My favorite musical of all time is West Side Story. I have watched the movie dozens of times and seen the play in the theater several times. No matter how many times I watch it, though, I root for everything to turn out in the end. I cross my fingers and hold my breath and think maybe this time Tony won’t kill Bernardo. I think this time maybe Maria and Tony can hide safely away somewhere. Maybe this time, Tony won’t die in Maria’s arms.
Of course, no matter how hard I wish for the outcome to change, West Side Story always ends the same way, with Maria’s heartbreaking speech as she holds the gun that killed her lover and with the Jets and the Sharks finally joining together carry away Tony’s body.
I experience a lot of the same feelings around Good Friday. Maybe this time the Pharisees will listen to Jesus. Maybe this time, Judas won’t betray him. Maybe this time Pilate will actually take a stand and follow his instincts instead of caving to the desires of the crowd.
But both these stories always have the same ending. Tony always dies because Laurents and Bernstein were following the plot of Romeo and Juliet. And in a Shakespearean tragedy, things always end badly.
Our Good Friday story, though, is more than a story. The Good Friday story was not written by an author to manipulate our emotions. Jesus does not die because literary convention demands it.
Jesus’ death can seem inevitable, something that was always fated from the moment he started claiming to be God’s son. All the circumstances line up that way. He angers those in power, they create rhetoric around him, a friend betrays him, and then he ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jesus can be seen as a victim, someone like Tony in West Side Story, who died unnecessarily, pathetically.
The only problem with this theory, is that the Jesus portrayed in The Gospel of John is anything but pathetic. Jesus knows that death is his destiny, and he walks toward it full of confidence that his death and resurrection are what is needed for humanity. In John 16 he tells his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but he world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.” Jesus gives his disciples a long final speech that sums up what is happening and gives them encouragement and hope for the future. Immediately before his betrayal, Jesus prays a long prayer to God. And this is not the cry for help in the garden of Gethsemane found in the synoptic gospels, this is a prayer full of confidence. He prays that he may be glorified, but also prays for his disciples, that they might be sanctified and gain eternal life because of his actions.
Even though these disciples will betray and deny Jesus, they are at the front of his mind, and seem to be his primary concern. Even on the cross, Jesus seems in control, making sure his mother is taken care of before he takes his final breath.
Jesus was not the victim of fate. Jesus was in charge of his destiny. Jesus actively made the choice to sacrifice himself for us.
He chose to die so that we could be redeemed by God. He chose to die so we could be free to be in relationship with his Father. He chose to die so we could receive the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter.
Before he died, Jesus left us instructions. In chapter 14 of The Gospel of John, Jesus is telling his disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit and he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” So, if we want to honor his death we choose to take seriously those commandments to love God and our neighbors. Because when Jesus redeems us for our sins, he doesn’t just send us on our way. Once Jesus redeems us for our sins, we belong to him.
And when we belong to Jesus, we are expected to act a certain way. And in our culture, which is so quick to judge and pit people against each other, there is no more radical act, no better way, for us to show our commitment to Christ than by loving God and loving our neighbor. We can give each other the benefit of the doubt, we can engage in thoughtful conversation rather than screaming argument, we can reach out to the unloved, we can cross bridges of culture and understanding. We can show to the world that we serve one who loves all of humanity—people of all colors, cultures and political perspectives—by loving one another.
We have those instructions from Christ, but even following Christ’s clear instructions cannot make us fully grasp Good Friday. Christ’s sacrifice, given freely, is astonishing. Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf leaves us in stunned silence. There is a reason we keep silent vigil between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Any other response is inadequate.