Did you read Robinson Crusoe as a child? Robinson Crusoe is not as popular as it once was in literature courses. Yet the main character continues as an archetype in our culture. Robinson Crusoe famously finds himself alone on what he names, “The Island of Despair.” Marooned. Forsaken. Alone.
That sense of forsakeness pervades the Passion and Good Friday. Today we find ourselves facing the cross. On Sunday we heard Jesus’ cry from Mark’s Gospel, the same cry we hear in the psalm tonight “why have you forsaken me?” The cry is directed to God, but could well have been aimed at the disciples, who are hiding away somewhere offscreen. Why have you left me alone?
Why? The question would have occupied the disciples as well. They have spent years of their lives, following a man they hoped would save Israel. Now they have to run away scared, leaving him to die on the cross. They themselves feel abandoned. Where is his promised kingdom? Why did the movement come to this? Why?
The early disciples are not alone in their frustration. I find myself frustrated by this question: Why did Jesus die on a cross? I wonder if you have struggled with this question too. Why was he crucified?
The short answer, the answer you might know from a catechism, is this: Jesus died for our sins. I want to open that up for just a moment. Admittedly, “Jesus died for our sins” is a theological can of worms. Even though this is Good Friday, many of you have to work today, and we have a lot of solemn collects to pray and meditation with the cross ahead of us. I won’t lay out all of the mechanics of salvation. Let’s just lift the lid on the can of worms, just a bit.
Anselm of Canterbury, working in the 11th century, a thousand years after the events of Good Friday, forever altered our sense of the Cross. He wrote a treatise, Cur Deus Homo, literally “why the God man?” Anselm was asking why Jesus had to die on a cross? Why did God become human only to die? Anselm theorized that because human beings had sinned, and thus incurred a debt to God’s justice, only a human being could atone for sin. Thus God had to become human and suffer death, the wages of sin.
Anselm’s theory of penal substitution caught on, became the dominant view. This Good Friday, I need to let you know that your new pastor disagrees with Anselm. I can’t preach about transaction of atonement. I don’t believe in a God who required blood sacrifice. God’s justice does not require death. That’s not the God I know. That understanding of “justice” is all too human. It is human beings that kill and call the killing justice, not God.
Last week the New York Times’ Magazine featured a maximum security prison in Norway. Did you read it? The maximum security prison described boggles my American mind. No barbed wire. No guards in towers. The whole system in Norway focuses on preparing inmates for life outside prison, with art, cooking classes, and recreational therapy. Not only is there no death penalty, in the 1980s Norway did away with life sentences. The maximum an inmate can serve is 21 years. Even the man who killed 77 people when he attacked a summer camp, even that man will only serve 21 years. And his time in prison will be focused on rehabilitation. It’s nothing like Orange is the New Black, the Netflix show about American prisons. Norway’s system is so foreign.
The article in The New York Times magazine quotes Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If Dostoyevsky is right, what do our prisons say about our civilization? Why does the humane treatment of prisoners in Norway seem so foreign? What does it say about our civilization that our prisons are so disproportionately full of young men of color? Why? I want to know why.
We follow a savior who died at the hands of his society’s system of “justice.” To be clear, the whole system at the time of Christ was structurally unjust. Good Friday for centuries was used to promote another systemic injustice. Christians, a few centuries after Christ, found themselves in a position of power in society. They used John’s Gospel to justify blaming the Jewish people for the death of Jesus. Reading that Gospel is difficult for us today, especially in a community where so many of us have Jewish friends, to hear about “the Jews” is hard. To hear the Jewish people show up as a character, really a caricature, doesn’t sit well. We could translate the word from Greek as “The Judeans.” I chose not to change the translation. I think it is important to face our history. We have to own up to a legacy of anti-Semitism, we have to know the sins of our religious community. We have to recognize our broken social system. Christ’s blood is on our hands. It doesn’t help to shift the blame. In fact, it does more damage.
Christ died at the hands of human sin. To face the cross is to face hard questions about capital punishment and the treatment of incarcerated human beings. To face this story in John is to face a difficult history of anti-Semitism We don’t ask “why” enough. Why do we treat our fellow human beings so inhumanely? Why do we forsake our fellow human beings, why do we abandon people in a broken prison system and call it justice?
Good Friday is about social sin, about the broken fabric of our relationships. But Good Friday has also, always, been a reckoning with our own individual sinfulness.
I know, those aren’t popular words, individual sinfulness. I don’t want to get into too much trouble as your new pastor. I’ve already disagreed with the traditional atonement theory, now I’m going to talk about personal sin? Well, it is Good Friday.
But I fear there is a danger in only focusing on structural, societal sin. When sin is bigger than me, it can seem I am off the hook as an individual. What can I do about the broken sinful system?
I started this sermon by talking about Robinson Crusoe, the famous adventurer who finds himself marooned on an island. Crusoe makes his own way. He often gives thanks to God in the novel, but you get the sense that he is really saving himself. Crusoe cleverly finds ways to take care of all his needs. A century earlier the Anglican priest and poet John Donne had preached a sermon with the famous line, “No man is an island,” but Crusoe is an island, an island of self-reliance.
Writ large, our American culture is a culture of islanders, individualists, and we are becoming more and more so. This is what I mean by individual sin, not sex, drugs or Rock and Roll. I think one of the most sinful things we can say is this: “I have no need of you.” We say those words often. We say I have no need of you with our words and with our actions. We abandon each other. Each of us writes people off, consciously and unconsciously.
The great preacher of Riverside Church, William Sloane Coffin, once said, “Good Friday people crucify Christ for a simple reason. We crucify Christ, the best among us, because first we crucify the best within us, and we do not want to be reminded.” We miss our potential. When we dismiss others, when we abandon one another, when we write one another off, we miss out on God’s gift. In one of the solemn collects we are about to read, we pray that we might see Christ in one another. Christians believe that God’s imprint is within all humanity. We encounter Christ in one another. When we say “I have no need of you,” consciously or unconsciously, we deny that gift, God’s gift.
Faced with the cross, with the instrument of torture and execution, faced with the lonely death of our savior, we ask ourselves why. Why are so many of us so alone? Why do we continue to allow racism, Antisemitism, ageism, ableism, sexism why do we allow all of the sinful isms and phobias to divide our human family? Why do we abandon God’s dream, God’s kingdom? Why do we abandon one another? Why?
The truth is, we need one another. God needs us all. We are not saved individually, but together. Long before Anselm of Canterbury, the discussion about the cross was more physical. The ancients often noted that on the cross Christ’s arms were stretched out. There on the cross, they said, the whole world came into Jesus’ open arms, Christ’s saving embrace. On the cross, the abandoned savior beckons. Christ meets us with open arms, all of us. Christ brings us all together into a saving embrace. In Christ, no one is abandoned. No one is alone. We are held together in those saving arms.