John 18-19

Good Friday 2024

Rev Jeremy Bevan

To mourn, to mock, to marvel: reactions to Jesus’ passion

All the world’s a stage, as one of Shakespeare’s characters said. Nowhere perhaps is that truth more clearly seen than in the unfolding drama of Good Friday, when, after a show trial, the ‘powers that be’ execute Jesus. The light of the world is extinguished: but not before spotlighting all kinds of reactions on the stage where Jesus’ passion unfolds. Amid the mourners, mockers, and marvellers, what’s our part in the drama of the cross?

The mourners, firstly, are, most obviously, those women at the cross, looking on from a distance. Women who had provided for Jesus, cared tenderly for his needs. But now helpless, powerless to intervene, the execution site ringed with an armed guard. How bitter that must have felt. So we should notice one small detail Mark observes: ‘they offered him wine mixed with myrrh’. A painkiller, an anaesthetic, before the ordeal of the cross. Who ‘they’ were Mark doesn’t say, but this was apparently a service the women of Jerusalem offered to the condemned on the way to Golgotha, the place of execution. A last, bold, compassionate walk-on part, standing up and standing out amid threat and danger. Our best selves, perhaps?

Some mourn not their beloved Lord so much as what they themselves have lost – or thrown away. Judas, perhaps, mourns his breach of trust with one who would not bend to his ideas of what the kingdom should look like, how it should come in. Does Peter regret how easily he prioritised fitting in over standing out when questioned, questioned, questioned about his allegiance to Jesus? Again, do we recognise ourselves in these roles?

Secondly, the mockers. The soldiers, for whom an acted-out farce is one way to mask the dehumanising horror, judicial murder of an innocent man. Hiding even from yourself the hideousness of what it is you’re caught up in. The flogging, the beating, the fanciest clothes the wardrobe department can find making light of the light of the world. Just kidding amid the killing.

The passers-by, the merely curious. Today, craving only entertainment, they’d be sure to film the crucifixion on their phones even as they taunt the dying man. Are they the side of us still uncommitted to Christ’s cause, perhaps? Even the two bandits, it seems, have enough energy left, as they hang either side of Jesus, to deride him, fend him off to the end (again like us, perhaps?); though Luke says one of them had a change of heart, transferring his allegiance to our third group of actors at the cross: those who marvel. 

It’s quite proper to wonder whether Pilate himself, a brutal servant of the Roman empire according to contemporary historical accounts, was one of them. Mark tells us he was ‘amazed’ at Jesus’s silence during interrogation. For John, Pilate insists the inscription ‘King of the Jews’ on Jesus’ cross tells the truth. Though temporising in the end, acting to fit the realpolitik demands of the day, one wonders what impression the events left on him.

Then there is Simon of Cyrene, compelled by the empire to carry Jesus’ cross. Like a prison governor in modern-day America asking you or me to prepare the cocktail of lethal drugs that will kill a death row prisoner. We know only his name, but Mark’s name-checking of his sons, Alexander and Rufus, suggests they perhaps had been so forcefully impressed by their father’s account of the road to Golgotha (and perhaps of witnessing the crucifixion itself) that they’d become followers of Jesus, and were known to Mark’s hearers. Intriguing that mere happenstance (or is it providence?) may shape the part we play.

Bystanders. So many bystanders and passers-by in Mark’s account. Some of them at least, seemingly random actors on Golgotha’s grizzly stage, retain some capacity for wonder amid the mourning and the mockery. They believe Jesus calls for Elijah, the herald of God’s kingdom in popular Jewish piety of the day. And with them, perhaps, that Roman centurion, from whom Jesus’s death calls forth an affirmation of faith: ‘Truly this man was God’s son.’ One who, once more like our best selves perhaps, cannot help but wonder?

Those who mourn. Those who mock. Those who marvel. Is it any wonder events as dramatic as those on that first Good Friday call forth such an astonishing range of emotions from those who witnessed them? Perhaps they still do that? For all those witnesses might be us, all their shades of response, our response. Perhaps, despite our falling short, despite the ways we bat away the truth of who Jesus is, we may still call out to him today? And marvel at the one who draws us to God’s merciful, forgiving love even as he dies; the one who will, we may pray, remember us when he comes into his kingdom.