A friend of mine asked a provocative and slightly disturbing question this past Holy Week: If the story of Jesus ended with Good Friday and Jesus breathing his last breath, would that be enough for us to call Jesus our Savior—our Messiah? The immediate, anxious, and pious response we want to give is, “No! Jesus can’t be our Messiah without the empty tomb! Jesus isn’t the Christ without resurrection.”
But consider this question more carefully, for the thoughtfulness it’s intended to evoke: What do we see in Jesus on Good Friday, that makes him a different kind of Messiah?
Lutheran Christians are notable (some might say “notorious”) for our insistence that we can’t simply leap from the “Hosannas!” of Palm Sunday to the “Hallelujahs!” of Easter (though that is the practice of many church traditions). Nor do we believe we should linger, in maudlin fashion, on the bodily sufferings of Jesus, as if understanding the gruesomeness of his suffering will help us get into the mind of God and appreciate the pain he endured for our sake.
Instead, Good Friday is profoundly connected to Easter, because of what it confirms about Jesus through his death on the cross.
Jesus rules with love, not force
No sooner is Jesus arrested by the soldiers and the Jewish police, than his side-kick Peter decides to defend Jesus violently. Jesus’ response? “Put your sword back in its sheath” (John 18:11). Jesus refuses to attempt to win hearts by force. (And, truth be told, no one actually ever has.) This is not the way Jesus’ kingdom operates. Instead, Jesus asks the authorities to listen to the people’s testimonies, “I have spoken openly to the world.… Ask those who heard me” (John 18:20-21). Jesus’ kingdom is a matter of the heart, not a matter of the sword. “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over...” (18:36).
Jesus asserts his authority by serving.
In John’s Passion narrative, Jesus is disturbingly silent. He is whipped, scorned, mocked, and abused, and speaks few words in response to these cruel rejections. But after he has been forced to carry his own cross all the way to Golgotha, and is raised up on it, suffering while soldiers cast lots for his garment, he looks down on his mother and is (strangely) concerned for her well-being: “Woman, here is your son,” he says pointing to his disciple John; and to the disciple he says: “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27). Jesus may have no power over what others do to him, but he cares about the future of his mother enough to turn away from his own dire need to prepare a future for Mary. We shouldn’t be surprised by this gesture: This is the very same Jesus who demonstrated the power of his kingdom by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:2b-8); who said, “Unless I wash you, you have no share in me.” Jesus knows that it’s in receiving his humbling compassion that his followers learn the power of ministering out of that same compassion.
In Good Friday we see the compassion of God embodied in Jesus’ own love and compassion. We see the Son, who knows the Father, and is close to the Father’s heart, turning—not away from humankind—but toward us. What a Messiah God has given us! And, if Good Friday were the end of Jesus’ story, it would still be worth telling.
But Jesus’ compassion and love don’t simply prove his worth while his body remains in the tomb. If that were the case, we might have concluded: “He was a decent guy, who died an unjust death. Oh well.” But Easter pronounces a different verdict: Jesus’ compassion and love survive his death to change us!
We Lutheran Christians linger long enough in the days before Easter to understand that Jesus’ death, and our human culpability, frailty, and divine need, are irrefutable. Good Friday declares an end to human pretensions and excuses, and makes the necessity of God’s intervention (Easter) brilliantly apparent.
On Easter Sunday we reclaim the practice of singing “Alleluias” after having buried them for the season of Lent and especially Holy Week. We sing those “Alleluias” loudly—not to outshout or deny death, but because we’ve walked with Jesus from the reality of death into a new resurrection life. We celebrate the radiance of Easter, the height of God’s love and compassion, because we have also witnessed God in the depths of his compassion and love on Good Friday.
Easter is God’s assertion that neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, will be able to separate us from God’s love and compassion in Jesus Christ. And we know that to be true because Jesus really died, and now has risen for us.
Risen from the grave, Jesus brings from the open tomb the very love and compassion in which he died, to share with the world. Jesus, who invited Peter, now invites us to “have a share” in him. He offers us his life (his compassion, his love) in his resurrection, and our hearts are moved to faith. Unselfish in death, Jesus is unselfish with his resurrection too. And we, who now sing “Alleluias” to him, find ourselves re-created by his Easter to live lives of … you guessed it: love and compassion.
Alleluia! Christ, who descended to the dead, is risen. And we are raised with him so that this world (in our here and now) may be a place of deeper compassion and love.
May you be richly, deeply blessed by Christ’s compassion and love.
Pastor Lori Cornell