and then they immediately email you a password to use. Once you have voted you can continually return to that page and check the latest posts and responses in each category.

2. For those familiar with Girard’s work, there is the thesis that the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, has been working throughout the ages to turn our modern spirit toward concern for the victim. The tragic irony of neo-paganism, then, is that Christian violence against pagans throughout the ages has helped create a sympathy for pagans in our modern situation. Many have a sympathy for Christiendom’s victims without realizing that that sympathy comes from the work of the Christian Gospel in the world — that the Paraclete continues to work change on behalf of the victims despite the betrayal of those who transmit the Gospel.

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