First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Good Friday

William Loader

Good Friday:  14 April Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 (or see alternative: Good Friday 14 April Hebrews 10:16-25)

Hebrews is perhaps best known for its rather daring and imaginative portrait of Jesus as the high priest and simultaneously the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement, whose death guaranteed forgiveness of sins and who brought his blood into the heavenly temple and into the Holy of Holies to present his finished work before God. Certainly the author will have had this thought at the back of his mind right from the beginning of the letter, ready for it to jump onto the page. For this he waits, however, until chapter 9, although the hints are already there in the opening verses and then scattered across the early chapters.

Those first chapters, however, have another focus. It is on Jesus as he is in the present with God. Using an idea which must have emerged very early and which then dropped away as christology became more developed, the author pictures Jesus speaking up on our behalf before God. It is in one sense a very human picture and comes from an image of Jesus' life which stresses his humanity. It would be hard for later generations to imagine Jesus having to speak up before God on our behalf, especially as people began to think of God the Father and God the Son as one. Hebrews has no difficulties. Just as Moses and other Old Testament heroes speak up on behalf of their people before God in heaven, so Jesus does the same. Of course, later generations would transfer this role to Mary and the saints. We have to allow ourselves to enter the imagination of such reflections and suspend our questions such as whether God needed to be told, would not care if not asked. etc. If we can do this, I believe we can engage the author's material in a way that brings some important dimensions to our own faith and reflection.

For Hebrews the life of faith is a journey. Unlike most modern use of this image, the focus is not on progress and process and on experiences on the way, but on the goal. "Looking unto Jesus" is an expression we draw from Hebrews 12:2. He is "the author and finisher of our faith" as the old translations used to put it. The words mean more than originator and final architect. They include the idea that he, himself, made the journey before us as leader and pioneer and will help us to complete it. Hebrews 11 celebrates faith as staying on the path in the journey to what is promised. Rather daringly it suggests that at a deeper level Abraham was not really looking for a city, nor the Israelites for a land; they were yearning for heaven and God's presence there. That is the only goal that counts. Jesus "made it" there and opened the way for the queue of worthies of the old covenant to enter and also for us (11:39-40; 12:1-2).

That is the framework of thought. Against that background the author reassures those who will be listening to his sermon that, for a start, they can be sure that Jesus really does rule in the heavenly world and that angels are no threat because they are subordinates. Then from chapters 2-8 he shifts attention to the character of the one who rules or, better, the one who is now seated beside God and able to get his ear, so to speak. The main point throughout these chapters is that Jesus is there beside God as someone who has faced the sufferings and the temptations which we all now face on the journey and that he made it through successfully. That means that he really does understand what it is like to have to suffer or to be tempted. He learned, that is, he got to know what remaining obedient in the face of suffering is like. Therefore he has a full appreciation of our human condition and can empathise with us and "go in to bat for us" before God when we face suffering the temptation (4:14-16; 7:25).

The image of the Atonement Day in Hebrews has so overshadowed everything else that many people think the author is mainly thinking of Jesus as a heavenly high priest asking God to forgive our sin - an idea we find in 1 John 2:1. This is not, however, the focus of attention. Rather the author wants his hearers to be reassured that Jesus will pray for them to give them strength to face suffering and to withstand temptation. Already 2:17 had described Jesus as a merciful and faithful high priest. 2:18 affirms: "because he has suffered being tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted". Our passage returns to that thought, having in the meantime issued a severe warning against those who abandon the journey and like the generation of Israel in the wilderness never made it to the goal (3:7 - 4:13). 4:14 picks up the confession of faith that Jesus is now the Son of God and high priest in heaven (3:1), in order to emphasise his character in 4:15. He is not an aloof deity, but one of us, who joined our struggles, but made it through. 4:16 reassures us that we can expect him, therefore, to support us in our times of trouble.

Most striking of all is the description of Jesus' own struggle in 5:7-9. It has reminded many of the gospel story of Jesus in Gethsemane, although there are no specific links and the focus is somewhat different. It is certainly a struggling and stressed Jesus whom we see here. He is praying to the one who could release him from death. In Gethsemane Jesus prays that the cup of suffering might pass from him. Here there would be a problem if we understood the prayer as a request that he not have to die, because we go on to read that God heard his prayer and that assumes that God granted his request. It is therefore more likely that the author means that Jesus prayed that he might not be abandoned in the realm of death and that God responded by raising him from the dead. Hebrews uses other terminology. It speaks of God bringing him to completion or perfection. Some link "being made perfect" with Jesus' learning what it means to be obedient in suffering and imagine the author is speaking of Jesus' journey to maturity. The expression "being made perfect" could mean that, but elsewhere in Hebrews it is used also to describe completing or finishing (as in 12:2) the journey. The meaning is probably therefore: God brought him through to the goal of his journey; i.e. did not abandon him to death.

