La passion du Christ
Painting by Gilles Catelin
The story of Christ’s crucifixion confronts us with the dark-side of humanity. Having coming back from a visit to Rwanda last week, where I visited the genocide memorial in Kigali, where close to 300,000 victims of the 1994 genocide are buried, this potential for darkness and evil is especially prominent in my mind. We each need to own up to the role that we played in the murder of Jesus Christ – a man who had nothing but immense love for the world.
Judas Iscariot is arguably the most tragic character in the Bible (John 13:21-32). He walked with Jesus for three years, but ended up betraying him into the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities for just a few coins. Too late, he recognised the horror of what he had done and attempted to repent and undo his evil deed. In despair he took his life.
We cannot blame Judas for Christ’s death, because we too betray Jesus and we too contribute to his death. And so, I suggest that we need to say “I am Judas” in recognition of our partnership in the execution of the Son of God. (I have adapted the ‘Je suis Charlie’ icon that was created after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo newspaper in 2015 – ‘Je suis Judas’.)
But , where Judas approached the religious leaders for forgiveness, we should rather approach Jesus, whose capacity for forgiveness is eternal. And where Judas was unable to forgive himself, we need to accept Jesus’ forgiveness and allow ourselves to be set free from sin and guilt. Thus, we can also say, “I am not Judas” (‘Je ne suis pas Judas’).
Today is Good Friday – a poorly named day in my view. It should be Dark Friday. The Passion Week is transformed to good on Easter Sunday, but not before. There is nothing good about Friday. But my opinion is unlikely to change centuries of tradition!
Today, at my Anglican community church in Irene, South Africa, we participate in a three-hour service, from 12pm to 3pm – the hours that Jesus hung on the cross. It is a kind of vigil, like the women who kept watch as Jesus hung there. It is one of the best attended services at our church, and most people stay the full time. Today, we used the Seven Last Words of Christ to structure our service. The priest, deacon and lay ministers shared the preaching. I preached on the passage from John 19:25-27, where Jesus says “Woman, behold! Your son. … Behold! Your mother.” (my translation).
The central thing that stands out for me is that Jesus SEES his mother and his friend (thought to be John, the disciple). And seeing them and their need, he invites them to SEE each other (the Greek for ‘behold’, or ‘here’ in other translations, means ‘Look!’ or ‘See!’). So, in this sermon I suggest four layers of meaning:
Wishing you a blessed and joyful Easter 2016.
P.S. I struggled to find a picture that depicts what Jesus would have seen from the cross. The arts are almost entirely focused on Jesus on the cross – rightly so. But I found this one by James Tissot, a French painter, painted in c. 1890. For those receiving this by email, you won’t see the featured image for each of my sermons. Follow the link to my blog to see them.
“On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.”
It is important that we dwell on the suffering and despair of Holy Week, as we journey towards the cross. But it is also important that we journey past Holy Week and into Easter, because the Christ we worship has been raised from the dead.
Two days ago I used the term “Godforsakenness” to describe Jesus’ experience as he approached death. This term emerges from Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, also Matthew 27:46).
While it seems true that Jesus experienced God forsaking him, it is also true that God never forsook him. There is sometimes a difference between how we experience God and how God actually is. Sometimes we feel that God is absent, but in fact God is present. Remember the story of the footprints? We are often unaware that God is carrying us, feeling that God has turned away, but in fact God was there all along. It is similar with Jesus. There was a terrible break in fellowship resulting from Jesus’ death, but God the Father and God the Spirit never abandoned Jesus, never forsook him.
Instead, God the Father and God the Spirit stood alongside Jesus throughout his time of suffering. They were in solidarity with him. They took his part. We have previously reflected on God’s preference for the poor (Day 22). For this one time, Jesus was the poor – remember that ‘poor’ is understood in broad terms, not only economically. Indeed, he was the poorest of the poor. God does not abandon those who are poor. God does not abandon those in need, those who are hungry, those who are downtrodden. It is at these times that God comes closest!
In his crucifixion, as he takes on the sins of the whole world, Jesus embodies poverty. Or rather, he embodies all those who are poor. He becomes the representative of those who are poor. He stands in the place of the poverty stricken. Jesus had sufficient power and authority to liberate himself from the cross – he could have done it in a blink of an eye, and how amazing that would have been! How it would have shown up those who scoffed at him. But rather than a flashy display of power, Jesus opted for the lot of those who suffer, because it was for these that he came. It was the poor he came to liberate. As Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Luke 5:31).
God remained present with Jesus in his death, steadfast at his side, championing him. God never forsook Jesus.
And on the third day, God raised him from the dead. Peter said, “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this” (Acts 3:15). This was a tremendous exercise of God’s power, giving us confidence in God. As Paul says, “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Romans 8:11). It is also a vindication of Christ – God showing that Jesus was indeed the anointed one of God. Peter, again, says, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).
The resurrection is God’s great “No!” to sin and death and the devil. God did not allow the Son of God to see decay. God did not allow human sin and hatred to overwhelm the Son of God. God did not allow Satan to triumph over the Prince of Peace. God says “No!” to all of that. God says “No!” to everything that undermines God’s vision for the cosmos, God’s purpose for life. God stands up, and puts his foot down, and says “No!”
