What is the message of Good Friday? Until I lived in Tanzania, I would have thought it was fairly straightforward: the focus is the death of Jesus for our sins, in short, the atonement. But at our church yesterday, the atonement was present, but characteristically not the focus.
The ‘liturgy’ of the songs at the start of the service emphasised God’s enduring power. We sang:
- Asiyeshindwa – He is not defeated
- Jina lako linauweza – Your name is able
- Kila siku kila saa U mwaminifu Bwana – Every day, every hour, you are faithful Lord
In case we are tempted to see the crucifixion as a moment where God is not in control, or where evil has overcome, we are reminded that this is not the case. There was no explanation of the mechanics of this, but the affirmation was clear.
From this focus on the faithfulness of God, we were asked to think about our own faithfulness. The sermon was on Judas Iscariot, and those who are false disciples, that is, those who look good but are in fact, not God’s people are all. They, like Judas, may be Christian leaders, they may even do miracles. However, they are also the ones to whom Jesus will say, “I never knew you.”
This is a difficult sermon to preach in Tanzania, and Pastor Dondo said so. It’s not just that it’s confronting material that asks each of us to examine ourselves; it’s also that Tanzanian theology tends to be positive, teaching right and shying away from calling out wrong. I suspect the reasons for this are cultural, to do with harmony, usiri (secrecy), and interconnectedness – what you say gets back to people and can have pretty big consequences!
After some information about who Judas Iscariot was, Pastor Dondo asked: what was Judas’ sin? He highlighted three, all of which underscore common features of Tanzanian theology.
- Judas was a traitor. In contrast to the fidelity of God, Judas was unfaithful. He showed himself to be a liar in word and deed, and this kind of behaviour is personally insulting to God who had entrusted him with a task. Later, Pastor Dondo went on to deal with the question of whether Jesus had simply been taken in by Judas and fooled by his behaviour. However, Jesus shows knowledge of what Judas will do before he does it, so the reason Jesus chose Judas was to fulfil the Scriptures, thereby proving his deity.
- Judas had a love of money. Judas was motivated by the 30 pieces of silver. Though he wanted to give it back once he realised what he had done, it was too late. Money is not bad, but choosing it at the expense of faith is. If you are to pursue wealth, it must be in God’s way. Pastor Dondo did not mention prosperity preachers by name as false disciples, but he did reference “preachers with ministries of millions and billions of shillings.”
- Judas gave up hope. The term ‘kukata tamaa‘ will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. It means to despair or to give up, and it’s one of the major themes of Tanzanian theology. This part of the sermon was about Judas’ suicide, but it was not giving up on life that was the problem (though Pastor Dondo does consider suicide a sin.) The problem was that when Judas realised he had done the wrong thing, he sought out the chief priests to try to rectify the situation. He did not take his repentance to the right person: the God who forgives. We were encouraged to come to Him with our sin, assured that we will be forgiven because Jesus has taken our sin. Judas loss of hope in God led him to appeal to the chief priests, which could not satisfy, which is why he took his life. Don’t start down that path: always take your sin to God.
The conclusion of the sermon was a call for self-examination, for everyone from the newest believer to the pastoral team. We must ask God to help us see the reality of ourselves, and then we must repent to the right person – to God – the one who can transform us. Do not follow Judas. Do not be like him. Come to Jesus while there is still time.
Thus the thrust of Good Friday was about faithfulness: God’s faithfulness to us on the cross, and a call for us also to be found faithful to him. Though she was only referenced in passing in the sermon, the Bible reading was from Matthew 26, about the woman at Bethany who pours the perfume on Jesus feet, drawing the ire of the disciples, but showing herself to truly understand who Jesus is and commit herself to him. In a sermon about false and faithful disciples, she is a contrast with Judas.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.