In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy commissioned its first nuclear powered submarine with the ability to launch nuclear missiles. The K-19 set out from port on its first maneuvers to send a message to the world that, just as the United States had nuclear submarines that could threaten the Soviet Union, the threat could now be returned.
After testing their missiles, disaster struck. The nuclear reactor developed a leak in its coolant system and it began to overheat. As the reactor continued to heat up so did the possibility of an explosion. The leak also began to send toxic radiation throughout the submarine. The men on the K-19 were trapped. They were all quickly becoming contaminated with a potentially lethal dose of radiation. You can see a version of this story in the movie K-19 The Widow Maker.
The K-19 might serve as a metaphor our situation and why we gather to commemorate Good Friday. Our world, like the K-19, has a toxic leak at its heart. Our world is contaminated. The radiation of Sin and Death, of violence and suffering, greed and failure to love permeates this world. And, whether we like to admit it or not, it permeates each of us. We are contaminated. What’s even harder for us to admit is that many of our actions and thoughts contribute to the contamination. The leaking reactor at the heart of the world contaminates everything. The reactor of our own hearts is contaminated. Like the crew on the K-19 we are trapped, unable to escape the toxic contamination.
Into this world comes one who is not contaminated. Jesus enters into the world and acts as a sort of holy Geiger counter setting off a click, click, click as he encounters the contamination radiating from Sin and Death.
Judas, a trusted friend and disciple, comes to him in the darkness. Perhaps it was greed. Perhaps it was disillusionment. Perhaps it as an impatient attempt to force Jesus’ hand and bring about the kingdom as Judas envisioned it. In any event, Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss. And with that lip service, the Geiger counter goes click, click, click, click.
By most standards the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas, were probably decent enough men, trying to maintain as much independence for their nation as they could while appeasing the occupying Romans and forestalling the wrath of the empire. But Caiaphas was the one who had counseled that it was “better to have one person die for the people.” Jesus was just “collateral damage” in the struggle to preserve the nation’s precarious security. There is a logic to his thinking. It is reasoning with which we have become familiar as we decide others must suffer for our security and comfort. But the thinking is contaminated. And again we hear, click, click, click, click.
Peter, the “Rock”, cracks under pressure and lies to avoid being associated with the one who had called him and whom he had followed. He denies Jesus not once but thrice and upon the third denial hears the rooster crow click, click, click, click.
Pilate cynically asks the one who is Truth, “What is truth?” Unable or unwilling to accept the truth and the changes that must follow, Pilate, who claims the power to free or to crucify, hands an innocent man over to be crucified while seeking to remain free of the guilt. But he cannot escape the click, click, click, click measuring the contamination of his actions.
One way or another, each of the characters that Jesus encounters in the passion narrative (excepting only Mary and the other women, along with the disciple Jesus loved) demonstrates his contamination by the radiation of Sin and Death. Each alone and all together act out of fear, pride, and disbelief leading to betrayal, denial, desertion, deceit, collaboration, and the justification of violence.
In one sense, little has changed. We live in a world that still radiates Sin and Death. And, one way or another, through things done and left undone, we make our own contribution to the contamination. Called to love God and neighbor we too often deny, betray, and desert both. Click, click, click, click.
If all we could say was that Jesus came into the world to reveal and measure the contamination of Sin, if he merely left us with nothing but the echo of the click, click, click, click we would still be trapped and lost. If all he said was “Listen to the click, click, click, click and stop participating in your own contamination and that of others,” we would still be trapped and lost. But he has done more. He has sacrificed himself to begin the decontamination.
But that is not the whole story. Thank God, that is not the whole story.
As the disaster on the K-19 worsened, levels of radiation in the submarine rose along with the expectation that the overheating reactor would explode if nothing was done. Seven crewmen volunteered to work in shifts in the high-radiation area to create a new coolant system for the reactor. In doing so they absorbed lethal doses of radiation. All seven died. It was an heroic sacrifice that saved most of the rest of the crew and prevented an explosion that would have sunk the submarine.
I wonder if the sacrifice of Jesus which we commemorate today might be understood similarly. On the cross, Jesus absorbed the lethal dose of Sin and Death, repaired the leak, and began the decontamination of the world.
In Jesus the love of God was poured out on the hard wood of the cross and into the contaminated mess of our world. He is the antidote bringing forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. Today we who are now in Christ celebrate that sacrifice, deliverance, and decontamination. As with the K-19 after the repair, we still experience the effects of residual radiation. But Sin and Death were contained on a Friday afternoon nearly 2,000 years ago and the decontamination began. And that was a Good Friday indeed.