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Bible readings:



Good Friday (March 25, 2016)                                         St James', Peace River

One of the things I try to do when I read the Bible – and invite others to do – is to ask, “Who do I identify with as I am reading this?” In the gospels especially, it's a fruitful and revealing exercise. Most often, I think, people identify with the disciples, because they are just so much like us, both in their very human failings and strengths, but also in their desire to be near Jesus and to learn something from him. So we can see ourselves easily in Peter's brashness, in Andrew's quiet persistence, in Martha's caring attentiveness, or in Mary's emotional transparency.

That sense of identification is magnified as we draw close to the cross, and we still see ourselves reflected so very clearly in the people who were near Jesus as he died. Only now it's Peter's failure of nerve that we recognize; Joseph and Nicodemus's too-late realization that the time to step up and do something had passed them by; the helplessness of John and the three Marys as they could only stand by and watch such suffering on the part of someone they loved; the disappearing act of the other disciples who just didn't know how to deal with it. We might even acknowledge less tolerable aspects of our own character visible in some of the other people on the scene: the heads-down just-doing-the-job of the Roman soldiers; the cynical self-preservation of Pontius Pilate or Caiaphas; the easily led scapegoating instinct of the crowd. Human nature doesn't change much. We are there, and they are us.

But in the midst of all of that honest but disturbing self-assessment, there's one person we can identify with that leads us in a different direction. Even on a better day, it's tough for most Christians to persuade themselves to imagine themselves in Jesus' place, but I think it's an important and necessary discipline. After all, he is us in a much more profound way than the people who surround him in his story. He is humanity recreated and restored to the image of God – the fresh start for our human nature, what we could imagine Adam and Eve to have been like before they turned away from the path. In Jesus' life and death, God promises to see him when he looks at us; which is why we keep praying that our lives will truly become part of his life, that “he may live in us, and we in him”.

Identifying with Jesus' life does place some demands on us, though it also opens up opportunities and possibilities. When we look at the people Jesus encounters through his eyes, we learn new depths to what love really means, not just as part of his story but as part of ours too – and we discover how it demolishes some of the limitations we place on our own capacity to do something, to change the world, to make a difference in the lives of other people. And when, alongside that, we imagine ourselves in Jesus' place as he was accepted, rejected, half-understood, frustrated, excited, and depressed by people's response to him, perhaps we can finally begin to understand what God was up to in him, and is up to with us. We certainly can't grasp that if we stand aside. But when we start to see ourselves in Jesus, we become aware of the enormous challenge God confronted in offering the world a new way; and also the enormous hope that goes along with that challenge.

Today marks the crisis of that challenge and that hope. Today is the day when any attempt we make to identify with Jesus shatters into a million little pieces. It's hard enough to hear, and to see in our mind's eye, what he went through simply for himself. To see ourselves in him, on this day, is unbearable. The physical ordeal alone is too much. But beyond that, and maybe deeper than that, we find ourselves doing what his disciples did at the time – taking a step away, because we don't ever want to be on the losing side. And make no mistake, that is exactly what Jesus did, and what God did in Jesus: took the losing side, put himself up in front of bullies and mobs and governors and religious leaders, leaving them to use their power and influence to control events, and to extinguish the faint hope that his life and his preaching offered. And back in the physical frame again, even losing the last struggle each of us faces, to draw breath and stay alive.

But if this is the choice – to be on the losing side with Jesus, or on the winning side with Pilate's soldiers and the manipulated crowd – then what kind of choice is that? Maybe you and I would rather lose after all. In fact, maybe we have to. If the true humanity that Jesus embodied is really who we are, then maybe that means being who he was, and doing what he did, regardless of the cost. Giving yourself away, knowing that there are people who will take advantage of that. Loving people, knowing that betrayal and letdown aren't just possible but a normal outcome. Committing yourself to God's project of changing the world and the people in it, based not on an expectation of success but simply on the knowledge that this is who you are, and more importantly, this is who God is.

When I think of identifying myself with Jesus' life and death like that, it sounds to me like something that would be a good thing – I am, as my grandmother used to say, “Almost persuaded.” But it also sounds like something heroic, and so not something that I really see myself in. I am very glad that Jesus showed the way, and I am glad that there have been people in history who have followed that way, but that is as far as it goes. There needs to be something more before I can let go of my hold of the life that I have, and to join in with Jesus on the road that leads to the cross.

To know what that something more might be, we have to turn around the tool we have been using to examine the gospels and the way we find ourselves in them. It's a useful exercise to identify ourselves with the disciples, the bystanders and even the wrongdoers in the gospel. It's a demanding discipline to identify ourselves with Jesus. But if we focus exclusively on putting ourselves into the story as it has come down to us, we miss the real life-changing power of what is going on – which is that Jesus also identifies himself with someone: you.

That desire to be in our shoes is on display throughout the story of what Jesus taught and did, from his encounters with the woman at the well and Zacchaeus the tax collector and all the others, to his healing and story telling which reached into people's lives and drew on their love and commitment and knowledge of life in this world in order to describe the kingdom of God. Its ultimate proof is in the finality and brutality and completeness of Jesus going through death on the cross – in that moment, saying that there is nothing in the way you and I experience life that is outside his desire to be one with us. In everything that has ever happened to you, Jesus identifies himself with you. In everything you have ever done, for good and for ill, Jesus identifies himself with you.

It's that last point which is the most extraordinary thing about Good Friday. Even as we do wrong, and fail, and come up short, Jesus is with us and putting himself in our place. He doesn't turn away from the people who mistreat or entrap or desert him, quite the opposite. And when he prays for our forgiveness, it is not in the lordly way of saying, “These people are nothing to me, so what does it matter what they did?” Instead it is the most intimate of prayers, “You mean everything to me. Let my life become one with yours, so that together we can find a different way.”I think St Paul may have meant something like this when he wrote how God made Jesus “to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In that sense, the cross is actually a new moment of creation, perhaps even bigger than the first one. The first act of God took nothing and made it into something – a world in which God could make people who would know him and be loved by him. On the cross, though, God took sin itself, something even less than nothing, all our wrongs and failures, and made them a way for Jesus to share life with us and for us to share life with him. The choice for us is no longer whether to be “part of the solution or part of the problem”. We are always going to be part of the problem. But by identifying himself with us at exactly that point, Jesus turns the problem into the solution – he turns the very worst thing about us, into the place where we can know that God is with us, that nothing is too hard for God to forgive and to change. And we don't need to be heroes to leap across some chasm of self-sacrifice to where God is busy working to remake the world, because in Jesus God has come to join us, on this side of the gap, and the new world that is coming into being is right here, not just around us, but inside of us.