GOOD FRIDAY 2017—SERMON—Rev. Dr. D.L. Boisvert
In the name of the one, holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
Ask yourself the question. What if Jesus had said no? What if he had chosen not to die on the cross? He certainly could have done that. Like all of us, he had free will. If Jesus had chosen not to die on the cross, for one, there would be no salvation—at least, not the way we understand it. As well, there would have been no resurrection; so, no Christian faith. And we probably would not be here this afternoon in this Cathedral. In fact, it’s probably quite difficult for us even to imagine this scenario. But we do need to ask ourselves the question, because it allows us to make sense of what happened on that fateful day. Why, then, did Jesus choose to undergo the crucifixion?
Theologians have provided different responses to that question: the theory of atonement—the idea that Jesus died as payment for our sins—being undoubtedly the most widely known. We need to shift our perspective. We need to begin by looking not at the cross per se, but at the dynamics of human culture in order to get a clearer sense of the true meaning of Jesus’ death. Thinkers have argued that the edifice of human culture is founded on gratuitous violence, and more specifically on the violence done to innocent victims. The innocent victim—whoever they may be, whether individually or collectively—becomes the means by which societies and cultures rally together and create a sense of collective purpose and identity. This is not stated explicitly—and most of us aren’t really aware of this dynamic—but we are all complicit in the process. Think of all those times in history, and even still today, where the innocent victim becomes the means of deflecting the violence operative in certain societies or cultures: Jews in the Middle Ages and during the Holocaust; Christians in the Middle East; people of colour at the time of slavery; Muslims in many places today; aboriginal peoples, women, gay men and lesbians, trans people. This is the image of the scapegoat: a practice from ancient Israel where the sins of the community were ritually and symbolically placed on a goat or sheep, and the animal was then driven into the wilderness to be devoured by wild beasts, thereby exonerating the community from its sins.
But the thing about the innocent or blameless victim is precisely this: they do not choose to place themselves in the role of the victim. It is assigned to them, thrust upon them as it were, by the wider culture. The dynamics of violence, on which hangs the entire fragile edifice of human culture, thereby remain hidden. No one questions them. Moreover, with this concealment, the mysterious power of death remains absolute. Death retains its ability to frighten and to alarm us.
What does Jesus do that’s different? He deliberately and willingly chooses to place himself in the role of the innocent and blameless victim. In doing this, he retains his unqualified freedom. And why does Jesus do this? Precisely so as to unmask—to bring out into the open, but also to subvert—the sinful dynamics of violence operative at the heart of our collective lives, and to which each one of us is a guilty party. It’s as if Jesus were saying: “Look, I have chosen to die like this, a truly guiltless victim, so that you can be freed from the illusion and security that unacknowledged collective violence brings you. Now you know what lies at the heart of your human culture. You need no longer be afraid of death. I have freed you. You can now live liberated from that burden. As a follower of mine, you must refuse complicity in creating other blameless and innocent victims, because I chose to be one myself. You must live in opposition to this unspoken dynamic of gratuitous violence that is the very foundation of your human society.”
It is surely the freedom of the choice made by Jesus that is most remarkable here. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote the following in his most recent Lenten book:
“So the cross is a sign of the transcendent freedom of the love of God. This is a God whose actions, and whose reaction to us, cannot be dictated by what we do. We can’t trap, trick or force God into behaving against [God’s] character. You can do what you like: but God is God. And if [God] wants to love and forgive then [God’s] going to love and forgive whether you like it or not, because [God] is free. (…) We’re caught up in cycles of tit-for-tat behaviour. But God is not caught up in any cycle: God is free to be who [God] decides to be, and we can’t do anything about it. (…) That’s the sign of the cross, the sign of freedom.”
Part of that freedom is surely God’s decision, in choosing to become the scapegoat, to unmask all our taken-for-granted assumptions about the centrality of violence in our lives. God freely reveals what has been hidden for so long. God could never buy into that cycle of violence, which is why God chose to expose it and to break it once and for all by willingly submitting to it. And then to conquer it definitively by overcoming death, its ultimate and most dramatic manifestation.
We mark today a moment in history—the defining moment in history—when the violent secret of our collective life was finally exposed, and challenged for the untruth that it is: when the innocent scapegoat chose to subject himself to blind violence, the better to debunk it. The early Christians were often mocked for having an instrument of torture as the public sign of their young faith. Their contemporaries would ask: “Isn’t that a symbol of weakness, the mark of a feeble faith? There’s nothing glorious about such a religion.” But the cross remains the symbol of victory and an icon of triumph. There is nothing weak or feeble about such a symbol or such a faith. In fact, the cross, willingly and freely embraced by Jesus, becomes a deep moment of revelation about how violence truly operates in our culture by the branding of innocent victims. God does not play the victim game, and the cross is nothing if not a powerful and compelling manifestation of God’s ultimate freedom.
In a moment, we will come forward to honour and revere the cross. We will undoubtedly approach it with differing understandings of its symbolic meaning and with a variety of emotional responses. Perhaps we could also express thanksgiving to a free and loving God for finally exonerating all innocent victims everywhere.