Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the unique aspects of this arrangement of the Good Friday Tenebrae service is the placement of the sermon near the beginning, before we’ve even had the lessons for the day. Granted, we have responsively read the prophecy of Isaiah regarding the Savior’s suffering and death, but we haven’t begun to explore the passion narrative of St. John yet, which we’ll hear in sections shortly. These sections will be amplified with beautiful, somber hymns that will remind us once again of our sinfulness and our sins, which caused and required that suffering and death, so that we might be redeemed and restored.
No hymn, though, much less a sermon, can describe the agony and the torment of what we did to Jesus over the course of those several hours nearly two thousand years ago any better than how St. John and the other gospel writers recorded them by the work of the Holy Spirit. Nor can we explain or adequately convey the depth of righteousness, obedience, and love which Jesus took to that cross, only to receive the wrath of His just and holy Father, poured out for our iniquity, rebellion, and hatred.
So, instead of an exposition on Scripture lessons you’ve not yet heard this day, let me instead set the stage for the drama which is to follow. Good Friday is certainly not an occasion for being trite or flippant, but with sober reflection let me offer you a sort of theatrical trailer for coming attractions. It’s not a very attractive attraction, mind you, but it’s a very precious one for us. It’s filled with one hero, a few very flawed sidekicks, some bystanders who are not so innocent, and plenty of villains.
As we go through the characters, I’ll describe them from the information St. John has provided, so you can be on the lookout for their appearances in the script. A few adjectives, a few attributes, a few actions that capture the essence of their role in this drama. No names have been changed, because everyone is guilty, save One.
And now, Spiritus Sanctus Productions proudly presents, The Passion According to St. John, starring Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and Son of Man. But more on our leading man just a bit later.
Also starring, in alphabetical order:
Annas, the High Priest’s Father in Law
In John’s reading, although Caiaphas was the high priest that year, and Jesus was brought to the high priest’s courtyard, it is Annas who does the questioning. Perhaps Annas, as a former high priest and as the father-in-law of Caiaphas, lives in the same large residence. His questioning allows Caiaphas to remain at arms’ length until the initial inquiries have been made. The sending of Jesus from Annas to Caiaphas doesn’t require a change of location if both men live in the same compound.
The Disciples of Jesus
They went with Jesus, but they only went so far. In this gospel account, written from the perspective of a man tempered by decades of experience and the knowledge that he alone carries the legacy of his martyred brethren, the apostle John is somewhat kind to his colleagues in ministry, for he doesn’t mention them fleeing in fear at Jesus’ arrest.
The Jewish Leaders
They supply Judas with the means to capture Jesus in the seclusion of the garden, in the darkness of night. They dare not attempt such a thing in the daylight or with the populace nearby. Nor do they get their own hands dirty or endanger themselves; they send others. The darkness of the night is exceeded only by the darkness of their hearts. Thinking they are kept pure by remaining outside Pilate’s palace, they don’t see that they were never pure to begin with. Vague accusations flow from their lips, but a very specific outcome is sought: The death of Jesus at the hands of the Romans. They ask that an innocent man be killed, and a guilty man, Barabbas, be set free. Seeing Jesus bloodied by the Roman soldiers with the crown of thorns, the floggings, and the beatings, their lust for more blood is raised to a frenzy. They claim Caesar as their king, rejecting the Son of David who holds the eternal throne. And even after they get their wish to have Jesus killed, they still complain to Pilate about what he has written about the condemned man.
John the Apostle
As the author of this passion narrative and his entire Gospel account, John is reluctant to mention himself outright. Usually, whenever an unnamed disciple appears in this book, we take it to be John, keeping a low profile. He would be the disciple who, with Simon Peter, followed Jesus to the high priests’ residence. He would be that disciple known to the high priest, the one who was admitted to the courtyard and later brought Peter in, too. He is the disciple whom Jesus loved, also, being given the sacred duty to care for the mother of Our Lord in the days and years following His crucifixion.
Joseph of Arimathea
What a bold and courageous man! To approach Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus was to go on record as a supporter of the executed man. It risked being identified both by the Romans and the Jewish temple hierarchy as being their enemies. You might as well paint a target on your back! But, along with Nicodemus, Joseph did in fact care for the breathless body of Christ, and provided as rapid and dignified a burial as circumstances allowed.
He’s given credit in John’s gospel for having procured a band of soldiers and officers, almost appearing as if he’s influential and charismatic, rather than a stooge for Satan and the Jewish leaders. In the garden, note how he stands with the soldiers, not with Jesus. This makes utterly clear he is no longer a disciple under the tutelage of the Lord, but an enemy instead. There is no damning kiss in John’s narrative, nor is there remorse for the betrayal.
A servant of the Jewish high priest, he is pressed into duty in the detachment sent to arrest the true High Priest and Suffering Servant. Given his druthers, he would’ve probably much rather have been in bed than in the garden that night, and for his trouble he is stricken, smitten, and afflicted by Peter’s sword.
