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John 18:1-19:42

After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.” Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

The soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”

Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”

When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,

“They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”

And that is what the soldiers did.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. – John 18.1-19.42, New Revised Standard Version

Nearly fifty-one years ago, the crew of Apollo 13 successfully lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39A. The mission was commanded by veteran astronaut Jim Lovell, but for command module pilot Jack Swigert and lunar module pilot Fred Haise, this would be their first flight in space.

NASA’s third Moon-landing mission suffered some early setbacks. Swigert, who was originally on Apollo 13’s backup crew, replaced his colleague Ken Mattingly just three days prior to launch. Mattingly had been exposed to rubella the prior week and his pre-mission physical indicated the astronaut had no immunity to the disease. Despite intense team training in the days prior to launch, inserting Swigert as a last-minute replacement into the well-honed prime crew was less than ideal.

A second glitch came in just the fifth minute of Apollo 13’s flight when the center engine on the Saturn V’s second stage began oscillating, shutting down one J-2 rocket engine two minutes and twelve seconds earlier—and nearly eleven nautical miles lower—than planned. While Mission Control burned the four remaining engines longer to compensate, the early shutdown slowed Apollo 13 by more than a mile per second even before reaching Earth orbit. Ironically, NASA scientists later concluded that this cut-off may well have saved the rocket and crew from a total loss had the oscillations continued.

Relieved that their “bugs” were all behind them in the next two days that followed on their journey to the Moon, Lovell and Haise prepped for their geological mission to the Fra Mauro highlands, which was underscored by the mission’s Latin motto: Ex Luna, Scientia, meaning “From the Moon, Knowledge.” If the crew had only known how much knowledge would be required to get them to the Moon and safely back to Earth.

At 55 hours and 53 minutes into their mission, the Apollo 13 crew experienced a setback that NASA never anticipated, ultimately aborting their lunar mission. During a routine cryo-stir by Swigert of the oxygen tanks on their Odyssey service module, wires inside one tank sparked, causing a catastrophic explosion that vented both tanks into the void of space, depriving the crew of the vital oxygen they would need both for breathing and generating electricity.

Lovell, Swigert, and Haise found themselves roughly 200,000 miles from Earth in a crippled spacecraft flailing toward the Moon. Despite the meticulous planning of NASA engineers, no one had ever conceived the possibility of so many catastrophic mission failures happening at once.

Three men, so far from home, while the whole world watched helplessly.

Today’s text must be one of the longest in the entire lectionary: two entire chapters in length, late in John’s gospel. Despite its length, the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of John can be read progressively in segments through a Good Friday service, revealing in ultimate terms a Friday that seems anything but good to our modern sensibilities. To italicize this long and painful journey, pastors may want to consider interspersing today’s reading with other worship elements like music, silence, and prayers following each of these verse divisions: 18.1-11; 18.12-18; 18.19-27; 18.28-40; 19.1-16; 19.17-25a; 19.25b-30; and 19.31-42.

John takes us from Thursday in a Kidron valley garden to several other settings all in less than one day, and from Jesus and his disciples to others cast in this passion play, including bit players like Malchus and Anna. Simon Peter plays a seemingly supporting role in John’s telling, yet while Peter’s companion disciple is well-known to Caiaphas, he remains anonymous to us.

Chilled to the bone by the catastrophic events of Jesus’ arrest spiraling out of his control, the bold, rash Simon fails repeatedly, and in short order. By the time the cock crows, Peter is flailing in his denials about his connections to Jesus.

John drags Jesus through a series of kangaroo courts where Jesus answers his interrogators in terms of his divine identity: “I am he,” Jesus replies to the Roman soldiers brought by Judas. Unlike Peter’s denial, Jesus confidently answers Annas, Caiaphas, and even Pilate himself with divine perception. Pilate surprisingly finds no fault in Jesus. But the religious leaders will have no part in it, pinning the ruler down with politicized threats. When Pilate asks, “Shall I crucify your King?” the chief priests reply with a haunting confession, “We have no king but the emperor.” After handing Jesus over for crucifixion, and much to the horror of Jesus’ religious prosecutors, Pilate commands that a sign be placed on the cross in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek that reads “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

Jesus’ passion itself occupies only thirteen of the 82 verses in today’s passage. Victims of crucifixion ultimately die of asphyxiation, their lungs starved of oxygen as they hang from the cross in agony. Crucified for hours between two common felons, the parched Jesus receives some sour wine, utters three final words, “It is finished,” then bows his head and gives up his spirit.

Three men dying helplessly at the hands of executioners in an obscure corner of the Roman world, virtually ignored by everyone at the time.

The balance of our text chronicles the ways these Friday executions were expedited to meet religious concerns. In preparation for the upcoming Sabbath, which would dawn just a few hours away at dusk, the religious leaders convince Pilate to have the condemned men’s legs broken to hasten their deaths. Since Jesus hangs dead already, a Roman soldier runs a spear through his side instead, which John cites as a fulfillment of Psalm 34.19-20: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.”

The five final verses in our text reveal another little-known gospel character named Joseph of Arimathea who approaches Pilate in the night, as well as Nicodemus, also known for his night visit to Jesus back in John 3. Together, these men make Jesus’ burial possible. John is rather blunt in his observation: “And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” It all seems rather cut-and-dried.

Our Good Friday text ends precisely at this point. Jesus. Is. Dead. It’s cut and dried. Wrapped in simple linens in keeping with Jewish custom and walled up in a fresh tomb, Jesus lies dead as a doornail.

For Peter, Mary, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea, John 19.42 marks the deepest moment of failure in their lives and in their faith. With all of their hopes and dreams obliterated, the unfathomable becomes reality. Jesus. Is. Dead. It’s a message that is incredibly difficult for them to receive.

On Good Friday, it’s precisely at this moment that we have to resist our urge to fast-forward the story and dart quickly to Easter morning. Hard as it is to receive despite our eagerness for a happy ending, we need to learn to receive God, especially in those moments when we encounter failed missions and dashed hopes.

When the crew of Apollo 13 experienced the mission-critical incidents that put their very lives at risk, no one knew for certain how their stories would end. Despite thousands of brilliant support personnel working night and day during the 5,221 minutes that remained in their journey, no one could foresee that the astronauts’ 158-mile orbit around the backside of the Moon would take them 216,075 miles from Earth—farther from home than anyone in human history. Little wonder we feel so lost in seasons of failure.

Following their nearly impossible seven-day slingshot voyage that took the crew to the Moon and safely back, administrators ultimately labeled the mission of Apollo 13 a “successful failure,” NASA’s greatest hour. Despite the fact that they failed to achieve their well-outlined mission objectives, Lovell, Swigert and Haise—and everyone who supported them from the Earth, experienced Ex Luna, Scientia—they gathered knowledge despite their difficult lunar odyssey.

On Good Friday – and every day we live between “now” and “not yet” when missions fail and hopes are dashed—receive the God who reaches to you, even when it comes at times that are difficult to receive as “successful failures.”