The major focus in 5:7-9 is not, however, on the journey itself, but on what happened in its last days and why that should give us confidence. What happened was: he faced distress - as we can; he got to know what it is like to stay obedient in the face of suffering - as we must (it does not mean he learned to obey, as though he was previously disobedient!); God heard him because of his (godly) fear (this is more likely than: because he was so scared) and brought him to his goal, the completion of the journey - so we can look to him for help as we make our journey. He has opened the way, pioneered it, gone up first as the leader, and now looks on eagerly as we make our  way along the same path, turning from time to time to God to ask for assistance for us when it really gets tough and when we ask him to intercede for us.

These days we are less inclined to picture the relationships in quite the same way (although "through Jesus Christ our Lord" is sometimes understood as asking Jesus to pass the request on to God) and also more inclined to understand the journey as part of the goal and not just an interim endurance as we look beyond our present space and time. At worst Hebrews can inspire a spirituality which reduces creation and the present to something from which to escape and sees salvation as a kind of escapist strategy. But if we allow the strong elements of solidarity to have their place in our theology, we may re-frame the story so that what we are really seeing in the vulnerability and suffering is not Jesus a long way from God, but God very close to us. In various creative ways, in ancient trinitarian speculation and in modern reflection, we can "think Jesus and God" much more closely together, so that what we see in the brokenness is God and what we see on the cross in also somehow God in suffering and in weakness.

That is, of course, quite a jump. Some will be more satisfied with an understanding of the suffering as planned or desired by God, usually related to a strategy to deal with the consequences of human sin by having Jesus suffer for it instead of us. This may have inspired Mel Gibson's decision to give such lengthy footage to scenes of Jesus' physical suffering on the assumption that the more we see he suffered the more seriously we will take our sinfulness and the more grateful we will be that he was "wounded for our transgressions", the opening citation of the film. The New Testament writers do not appear to have made such a connection. When they emphasise suffering, it mostly has another focus, such as here: it shows he can empathise with our suffering. They do not try to win us by extended descriptions of the gruesomeness.

On the other hand, the crucifixion was already a gruesome enough image and the brutalising of one who espoused hope for justice and peace and lived love is very confronting. For many, something goes wrong when this is sidetracked down a line which ultimately has God as the author of the brutality, because he could not bring himself to love and forgive humanity without letting out his punishing anger on someone else as a substitute. That will only move those who do not think very far about its presuppositions. Ultimately the Good Friday story is not about the brutalising of Jesus by others and ultimately by God, but about the brutalising of God in Christ. In it we are confronted with a choice. In it we face our own brutality towards God and our fellow human beings and ourselves. In it at the depth of weakness and vulnerability God powerfully confronts us with the possibility of love.

This mad and scandalous defeat somehow became a source of hope, life and transformation, as though all that Jesus was and stood for was encapsulated in it and burst with new energy into people's lives after Easter. They acclaimed: he died for us, not because they had worked out an abstract theory of the atonement which made God a monster, but because of the life which flowed from this event. The experience and awareness ran far ahead of the explanations, but when they flowed, they came like poetry, quite diverse, nowhere adequate, and , like poetry, never meant to be turned into systems. The images ranged from prophetic martyrs and the suffering devout of the psalms (especially Psalm 22) to national heroes dying for the people, to a range of cultic images, including sacrifice for sins, sacrifice to inaugurate covenants, passover lamb of liberation, and images of redemption of slaves. Reconciliation, redemption, salvation, expiation, sanctification, justification and many more ideas sought to capture the effect.

Ultimately the message is not that God was far away from Christ at his lowest point (knowing he had planned it all for our sake), but that God was right there in Christ at his lowest point and that faith's challenge is to believe that without compromising Christ's humanity and individuality what we see there in Jesus is not only Jesus, but also God.

Epistle Alternative: Good Friday 14 April Hebrews 10:16-25
Good Friday: 14 April John 18:1 – 19:42

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