Göttinger Predigten im Internet
ed. by U. Nembach, J. Neukirch

Sermon based on John 18:1-19:42 (RCL) by David Zersen

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“… Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave back his spirit.”
John 19:30


Sometimes reviews can be misleading. Do you ever feel that way? I like to read movie reviews to determine whether I’m going to see a film or not, but I don’t always accept what the reviewer says. Sometimes I need to read several of them. Some bring biases to their reviews, which are not helpful. Sometimes reviewers read one another’s reviews and don’t want to go out on a limb and say something radically different in their own assessment. Sometimes the snowball effect of bad reviews can doom a movie’s acceptance at the box office.

Personally, I think this happened recently to M. Night Shymalan’s The Village. Shymalan developed a good reputation for his cryptic sci-fi plots in The Sixth Sense and Signs, but many felt that TheVillage was too repetitious, that Shymalan needed to get a new angle and that the ending left viewers cold. That, however, is to miss the point of a story which has profound theological dimensions and a powerful application to the meaning of the events of Good Friday.

Two forms of community—one controlled and one free

The story in the film begins in Covington, an isolated village on one side of a deep forest, which no one has crossed in decades. The buildings and the dress of the people, not to mention their archaic language patterns, suggests a time in the 1800s, but the reality is that the time is now. These villagers have isolated themselves, or rather the religious elders of the village imposed an isolation, because, as we later learn, there are things that were done in the outside world which were evil and unspeakable. It’s ambiguous whether the elders themselves were involved in some of the evil, but they chose to stigmatize the people in the towns on the other side of the forest and forbid anyone ever to go there. They would not even allow the villagers to call them by name, regarding them instead as “those whose names we do not mention.” They made up frightening stories about huge creatures who inhabited the forest to assure that no one would dare enter it—and get to the proscribed towns on the other side. As a result, they kept their secret about their complicity in the evil, and they remained provincial and separated, a world apart.

Now the interesting thing is, and we learn this only later, that the same thing is happening on the other side of the forest. When the blind girl from Convington finally breaks through the forest and is discovered by a security official who bears the same name as her own father, we learn something about the other side. The young security official’s boss and father tells him not to concern himself with people from the other side of the forest because this will only create problems for everyone. No one probably remembered what the initial issues, which separated the two groups, were, but they had addressed the problem by scapegoating each other, and in this toxic atmosphere controlled by the leaders of the respective societies, life went on.

It went on, however, with a dirty secret covered up—the secret that certain evil actions had been performed (the words rape and murder were mentioned among them) which were never resolved. The truths about them were repressed. And each side somehow knew that the other was at fault. This process of scapegoating has been called a good/bad technique by Rene Giruard, who has given much thought to these issues. On the one hand, as long as you can identify the evil as belonging to some other individual or minority, you are free to live as if this evil had never happened. On the other hand, to maintain this false freedom, you must maintain the charade resulting from scapegoating, and that is to insist that only others have responsibility for evil, never you yourselves.

Of course, you realize that this is a dead-end situation. This is why the people in Covington never grew up, remained provincial and other-wordly. It is a profound parable about human life, which Shymalan tells in The Village. How to bring about a change?

The change happens only when the power of the old generation, the elders, is destroyed, and the new generation begins again, not with a controlled environment, but with an accepting, caring, emancipating openness. This, in fact, happens in the story as the young blind girl, Ivy Walker, returns with the medicine provided by a caring young distant cousin in the towns, that her beloved young friend, Lucius, so desperately needs. The movie ends by offering the viewer who has been lost in this subterfuge of human scheming, a new sense of hope.

Good Friday’s new opportunity for human community

What does all this have to do with the events of Good Friday? The Good Friday story, like many a movie, is subjected to bad reviews. People don’t like blood, violence, or the prospect for politically incorrect caricatures of events. Furthermore, there seems to be confusion as to what God’s role in this might have been and whether it makes sense to understand God as a judge who demands unreasonable righteousness from us, or the transference of our unrighteousness to Jesus. It all seems very complicated.

At a simpler lever, this much is clear. There was a community of people who controlled the quality of life in their society by making clear who was acceptable and who was not. We know the names of these groups. That’s not important here. What is clear is that elders of the “village,” if I may call it that, knew that evil existed in the minority whom they had clearly identified as outcasts: blind, lame, dumb, lepers (all unclean), tax collectors, and prostitutes. These were sinners and not to be regarded as part of the community of the exclusively righteous. One could even say, although these poor were actually everywhere, the religious elders treated them as if they did not exist—as if there were a forest between the two groups. They lived in their separate societies. The Pharisees knew where evil lay in their world—and it did not lie with them.

