OT: Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Epistle: Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
Gospel: John 18:1-19:37
Behold, the cross! Yes, the cross.
This evening, we gather, once again, to confront what we have known was coming all week. Here, we assemble beneath the dark shadow cast before us by the cross of Christ.
What can be said that has not already been said about this instrument of death? How might we get our heads around this suffering of Jesus?
The answer, of course, is that we cannot! We cannot adequately explain the cross. We cannot make it more palatable, or subject it to our own desires for certainty and meaning. This is death we’re talking about, and none of us can fully comprehend death – let alone, the death of the Son of God.
Indeed, the cross resists our comforting certainties; it defies our logic and denies our attempts to choose some higher meaning for it. For sure, we can try to come up with neat atonement theories; we can turn the cross into an existential symbol for suffering; we can even try to make the crucifixion all about our guilt and our sin – in other words, all about us. But here again, the cross refuses such easy apprehensions by us. There simply is no final shifting of focus onto the human condition that can adequately account for everything that’s happening on the cross.
You see, what we have here is the deepest and darkest of all mysteries! Everything we’ve ever thought about power, about love, about justice, is totally turned over and surpassed by Christ’s passion. And while the cross does have a whole lot to do with us – while it is largely about our salvation – it has very little to do with any salvation scheme we might think up on behalf of ourselves, for as Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
So let us ask, then, who is this strange figure that holds the nails in their places on the cross? The Gospel of John gives us a whole trial asking the question of whether this man – this Jesus of Nazareth – is a king or not. But if a king, what kind of king is he? Moreover, we read that Pontius Pilate becomes frightened at the possibility that this man may even be the Son of God. But when we listen carefully, and we hear this Jesus invoke a psalm from the cross, we can only be unsettled when we go back and read it:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress? […] Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help.”
This certainly doesn’t sound like a king. Kings are sovereign and in control! Kings have authority to arrange people as they please. More importantly, kings hold the power of who lives and who dies under their watch. Caesar was a king. Today, we might say that our national government is a kind of king. Certainly, modern technology arranges much of our relationships and decision-making. Even science and medicine hold sovereign sway on our hopes and dreams.
But this man – this one hanging and bleeding on the cross – surly, he could be no king. He is dying; he is being executed, and our faith in kings is rooted, first and foremost, on their keeping death under their control. To be more specific, kings are those entities we hope might protect us from – even help us deny – the reality of our own deaths. How can this man – the one on the cross – be a King?
Emptied of our notions of power and authority, Jesus leaves us only with quiet stillness. “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,” Isaiah says, “and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
How can such a strange shepherd – this slaughtered lamb – gather us scattered sheep who fear our own insignificance? Yes, we chase after things – worldly kings or otherwise – that might assure us we are not condemned to that empty silence that haunts us. We long for some lasting significance. We long for the remembrance offered to us by our world’s grand-narratives of power, prestige, and progress. We’ll take almost anything over the possibility that we might be… nothing. So what could the pouring out of Christ on the cross possibly offer us? And, beyond questions of kingly sovereignty, how can this man be the Son of God? How can the writer of Hebrews claim that he was made perfect by his obedience to God through what he suffered?
Clearly, what we are encountering here on Good Friday is a glimpse into the incomprehensible inner life of the Trinity itself! This is why the cross exceeds our comprehension. For if we look back again at this cross, this time with new eyes, we will perhaps witness in its strange emptiness the rushing of a wind – the Spirit sweeping over formless death. And if we have ears to hear, what is revealed is the eternal love shared between the Father and the Son. In this light, the cross is about us only because it is first about the Triune God. The sacrifice of the Son by the Father, and the willingness of the Son to be sacrificed, is not about anyone’s satisfaction, ours or God’s. It is rather the supreme earthly display of Trinitarian love. Christ died; he descended into hell. In so doing, he united divinity with humanity all the way down. Rather than being the last word, death on the cross is merely made the first of the last.
But the depth of this rabbit hole gets even stranger, because the cross of Christ does not leave us perplexed, standing at the foot of the cross. For from the cross, our crucified King beckons us to come and die with him. And somehow out of that, this darkest of Fridays becomes something we oddly call, “Good”!?
Instead of expending our lives running in vain from death, looking for sovereign assurances or sensible salvation schemes, we are asked to dance in the shadow of the cross. Instead of leaving death for the very end, we Christians get started with it as soon as we can, often right after our being born. One by one, we enter the waters of Holy Baptism – immersing ourselves in Christ’s death only to emerge re-membered, that is, put back together in that new body, which is the Body of Christ. And somehow, in this new life after death, we are given the freedom to finally enjoy, to finally drink deeply of God’s good gifts. Here, through Christ’s cross we are taken up into the divine communion. Here, we discover that we are anything but nothing. Our significance is bound to a love so excessive in its abundance; we couldn’t possibly have imagined it for ourselves.
Yes, this Friday is dark; it is haunting; it is incomprehensible! But thanks be to God, it has been made truly and utterly Good!
So, may we go from here re-membering ourselves in the passion of our Lord. May we remember our baptisms in the deep well of love that is Christ’s death on a cross. And may we all continue to be those strange people who make that unusual sign every time we say,
“In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”