What Could a Progressive Good Friday Look Like?

Posted: April 7, 2020 in Uncategorized

What Could a Progressive Good Friday Look Like?

Luke 23:1-32

Here we are again. It is Good Friday and we are at the foot of the cross so to speak. One could say that it is more than metaphor to say that given the state of the world in the throws of a Covid19 pandemic. Maybe Good Friday is more important than ever before in our lifetime. But what do we with a Good Friday and the Cross when we’ve abandoned the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and the divine necessity of Jesus’ death? What do we do with the ‘mantra’ “Jesus died for our sins,” or “Jesus died so that we might have eternal life and escape God’s wrath,” or, “Jesus paid the price for our salvation,” and “sin deserves death and Jesus stood in our place.”  With the increasing number of non-religious in the Western World at least, one has to think that the above mantra, have been abandoned by most. What about the many 21st century Christians, who without reflecting regularly use iPods, ponder photos from the Hubble telescope, go to Sikh and Hindu doctors, and believe that humankind emerged from a multi-billion-year process of evolution. What about those of us who assume without thinking that human sin brought death into the world. That we are born steeped in this original sin. That human sin deserves divine punishment. And what about those of us who as Christians assume that Jesus came to break our bondage to sin. That in fact Jesus’ death was foreordained and that he lived his adult life knowing he was going to die on the Cross. And what about those of us who assume that Jesus’ death is God’s way of securing our salvation. And that only a divine sacrifice can free us from sin and insure eternal life, rather than eternal damnation. And lastly what about those who assume that the only pathway to salvation is a personal relationship with Jesus, demonstrated by an explicit affirmation of our sin and the sole salvation of Jesus Christ.

And let’s be clear here. These “orthodoxies” have provided assurance for us once upon a time, but to many of us today they no longer make sense, nor do we believe in a God who requires the death of “his” son to secure our salvation. We can also see divine grace operating in other religious traditions and in the experience of faithful agnostics.  Still, many of us attend Good Friday services; some of us even preach at such services, despite our theological and liturgical reservations.  The question here is; can we as progressives “redeem” Good Friday in a way that affirms the interplay of divine love, human creativity, and human brokenness, while avoiding dubious theologies that assume salvation requires violence, including the predestined death of God’s only Child?

Here again is St David’s statement. How can we ‘Honour the mind, Live the questions and Explore the adventure of Humanity and beneath that statement or within it is the demand for an authentic ‘Good Friday’.

We do not need to celebrate divine violence on Good Friday or any occasion, but we live in a world characterized by implicit and explicit violence against the Earth, child and adult slavery and sex trafficking, the political scene gridlocked by its own design, disparity between the wealthy and the vulnerable, and in many places political scrambling in the face of Covid19. Nor do we need to celebrate disruption and violence as the world faces the results of Covid19. We are only too aware, when we open the doors of perception, not only of the beauty of the Earth but of our precarious situation as a result of human decision-making and the machinations of powers and principalities.

Despite this we can creatively remember Good Friday in ritual and retreat by reflecting on the interplay of our personal and institutional shortcomings and the co-creative companionship. We cab see that “Were You There When They Crucified by Lord?” is the quintessential Good Friday hymn.  Of course, none of us were there physically. But, we are all part of an ambiguous history that persecutes prophets and promotes celebrities.  On Good Friday, we can ponder all the little crucifixions going on right now in our world, often unnoticed, but very real – death dealing actions that lead to melting polar icecaps, global climate change and the potential cataclysm that awaits our children and children’s children, complacency at mass starvation and genocide, apathy at sex trafficking and human slavery, our addiction to oil and weapon ownership, the Changed world due to Covid19, and the list goes on, even before we explore our own personal ambiguities and culpability in the subtle violence of everyday life.

Even though Jesus’ death was neither foreordained nor necessary to appease some God’s wrath, we can recognize that we are no better morally and spiritually than many of those who shouted for Jesus’ crucifixion, stood idly by doing nothing to prevent it, and implicitly sentenced Jesus by their involvement in political and religious institutions.  Are our political leaders – and we as voters – any more moral than Pilate or the Jewish religious leaders?  We also operate out of self-interest and are willing for many to suffer or die for the “NZ way of life.”

Good Friday also affirms the tragic beauty of the divine relationship with the world.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from the vantage point of a prison cell, proclaims that only a suffering God can save and Alfred North Whitehead speaks of God as the fellow sufferer who understands. Last week I wrote of the need for a Weak Theology, ‘A Crucified God’ and I have argued before for a theology of ambiguity, uncertainty and an approach to an alternative way of speaking of God as the ‘Almost’.

Throughout the centuries, Christians have debated the doctrine of patripassianism, the belief that God the Father suffers on the Cross with the Son, Jesus.  While patripassianism, or divine suffering, has been labeled a heresy, based on the belief that the divine nature is incapable of suffering and that Jesus’ suffering touched his humanity but left his divinity unsullied, many believe that the deeper heresy is the belief that God does not suffer with the world.  A changeless, unfeeling, and apathetic God can neither heal nor save.  In contrast to a passionless deity, a meaningful vision of Good Friday proclaims that our God suffers with us – in terms of the Cross it is the whole of our God that suffers – on the cross and thus in every moment of creaturely suffering.

Difficult as it is to admit our complacency and culpability, we can on Good Friday answer “yes” to the question, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”  We can also say “yes” to the grace that feels our pain and regret, the pain of those broken by the world’s greed and complacency, and live in the hope that the one who feels also forgives and transforms, and enables us to rise up with new energies for global healing.

When stripped of the orthodoxies that birthed the questions, we began with today it is possible to see the obvious. Jesus’ work is done; he is now history.  But, our personal history is always unfinished and subject to transformation at the hands of others.  Jesus’ work is objective in its “facticity,” as a person of history but the moment they began sharing stories about the Teacher, Healer, and Saviour, new histories began.  Jesus’ ministry lives on in resurrection moments when the words and wisdom he spoke transform us and when his Spirit moves through our spirits, initiating a new creation and making a pathway within the wilderness of experience.

When we revisit Good Friday the words “it is finished” can be a relief.  They can suggest that our suffering can end and we can enter into what has traditionally been termed ‘the rest of the saints’.  Even here, our death remains unfinished for we live on in memory, DNA, spiritual impact, and grief. Our lives may perish but they live forever more in life’s memory and the ongoing history of the universe.

Jesus’ words both those most likely to have been his and those from the mouths of later comers, come from the recognition that our existence from moment to moment is contingent on forces beyond ourselves, such as what it means to participate in the evolutionary truth.  They also reveal a trust in a power within and beyond us that brought us into life and will receive us upon our deaths.  This is an act of trust, and not a description of everlasting life.  We can’t intuit the “furniture of heaven” based on Jesus’ confession.  The most we can do is – and perhaps this is more important than any postmortem knowledge – is to place the whole of our lives in their temporality into a reality that we can never know a completion of, and we might call it a divine caring, a serendipitous creativity.  This may be the ultimate healing, the sense of peace that comes when life is unfixable, uncontrollable, uncertain, risk filled and where death is all around, and a cure eludes us.  We are not alone; it is not completed, it is ‘Almost’ and we belong to that which we call our ‘Almost’ and nothing – abandonment, thirst, or cross experience – can separate us from the face we cannot look at, the ‘I Am’ and in traditional words ‘God’s love’. Amen.


  1. MR DAVID P KELLY says:

    Thanks for posting these thoughts!

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