Where did Jesus stand in all of this? We know this answer for sure. He sided with the scapegoated minority, with those who were “unmentionable,” the sinners, who, of course, knew themselves for what they were. And we are told, “they heard him gladly” when he called them the children of God. The religious elders, by contrast, were in trouble now. The Romans had told them, we will leave you alone if you do two things: pay taxes and assure that there are no uprisings. What to do with this Jesus, they asked themselves? “It is better,” we remember Caiphas saying, “that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (Jn. 11:30). So, in their traditional way of dealing with evil, they made Jesus the scapegoat, identified him as the ultimately evil one, and did away with him.

Of course, to some this is politically incorrect language, bordering on anti-Semitism. But that is pure foolishness. Not only did the people of that day do what people have always done when they could not reconcile the problem of evil, but these same people later became the first converts and the most ardent evangelists of the very one they crucified. Is it anti-Semitic also to remember such things? Anti-Semitism has to do with hating people for what they are, not with calling attention to ways in which they are like all other human beings.

Here is the miracle of Good Friday and the sense in which this story is very much like what came to pass in the movie The Village. On the one hand, God accepts this lynch mob’s way of dealing with evil, this scapegoating to end all scapegoating, as a kind final word on the matter. Since time immemorial, societies, and individuals have tried to deal with the problem of evil by blaming someone else. All too often, the blame is applied, in more primitive societies, to the vulnerable: the village idiot, the gypsies, the homosexuals, the muslims, the retarded. I get tears in my eyes every time I remember the memorial in Neuendettelsau, Germany, to the retarded people who were taken from this Lutheran city of refuge to the gas chambers by the Nazis because they made no meaningful contribution to society and probably created problems for it! In more educated societies, we like to think we are free from this. However, without becoming politically radical, you and I can name peoples and individuals who, within the last two years, have been scapegoated by our government and our society in general because we have been unwilling to address some of the causes for evil in our world which lie not outside us, but within our very selves.

It is the evil in this very process which, once and for all, God sought to bring to an end at the crucifixion of Jesus. In the great “NO” of the Jewish people—and of all mankind, for all of us are guilty—to Jesus, God gave his “YES.” It is this Jesus who befriended and loved the minorities, the outcasts, the sinners of this world—this Jesus who befriended and loved you, whose death shall not be the last word. From his death a new beginning will emerge.

Beginnings without end

On the first Good Friday, there were several human options in the face of Jesus’ crucifixion and it’s worth remembering what they were. Paul Heim, in an article in the Christian Century, suggests two of them. One of the hopes of people who practice scapegoating is that everyone will rally around the elders and support their point of view and forever separate themselves together against the repudiated minority. This happened in the first generation at Convington in The Village. It did not happen to all in Jerusalem. Another option is to initiate a spree of violent revenge against the perpetrators of the scapegoating. This also did not happen. Both approaches would have meant that our essential human problem has not been overcome, and that the crucified one died in vain.

What did happen was that an odd new counter-community arose which was dedicated to the innocent scapegoat whom God vindicated by resurrection. It was a gathering of brothers and sisters who held all things in common, who met daily for prayer and celebration of the Eucharist, and who cared for each other in love. It was the new generation that had to succeed the old if a new beginning for our world was to begin.

Isn’t it interesting that in the resurrection appearances of Jesus, he inevitably greets those who approach him dumbfounded with the word “peace”? One might assume that a sacrificed, scapegoated, innocent victim who returns miraculously in power to those who had either persecuted or abandoned him would have other words. Only the one who with the word “peace” on his lips can help us discover that a new beginning took place for us on Good Friday and at Easter.

What can such good news mean to you and to me? Think with me for a moment about Jesus’ last words on the cross, typically translated, “It is finished.” And the words which follow, those the King James Version had us calling “giving up the ghost,” but which really means “he returned his spirit to God,” because his task was finished. What is finished here? A better translation might be, “It is fulfilled.” The long night is over. A world which has typically tried to find community—and individuals which have typically tried to find self-worth—by excluding evil and by branding each other—that world has a new option. It is what we have been waiting for. And it has taken place, of course, so that we can take advantage of it. That means, this opportunity for the new generation of believers happens only when you hold one another and our society accountable for the scapegoating which still goes on among us. It is complete when you and I celebrate the grace that removes the necessity of it taking place in you and me. Jesus’ death is fulfilled when we accept responsibilities for our own failures and sins, and let his own acceptance of us all be the basis for our acceptance of others.

Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus
Concordia University at Austin