January 23, 2021

In The Study: My Good Friday Meditation

gf.jpegIn my work setting, I’ve done a Holy Week meditation each day this week. This is today’s Good Friday meditation.

My mother had an unusual experience as a teenage girl. She was present at the last public hanging in the United States.

She recalled that day in the mid-1930’s very clearly. It was, she said, like a carnival. Popcorn was being sold by vendors. People were milling about and visiting. The executed man, a young African-American named Rainey Bathea, had been convicted of raping and killing an elderly woman. Of course, the crowd was entertained by the spectacle of public justice.

It would be very strange indeed, if we visited my hometown today and found people wearing the gallows around their necks. It would be bizarre to see buildings with nooses hanging from steeples. It would puzzling to go into a gathering held on the anniversary of that execution and hear people singing songs about the death of Raney Bathea.

It wouldn’t be particularly odd to find some civil rights historian looking into these events, or to find that African-Americans were aware of the day and the execution as part of their history. But to celebrate it? To sing about it with gratitude? To say that such an event should become the defining event of a community’s history? That would be very strange.

This week we’ve asked why we’re still talking about Jesus. I’ve told you four answers:

-His transformation of individual lives.
-The discovery of his worth that sets people to following him throughout life.
-Jesus is “the way” that people are looking for, and “the way” that God shows himself to us.
-Jesus answers life’s deepest questions.

All of these things are insignificant in comparison to the death of Jesus. No single death in history can compare to the earthquake of meaning that comes from the death of Jesus.

Of course, the death of Jesus alone doesn’t create that significance. Most of Jesus’ followers were no where to be found when he died. It was his resurrection and appearances to his disciples after death that caused those followers to see the death of Jesus differently than all the other deaths, executions, martyrdoms and sacrifices in history.

Jesus life ended badly by any measurement.

When things were going well in the life and ministry of Jesus, no one mentioned death. Healings, raisings from the dead, miracles: these don’t focus the mind of death. But at the height of his ministry, Jesus began talking about death. He brought it up repeatedly, mentioned it at inopportune times and refused all advice to change the subject.

When his disciples confessed that he was the Messiah, Jesus began to repeatedly and consistently talk of his coming betrayal, torture and execution. The Bible says that unlike his parable and stories, the talk of death was “plain” and frequent.

When Peter rebuked Jesus, he was told that he was as far from God’s purposes as it was possible to be. When James and John wanted to talk about the appointments that would certainly take place in a “King Jesus administration,” Jesus asked if they were ready for the ultimate baptism of suffering that he was about to undergo?

When Passover came around, the disciples wanted to hear the familiar interpretations of deliverance from Egypt. Instead, Jesus changed the meaning of passover to his own death: this is my body, this is my blood. We may disagree over what Jesus meant, but Jesus knew exactly what he was placing at the center of the consciousness of the disciples: his execution.

Pilate is not eager to crucify Jesus. He would have been happy to release Jesus with a flogging, but the crowd manipulated by the religious leaders convinces him that Jesus should die. Of course, in the end, it is Jesus himself who chooses the cross in the Garden, and at every moment he refuses to turn aside from suffering torment and death.

On the cross, the taunters demand that Jesus give them something truly worth believing by coming down from the cross. Come down so we can believe in you. But Jesus instead embraces the cross, even when an eternity of abandonment floods over him.

Good Friday asks us to stay here, with Jesus, at that moment when he is executed. At the moment, the meaning of the event is hidden. In the light of the resurrection, and eventually in the full light of the coming of the Spirit, the glory of the atonement is revealed. But Good Friday is darkness. It is an execution. It is a bitter and meaningless end of an innocent person.

When the worldling sees the cross, he or she may see many things. Singer Kanye West recently appeared on a magazine cover as the suffering Christ. West sees Jesus as a symbol of his own suffering as an artist, a frequent sentiment among those who feel oppressed and misunderstood. Such interpretations of the cross as expressions of solidarity with suffering or the evil that oppressors perpetrate on the weak are not meaningless, but they miss entirely the meaning of the cross for the Christian. They shrink the cross into something else entirely.

In Romans 5, Paul unpacks what the Christian sees, in the light of the Holy Spirit, on this Good Friday:

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

On the one hand, there are sinners, enemies and those deserving God’s holy wrath. On the other side, there are those reconciled, forgiven, rejoicing and set free. How can these be both one and the same person?

Because Jesus, on the cross, fulfilled his role as the one mediator between a holy God and sinful persons. He, the innocent, took the place of the guilty, becoming guilty in their place. He, the perfectly loved, became the one rejected and under the wrath of God. He wept so we may rejoice. He suffered punishment so that we would never have to be punished.

This is just one of many ways the execution of Jesus becomes the good news of the gospel. On this Good Friday, this is what we see when he come to the cross.

Some of you may have grown up in churches that tried various illustrations to make the removal of sins real. You may have been asked to write your sins on a piece of paper and to put them in a shredder, a trash can, or to burn them in a fire.

Such illustrations are well meaning, but they fall very far from the truth. God doesn’t have a shredder or a bonfire. He has an innocent son. He puts our sins on him, and plunges him under his ocean wave of wrath, sending him to the bottom with our sins tied to him. He punishes his son with our sin, our death and our wrath. In the other side of this amazing story, God tells us that he will give us Christ’s righteousness, purity, “right-ness” and acceptance. The innocent son is lynched; the guilty criminal is adopted, forgiven and celebrated.

When you see this “great exchange,” it is a blinding light. It’s too much for those who understand it. You cannot watch The Passion of the Christ and be munching popcorn. You cannot even tell the story to children without tears. You cannot hear the St. Matthew’s Passion or the old hymns or a simple chorus without tears.

Isaac Watts said “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.” Love? Where?

Can you see it? Do you know what it demands? Have you given your life, your soul, your all to the one who purchased you with his blood?

Master, this day is our day to stand and look. To be amazed and disturbed. This is a day to put away glad songs, and to see the terrible cost of our salvation. This is also a day to believe, and as Watts said, to know what is demanded in the Great Exchange at the heart of the Gospel. Forgive me for living in the shadow of this bloody execution as if it were religious art or a cultural symbol or the inspiration for music or preaching. This is my life, my death, my sin and your love. This is the beating of the heart of a Christian. Give me grace to pause and look. To see, feel, weep and above all, believe and keep on believing. Through Jesus. Amen.


  1. That was intensely beautiful. Thank you.
    I’m going to use that prayer this evening.

    Easter blessings to you and your’s.

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