Good Friday: Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 19:1-42
Rev. Cameron Partridge
April 7, 2023
In my mind’s eye I can clearly picture myself, a child of about seven in a clearing behind my elementary school with a small group of other children. I was angry, enraged. Earlier in the day one of them, a playmate, had done something so infuriating that I had challenged him to a fight. This picture seems bizarre to me – I am not now, nor have I ever truly been one to pick a fight. I never had a dad (or mom, or parent of any gender) who encouraged me to deck the other kid who insulted me, nor would I ever tell my own children to do so. Stand up for yourself, refuse to be a doormat? Yes. Get help from a trusted adult? Yes. Sock the other person? No. Yet there I was behind the school waiting for my friend. As he approached and the kids began to form a circle around us, I started dancing around like boxers I’d seen on TV. I can only imagine how ridiculous I must have looked. My friend looked at me and started to laugh. “Chicken of the sea!” he cried out. The others joined him, the phrase becoming a kind of chant – or perhaps the commercial jingle of the time: “Ask any mermaid you happen to see, what’s the best tuna? Chicken of the Sea!” Then they all melted back into the neighborhood, the fight over before it could begin. I don’t remember the precipitating incident except that this later ridicule was an extension of it. My friend had not taken me seriously in some manner, and then had escalated that response into what I experienced as gender shaming. He had refused to treat me – earnest, inveterate tomboy that I was – as truly among his gendered kind. It was not simply his refusal but the inciting of our mixed gender group of friends to join in mockery, that cut me to the quick. And so I came to know that even if you liked and played well with people as individuals, sometimes when they got together in a group, things could turn.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the mixture of turning and shaming was one of the first patterns that struck the child and teen me as I really tuned in to the Passion narratives we read and share each Holy Week. I noticed that Jesus was not only brutally killed, but that he was also mocked and stigmatized along the way. “Hail, King of the Judeans” the soldiers cried to a Jesus who had been dressed in a purple robe, a crown of thorns painfully pressed on his head (John 19:2-3). “Crucify him! Crucify him!” the crowd chanted, including members of his own community. His follower and friend Peter denied their relationship in a devastating way. And most notoriously of course, Jesus’ disciple Judas received money to betray him to the authorities, setting in motion his arrest and death. Psalm 22, traditionally recited or sung on this day and intoned by Jesus on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” underlines the anguished sense of abandonment and isolation that Jesus undoubtedly felt in the midst of this process.
In the years after noticing this pattern, I began to be moved by another aspect of the story: that in the experience of the fully human, fully divine Jesus, God was embracing us and all creation at the deepest level. God was overcoming the abandonment, the shame, the hurt that we inflict on one another—not by preventing it from ever happening, but by refusing to allow it to separate us from God, no matter how awful the conflict we unleash. God is not a God “who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” as our passage from the Letter to the Hebrews conveys (Heb. 4:15). Quite the opposite. We have a God who has been tried in the fires of our fury, One in whose life death itself has been swallowed up. When we approach God carrying whatever heavily weighs our hearts, pilgrims though we are through this weary land, we need not be timid. We can be bold, Hebrews proclaims, knowing that a well of divine mercy deeper than we can fathom greets us, poised to bathe us in grace (Heb. 4:16).
This well of mercy is also not only an individual matter. If Jesus’ passion unfolded to a significant degree through the dynamics of groups, communities, then the Paschal Mystery itself must also speak to us as collective people—multiple groupings and families that are always also part of a wider whole, no matter how individual our pathways may be. It not only speaks to us collectively, it forms us anew in and as community, as family. The crucified one calls us to risk the leap into true, deep, ongoing belonging.
As a young adult, making my way into queer and later trans communities, it was fairly easy to see that members of marginalized groups are subject to projections from people outside our communal bounds. We can observe that pattern right now in the wave of anti-trans legislation proliferating across our country, in the UK, and other countries around the world. There is something about the complexity of gender, a deeper reality that we who are trans and/or non-binary reveal – that belies the notion that gender is simple and always binary. That revelation can have a destabilizing effect on those who are committed to a strictly binary vision of the world, as if everyone’s gender is made intolerably unstable by our lived realities. Rather than engage in open inquiry into the mystery of this complexity, the response is to shun it, to erase it. In consideration of this pattern, an insight from a Good Friday reflection by Martin Smith speaks to me: “We build up our false selves on the principle that we are right and good enough; evil lies outside us, incarnated in ‘them’” – fill in the stigmatized blank. Even if one has some small insight into how the projection may be working from a community outside one’s own, it can be deeply demoralizing to be on the receiving end of it.
