“Whom are you looking for?” (John 18:3).
The death of Jesus was probably done quickly and efficiently. It would have been a routine detail for the soldiers assigned to public executions. The hill near the city dump along the approach to the gates of Jerusalem had permanent upright posts ready to receive the crossbars carried by the criminals. A tool box containing a stout hammer and reusable iron nails, some rope to hoist into place and lower the bodies for removal, was all that was needed. The location assaulted the crowds of pilgrims arriving for Passover. This ugly scene was meant as a deterrent to other troublemakers, and what parents explained to their children as they passed by was the same lesson whispered at lynchings and beheadings in other times and places: Do what you are told.
The crucifixion of Jesus is the only historical fact we have that is corroborated by outside sources. Everything else is interpretation, or the faith of the early church recorded in the New Testament, then affirmed by the impact in history of this memory cherished by his followers, of a man who laid down his life for his friends. Jesus’ death left a hole so deep that it has pulled the imaginations of millions as to some mysterious ground zero of universal grief and hope. It is a story repeated endlessly in art and literature to insist that, despite the propaganda of power, truth outlives lies and love is stronger than death.
The first fact of faith in the story is an empty tomb, negative evidence witnessed by his followers that Jesus was encountered alive — transformed — after his death. More importantly, faith holds that Jesus is alive, transcending time, the new man at the end of the story appearing in the middle to show us what a full human being looks like. This is our future if we follow him.
The scene is carefully choreographed in John’s Passion account. Jesus is the central actor, self-aware and deliberate, scripted by the prophecies, guiding the witnesses to understand the meaning of his obedience. From the question addressed to his enemies: “Whom are you looking for?” to his last words addressed to God and to the world: “It is finished,” Jesus completes the seven signs of John’s Gospel to reveal that he is none other than I AM, the Author of life.
Good Friday dares us to believe this, then invites us to re-enact the story and find our own place in it. Here in Kansas City, some will walk the stations of the cross through downtown, stopping to remember the suffering of those on the margins, the outcasts, imprisoned, the troublemakers and losers who dare to rebuke our systems and the values they enshrine for winners. Jesus refuses to go away but continues to call dreamers of a different world, more just and compassionate, more human, even as God is human, and who promises friendship to anyone who believes in truth and love.
Today we enter the dark interval between the death of the Jesus and the promise of resurrection. Walk a lonely mile with us, and see what happens.