Have you ever watched someone you love when you think they’re not looking and think, “Yes, if it would mean your happiness, if it would save your life, I’d die for you.”
Maybe you have believed so strongly in the righteousness of a cause that you were willing to risk your very life for it. Some powerful images come to mind: the lone protester defying tanks in Tianamen Square, civil rights marchers facing snarling dogs in Selma, or a line of martyrs kneeling on a beach, seconds before they are beheaded for their faith. I am in awe of such people.
Popular culture is full of epic love stories and tales of heroism that demonstrate love and commitment so strong that it would pay any price to protect and ensure justice for the innocent. These stories give us goosebumps and allow us to believe in the goodness of humanity. They are beautiful stories, but they are not the story of Good Friday.
Like all of Jesus’ life, the story of Good Friday turns a familiar narrative upside down:
in this story, the Hero doesn’t sacrifice himself to save the innocent; he dies to save the villains. Think Batman dying to save The Joker and you’ve got some idea of what happened on Calvary.
This is how Paul’s Letter to the Romans puts it:
We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him. (The Message)
We can understand dying for someone worth dying for. But what about the person who has hurt you deeply? Would you give up everything so that person could live a life of freedom and peace? What about the parade of evildoers that come into view every day: terrorists who murder and rape, child abusers, financial criminals, politicians who make the veins in your neck pop and bile fill your mouth. Any volunteers to die in their place? Anyone?
Maybe when I’ve mastered Jesus’ command to bless those who harm me, I can tackle something more challenging. But for now, my answer is: I would die for my husband. I would not die for Donald Trump. But Jesus would and Jesus did.
And it wasn’t just for some abstract multitude of Sinners. What Jesus did was also very specific, very personal, and beyond any human calculus of good or bad, worthy or unworthy. Before He died for All of Humanity, he willingly died for one human: Peter, his weak and cowardly best friend. The intimacy of his sacrifice is often lost in the Grand Story of the Passion.
It all played out in a courtyard, where a cold wind blew and a rooster crowed.
There Peter stood by a makeshift fire that couldn’t warm the spiritual shiver slicing through him. Just a few hours before, he proclaimed with great bravado, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” Those words mocked him now; with each denial, he grew colder and more ashamed. The rooster crowed, and his despair was complete. Bad enough he had failed so miserably, but His Lord knew he would and knew he did.
He knew he did because Jesus was near, just beyond that courtyard in a dark, damp pit, utterly alone. Jesus heard the rooster crow and He knew it happened exactly as He said it would. Peter — His comrade-in-arms, who promised to defend him to the end — had failed him miserably. His friend has broken his heart. And still, He allows himself to be tortured and humiliated and mocked, not only for the sake of all sinners past present and future, but also for this sinner, for this one, weak, flawed man who had abandoned Him.
Christians often talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus. If we’re anything like Peter, that means there are times we’ll boast about our faith and our fidelity and in the next breath, lie to save our own skins. It means that, for all our confidence in our own goodness, we will falter and break His heart. For us, in our humanity, this would seem to be a deal breaker. But Jesus knows that our human frailty, while painful to Him, is exactly why He had to step into the breach.
This Good Friday, let us not be satisfied to say that Jesus’ sacrifice was grand, sweeping and for the salvation of all. Let us stand in the courtyard with Peter, shocked at the pain we have visited on our Lord. Let us crouch in the pit with Jesus, the Hero of this upside-down story, whose sacrifice for the unworthy was and is intensely personal, emotionally costly and for the salvation of one.
And let us remember that Peter’s story didn’t end in that courtyard and neither does ours. God will do for us what he did for Peter: Forgive us. Give us resurrection life, fueled by the Holy Spirit. Give us grace to heal, reconcile, love, maybe even to sacrifice ourselves for those we consider “unworthy.”
More from Paul’s Leltter to the Romans:
“We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”
Not cowering in that courtyard — but standing tall and shouting our praise in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory.
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