The events that led to Jesus’ arrest and death were more complicated than a simple us-them, inside-outside group dynamic. We see various roles labeled in our Passion narrative: Pilate, the soldiers, the chief priests, the Judeans. The ultimate driver of Jesus’s death was the Roman Empire, a force oppressive to all minoritized religious groups, including Jesus’ own Jewish community which in turn contained subcommunities with complex dynamics (e.g. the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Essenes). Members of the same community, or members of adjacent subcommunities, can have conflict just as painful as those with an outside oppressor, if not more. The internal conflicts can be just as dangerous, too, especially when a larger oppressor group seeks to divide and conquer them. In the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when Christianity shifted from the margins to the center of the Roman Empire, imperial forms of Christianity began to interpret the painful inter-communal conflicts made visible in the Passion Narratives in ways that stigmatized and “othered” Judaism. Rather than seeing Jesus as part of a “we” or “us” that included Judaism, rather than understanding that Christianity grew up and out of teachings that share revered roots with this tradition, Imperial Christianity built up a “false self,” to use Smith’s language. That imperial “self” demonized Jesus’ own tradition, generating a theology that has been used to justify horrendous atrocities against Jewish people. The Gospel of John’s Passion Narrative with its frequent reference to οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι, often translated as “the Jews,” is in our translation rendered mostly as “the Judeans” to emphasize regional, inter-communal dynamics, exacerbated and in the case of Jesus’s death driven by the impress of Roman Imperialism. Especially in a context where anti-Semitism is on the rise, it is so crucial that we who are Christian name our part in this terrible history, in this communal projection, and repent of it.
That repentance calls us to go deep, to open ourselves ultimately to the mystery of the cross itself. Just after Martin Smith comments about letting go of an attachment to being right, the righteous “I” over against an evil “them,” he continues, “to abandon this principle is tantamount to consenting to the dismantling of the very structures of our selves. If ‘I’ and ‘them’ should give way to ‘we,’ then a new self with a new center would have to be found. The cross kills the old self that was based on the fiction that the others are the guilty.” How easy it is to nurture the injured self, the internal one despised and of no account, the fool… the Chicken of the Sea. “We know very well,” says Sister Benedicta Ward, “that the roots of tormenting one another are within each of us; Christ was not crucified by someone else; it was and is me.” And this is why we as a whole join in the bolded, italicized portions of the Passion Narrative. In our drive to reinforce ourselves over and against perceived enemies, in fear for our safety and desire for security, in the face of forces that drive us apart, humanity chooses again and again the road that leads to oppression and death. It can be so easy in recognition of that terrible truth, in observation of our worst tendencies individually and especially collectively, to refuse community. To forgo trust. To hand ourselves over to unchecked cynicism and disconnection.
And this is precisely where the cross of Christ intervenes, inviting us into deeper transformation. Jesus had navigated a surreal scene, caught in the gears of communal conflict, refusing to concede what others attributed to him – especially the title King. He was lifted high on the tree of the cross, a grain growing toward the sun, in order to lead us and all creation into mystery of resurrection life (John 12:24). As he hangs on the threshold of death, he does not withdraw. Rather he creates community anew. He calls his own mother and the mysterious Beloved Disciple into new belonging, handing them over to one another: “here is your mother… here is your son.” Following Jesus all the way to the cross, we too are invited to open ourselves, to come to know even as we have been known, belonging to a “we” beyond what our senses can perceive or our hearts can fathom. We are indeed healed by and in his wounds because they are ours and ours are his. Together, we are brought home to God in the mystery of Christ who opens wide his arms upon the cross. May we be upheld and transformed by his saving embrace.
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaJhkHFYCh8  https://www.vox.com/politics/23631262/trans-bills-republican-state-legislatures  Martin Smith, A Season for the Spirit: Readings for the Days of Lent (New York: Seabury Press, 1991, 2004), 177.  The edits in today’s Good Friday service is adapted from the Good Friday liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer are based upon the work of the Rev. Dr. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski to intervene in and address the terrible legacy of Christian anti-Semitism linked particularly to interpretations of the Gospel of John and the Good Friday service. His adaptation of the Good Friday liturgy can be found at https://tinyurl.com/mvsznb3t An Episcopal News Service article about the ongoing conversation in The Episcopal Church about how to intervene liturgically in Christian anti-Judaism can be found here: https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2022/04/12/churches- eye-alternate-liturgies-bible-translations-amid-anti-jewish-concerns-on-good-friday/  Martin Smith, A Season for the Spirit, 177  Benedicta Ward, In the Company of Christ: A Pilgrimage Through Holy Week (New York: Church Publishing, 2005), 37