She and her companions must have gotten word of Jesus’ arrest from the disciples some time in the night or early the next day. We don’t know if she followed Jesus from the high priest’s house to Pilate’s headquarters, or along the agonizing walk to Golgotha, or only arrived at the cross once He had been crucified. But we do know that Mary’s son, our Savior, was pierced by thorns and nails, and eventually by a spear. These are the physical piercings that will cause Mary’s own soul to be pierced by a sword of anguish. But she will not be left destitute; even as His own life slips away to ensure her eternal life, Jesus ensures that the worldly life of his mother is sustained and supported.
He’d come a long way from his tentative discipleship and his many misunderstandings. Now he, like Joseph of Arimathea, shows exemplary courage and generosity in claiming, preparing, and burying the body of Jesus.
The Officer of the Temple Guard
A brutish man, quick to strike the defenseless and exercise his petty power. He takes offense where no offense has been given, where only the truth has been spoken.
He wants the facts: “What’s the accusation?” He wants to divorce himself of the problem: “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” He’s somewhat amused: “Are you the King of the Jews?” He’s mercurial and relativistic: “What is truth?” He’s shrewd: “Shall I release to you the King of the Jews?” He attempts to placate: “Behold the man!” He’s impatient: “Take him yourselves and crucify him.” He’s scared: “Where are you from?” He’s incredulous: “Will you not speak to me?” He’s got an inflated sense of self: “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” He’s scornful: “Shall I crucify your King?” He’s manipulative, writing: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” so that it would be clear to all who saw it that his is what happens when someone falls into the disfavor of Imperial Rome.
The Roman Soldiers
Like the temple soldiers and officers, they’re hardened men, but even more so. Likely far from home and living in miserable conditions under sometimes brutal discipline, they may have been Army Strong but probably hadn’t become all that they could be. This Jesus was probably quite entertaining as they flogged him, dressed him up mockingly, and beat him, but probably quite frustrating, too, as He didn’t react as most of their prisoners did. Later, they carried out a routine execution, probably one of many they had performed. They stole his clothing for their own purposes. And, at the end of the day, it was time to break the legs of the condemned, so that they could no longer support themselves and allow their diaphragms to generate breath. But Jesus gets different treatment, to fulfill the prophecies.
The Servant Girl
She takes her job as the doorkeeper quite seriously. She knows John and lets him in, but Peter remains outside. She doesn’t want to let anyone in who might pose a risk, so it is only after John requests that Peter be admitted that she allows him to enter. Even then, she’s skeptical and suspects that Peter might not be the sort of person who ought to be allowed in.
A man of both words and actions, and both of these often wrong at the first attempt. Armed with a sharp blade but a dull mind this night, Peter strikes out against a far superior force, managing to get the first blow in, but foolishly risking the lives of everyone with him. Later he skulks after Jesus, wanting to see what is happening, but not wanting to be seen, much less recognized. He warms his body by the fire but chills his heart by his words of protest and denial.
Led by Judas, they bring both fire and steel to Gethsemane. Confronted by Jesus of Nazareth, they also meet the great I AM, Yahweh in the flesh, and at His word they retreat and cower. Only when Jesus willingly submits to them, subduing His divine power for the sake of human redemption, can they arrest and bind Him
Where do you find yourself in this story? Which of these characters have you emulated, even unintentionally, rather than the Lord? I’m sure if you pay close attention to the Passion narrative, you’ll find many occasions on which you have behaved similarly, if not as severely. Your sins are every bit as bad, really, no matter how you might rate them yourself or attempt to rationalize them.
And then there is Jesus. It is fitting to mention Him both at the beginning and the end of our list, for He is the Alpha and Omega. As John himself would write later, if everything Jesus did was written down in books, the whole world could not contain them. That might seem like hyperbole, but think about this: Every structure and every movement of every atom, every bond of every molecule, every reaction of every chemical and every growth of every cell—all these happen according to the will of God, even if they go largely unnoticed and mostly unconsidered by we who are the most complex of His creations.
But Jesus did do many things within this Passion Narrative, too, as you will hear shortly. But let me briefly list them, so you can be prepared to marvel and give thanks for them once again:
· Jesus knew all that would happen to Him, yet He pressed on anyway, in accordance with the Father’s will;
· Jesus confronted the threat in the garden, protecting those who were His own from harm;
· Jesus spoke with power, knocking back the forces of evil even as He willingly surrendered to them;
· Jesus spoke the truth when asked about His actions, His identity, and His plans, even to those who were His enemies;
· Jesus took the beatings and the mocking, the floggings and the pain;
· Jesus faced the powers of darkness, both earthly and spiritual, and He did not shrink or waver, He did not blink or turn away;
· Jesus endured the pain and suffering, the humiliation and the ridicule;
· Jesus provided for His mother, fulfilling the commandment to honor father and mother even as he was fulfilling all the Law of God;
· Jesus bore the cross, carrying its burden of weight so that He might also carry the burden of our sin;
· Jesus took the thorns, the nails, the spear;
· Jesus stayed the course until all was finished;
· Jesus bowed His head and gave up His spirit;
· Jesus died, for you.