The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Good Friday and the Realm of God
Good Friday is the rather incomprehensible day when Christians recall (I won't say "celebrate") the execution of the Christ. Today, with somber rituals, Christian churches around the world continue Holy Week's progression through the stunning events that define our faith.
Last week, I shared reflections about the profoundly political and justice-seeking character of Palm Sunday. Paired with the often-ignored "cleansing of the Temple," those two prophetic acts set in motion the week's events. Today, I continue to draw on the insights of scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (from "The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus's Final Week in Jerusalem"). Their analysis of the Holy Week narrative breaks free from personal piety, and demands that we recognize how the realm of God always calls us into conflict with the power of empire -- a conflict in which we claim victory.
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In the closing pages of their book, Borg and Crossan pose a hypothetical question about the death of Jesus that caught me completely off guard. Christian theology sees the Good Friday death of Jesus as the essential precursor to the joyous proclamation of Easter resurrection. Historically, we know that Jesus was crucified. But is the manner of his death just an accident of history?
"Suppose Jesus had jumped off a high building to illustrate that the path of transformation is dying," the scholars write. Or, as I ran with the thought, what if Jesus had been caught up in the setting of one of his parables -- "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away," leaving him, not half dead, but fully dead. (Luke 10:30)
We can imagine any number of ways that Jesus might have died in or around Jerusalem in that tumultuous week. Does the faith story simply require that this good and innocent man die, by whatever means? Or does the entire Christian proclamation depend on the gruesome collaboration between the Temple leaders and the Roman empire which leads to crucifixion? Crossin and Borg provide this answer:
But the way of Jesus involves not just any kind of death, but 'taking up the cross' and following him to Jerusalem, the place not only of dying and rising, but specifically of confrontation with the authorities and vindication by God.
Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem" (Luke 9:51), not as a tourist destination that was on his "bucket list," but because his proclamation of the realm of God had to be made in that city. The realm of God had to be announced in opposition to the dominating rule of Pilate and the empire, and in opposition to the collaboration of the temple priesthood.
It is not enough to proclaim the already-present realm of God as a nice abstraction. If the realm of God really is present among us, if it is breaking into the world with God's liberating power of justice and peace, then the good news of God among us must name and oppose that which is not of God.
When people of conscience and passion confront systems of domination, those systems always push back. Borg and Crossin explain:
It is important to realize that what killed Jesus was nothing unusual. ... this is simply the way domination systems behave. ... At a broad level of generalization, Good Friday was the result of the collision between the passion of Jesus and the normalcy of civilization.
Good Friday was nothing unusual. Jesus was just "another Jew crucified by the Roman Empire in a bloody century that witnessed thousands of such executions." But then came Easter. Crossin and Borg look at many layers of meaning and truth about the resurrection, and find running through them all a concise affirmation: "God has vindicated Jesus. ... God has said 'yes' to Jesus and 'no' to the powers who executed him."
In the words of the earliest and most widespread post-Easter affirmation about Jesus in the New Testament, Jesus is Lord. And if Jesus is Lord, the lords of this world are not. Easter affirms that the domination systems of this world are not of God and that they do not have the final word.
Holy Week -- that week in Jerusalem which includes Palm Sunday, Table-Turning Monday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and finally Easter -- is all of a piece. The whole story of that week is of the clash between the realm of God and the realms of domination systems. I find it tragic -- indeed, unconscionable -- that so much of the Christian church through the ages has denied, hidden and ignored the prophetic proclamation of judgment and hope which shapes Holy Week.
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I won't belabor the point, but empire and systems of domination are still alive and well today. The realm of God, which continues to be present among us, still stands in absolute contrast to the all-too-real systems which concentrate wealth and power, which exploit and degrade people and Earth.
Those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, those of us who share his passion for the realm of God, cannot separate our proclamation that Jesus is Lord from the announcement that the "normalcy of civilization" is contrary to God's realm. If our Easter faith is genuine, then we must always reject and resist the seductive lure of Empire. We must always try to break through our complicity in those systems, and seek to embody God's realm as the joyous alternative to the devastation around us.
This Sunday is Easter, the day when we should be celebrating the vindication of Jesus, and rejoicing that the domination systems of this world do not have the final word. I pray that Easter message is preached clearly and explicitly in all churches.
This Sunday is also April Fool's Day. That quirk of the calendar presents an opportunity to preachers, a chance to celebrate that our Easter faith set us up as fools in the eyes of the world. Read Paul's full proclamation in 1 Corinthians 1:17-31. Here is some of it:
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. ... Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? ... But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
There is a conflict between the wisdom of God and the ways of the world. To fully proclaim the realm of God, Jesus had to go to Jerusalem. Jesus had to confront the empire and its collaborators. Jesus had to be so truthful and compelling that the domination system tried to silence him.
The good news of Easter is that Jesus brought truth, and that God vindicated his proclamation.
The truth of God's realm still convicts the systems of the world that dominate, exploit and destroy. The truth of God's realm still is good news of hope and truth for individuals, society and all creation.
If we join in the celebration of Easter this weekend, may our joy carry us into the world as "foolish" and transformative agents of God's realm, as agents of God's reconciliation.
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