Were You There?
29 March 2013 (Good Friday)
Many years ago, when I was living in Ottawa I went to a concert at the National Arts Centre. The only part of the concert which I remember is of hearing an arrangement of the spiritual “Were you there?” The song moved within me at a deep spiritual level. The words which have remained with me through all these years are: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” What would it have been like to be present, to witness the crucifixion? Where would I be? Who would I be?
Have you ever noticed how we will retell or replay an important event over and over to make sure that we remember? We retell family stories about how the snow was so deep that we had to help each other shovel out; how a sibling was almost born at home; how grandfather died. We also remember stories which form us as a people, where we were when John Kennedy was shot; what we were doing when the towers collapsed on 9/11. The Israelites were told to celebrate the Passover every year to remember how God had brought them out of Egypt, a practice that they have continued for over 2000 years. As Christians, every year on Good Friday, we hear how Jesus completed the mission that his Father had sent him to do. This mission was not completed alone but in the community in which Jesus lived. We remember the story of the crucifixion but we also struggle to find our own place in the story, where are we in this event? How does this event shape us as a people?
The chronology of events starts with Jesus being betrayed by Judas, a disciple. He is taken to the house of the high priest, Peter and another disciple followed. It is in the courtyard that Peter three times denies knowing Jesus. Jesus was then taken in front of Pilate who tried to avoid condemning him to death. But the chief priests incited the crowd to have Jesus crucified. The soldiers then followed their orders and took him out to a hill and crucified Jesus. Mary, the mother of Jesus watched from the foot of the cross.
So, first there was the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. Judas believed that Jesus was a warrior Messiah who would fight the Romans and free the country from this foreign government; Jesus was the political Messiah that they had all been waiting for. The problem was that Jesus wouldn’t start the revolution, Jesus needed a strong push and then the fight would begin. Judas thought that he would give that strong push; he was impatient. We know that Judas was wrong; that God had not sent a political Messiah but Judas was caught in the moment thinking that he knew best. Have you ever pushed someone to do something because you thought you knew the best solution? Have you ever insisted that someone move forward, start something new before they wanted to and then stood helplessly by when they failed? Were you there when they betrayed my Lord?
Then we have Peter who publically denied that he knew Jesus. Simon Peter who had such a strong faith, remember he got out of the boat and walked on the water towards Jesus; now he denied even knowing Jesus! Peter, who in private, in the comfort of the disciples that he knew said that he would never fall away from Jesus, Peter denied him in public. Have you ever said one thing in private but then said or acted differently in public? Have you ever said, we should do this and then when someone starts the new initiative stood back because you were afraid of what might happen? Maybe your survival instinct took over? Were you there when they denied knowing my Lord?
Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death. He went back and forth between Jesus and those accusing him, trying to find the easy answer. Pilate knew what he should do but he wanted someone else to make the decision; he didn’t want to act on his own initiative. How often have I listened long beyond the time when I knew what decision I needed to make, I knew what should be done but it was not easy and it was not what others wanted. I kept looking for an “out”, maybe someone else had the answer? How can you decide when the majority has spoken? Were you there when they condemned my Lord?
The Chief Priests rejected Jesus and his teachings and led the crowd in asking for Jesus to be crucified. The priests were afraid of what Jesus would do if he was allowed to live; their positions might change or even be eliminated! Change would happen, better to stop it now before their lives got too difficult. Have you ever wished that someone who was making your life difficult would just go away? Maybe it is a co-worker who is always whining and trying to get you to do their work; maybe it is a friend who asks for more than you can give; maybe it is a family member who is just difficult to be with. Have you wished that they would just disappear? Have you ever done something to make that departure more likely? Were you there when they rejected my Lord?
The soldiers tortured Jesus and nailed him to the cross. The soldiers were doing what they were told to do as they did every day; this was their job, to follow orders. Sometimes innocent people would be hurt. Have you ever done something even though you knew it was wrong? Have you ever told a joke that was belittling a particular cultural group? Have you ever covered for a person who was acting unethically? Have you been afraid to stand up for what you know is right? Were you there when they nailed him to the cross?
Mary loved Jesus her son through it all. She stood at the foot of the cross and watched as Jesus died. She stood in solidarity with others who loved Jesus, giving comfort and receiving it. Maybe you have done this in your family when a loved one is dying; sat by the bedside, speaking quietly, hugging each other; wiping tears, telling stories, finally saying our goodbye to the loved one. I think that this is where we can enter the story of Good Friday. We don’t enter at the betrayal or the denial or condemnation or rejection but we enter by standing with others who love Jesus. If we are in community with others who follow Jesus, who model their lives on his then we can watch and begin to understand that the Lord, our shepherd willingly gave up his life for us, his sheep. We can begin to see that God wins the victory over death even as it appeared that death had won. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?