Many Christians do not give much thought to Satan and the powers of darkness. They live in a world where there is a good God (and perhaps also angels and saints) but no devil or demons. But in the Biblical worldview, and in Jesus’ worldview, Satan is alive and well and busy in the world. Satan crowed at the death of Christ – finally, Satan would get mastery over the Son of God and gain the upper hand in the spiritual battle for cosmic domination. But God says “No!” We are reminded of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, who falls into the clutches of the White Witch and is executed. But there was a ‘deeper magic’ that she did not understand and Aslan was raised to life, breaking the stone altar. Christ’s resurrection is God’s “No!” to the Devil.
Christ’s resurrection is also God’s “No!” to Law and Wrath. This notion emerges in Martin Luther’s writings. The Law is the expression of God’s Will. But it is impossible to keep, even eliciting greater sin, and thus becomes something that creates a barrier between us and God. When the Law functions well, it leads us towards obedience and compliance, and not towards a heartfelt alignment with God’s heart. And so, Law does not lead to Love, because Love must be free to be love – Love cannot be motivated by obedience and conformity. So there is a contradiction in Love and Law, and Luther intuited that this contradiction was located within the Godhead – these two Wills of God for Law and Love:
Luther presents us here with an antinomy, a conflict, between the Divine curse, the Wrath, and the Divine blessing, the Love. The wrath is the Wrath of God; yet it is the blessing that represents His inmost nature. The curse must give way; for if the blessing could give way God Himself would have been defeated. … Thus the Love of God breaks through the Wrath; in the vicarious act of redemption the Wrath is overcome by the Love which is ultimately, as Luther says, die Natur Gottes [God’s nature].
“Christ’s victory was therefore also the victory of God’s love over God’s justice.” Christ’s resurrection is God’s “No!” to Law and Wrath, and God’s “Yes” to Love and Blessing.
The resurrection is also a further step in God’s plan to undo the effects of the Fall. On Day 32, for example, we reflected on Jesus’ creation of community while hanging on the cross as a re-creation of the fellowship and harmony that was lost after Adam and Eve sinned. The resurrection undoes another effect of the Fall, namely death. Christ died and was raised again, opening a pathway for us to follow. We, like him, die and will be raised to new life. Indeed, in becoming Christians, we die to self and are raised to new Life in Christ. Paul really understood this well:
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:4-11)
Christ’s resurrection is God’s “No!” to death and God’s “Yes!” to Life.
And the resurrection points towards the New Creation. There will come a time when God renews the earth, which Revelation refers to as the New Jerusalem, the Heavenly City. In the same way that God restored Jesus, God will restore the earth. God will make all things new. We’ll return to this next week, but for now let us recognise that the resurrection is God’s “No!” to the decay of creation and “Yes!” to the new creation.
The resurrection is the most important event in the history of God’s great plan for the salvation of the cosmos. Without it, we would surely be lost. The resurrection is God’s great demonstration of forgiveness and God’s “No!” to all the negative results of the Fall (particularly sin, death and the devil) and God’s “Yes!” to all the divine blessings (which we discussed on Day 6). It does not get more central than that!
In short, the resurrection is God’s great demonstration of Divine Love. We often emphasise the power of God demonstrated in the resurrection, but it is more correctly the love of God or the power and efficacy of God’s love that we see in the resurrection. God exerts an extraordinary and extravagant effort of love for the Son and for humanity and for the whole cosmos, turning back all that is evil and making real all that is good. Easter Sunday is indeed a day of love.
Meditation for the Day
Reflect back on everything we have covered this week on the cross and the resurrection. What stands out for you the most in relation to God’s love for you? How will embracing this truth impact on the life you live?
Prayer for the Day
Christ, my Redeemer, thank you for the extravagant demonstration of love that you lavished on us through your incarnation, your life and ministry, and your death and resurrection. Inspire me with your Spirit to say “No!” to sin, death and the Devil, and “Yes!” to love, life and God. Please re-create me.
 Anglican Church of Southern Africa (1985). An Anglican prayer book.Jeppestown, RSA: HarperCollins, p. 108 (from the Nicene Creed).
 Moltmann, p. 227.
 Written by Mary Stevenson, http://www.footprints-inthe-sand.com/index.php?page=Poem/Poem.php
 Aulén, G. (1931). Christus victor: An historical study of three main types of the idea of the atonement. London: SPCK Classics, pp. 111-116.
 Aulén, pp. 114-115.
 Gaybba, p. 93.
When humans decided to execute the only Son of the living God, they perpetrated a terrible crime. And a terrible crime is deserving of severe judgement.
Let us not diminish the terribleness of this crime by saying that actually it was God’s plan that Jesus should die, making it seem that humans were merely God’s agents in God’s plan, and that Jesus’ crucifixion is somehow okay or even good. From every angle, Christ’s death was a dreadful crime against God.
And let us also not stand back and say that we were not somehow involved in his murder. Of course we were not present and active on that terrible day. But it is not just those individuals who were responsible for Jesus’ death. It is the sin of all of us – those before Jesus’ time, those during his time, and those who came after him. Jesus carried the sins of the whole world, including mine and including yours: “[Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). We must each accept our part in his death.
How do we make sense of this crime and of God’s response to it?
In Mark 12, Matthew 21 and Luke 20 Jesus tells a parable that bears an eerie resemblance to his own death. A landowner builds a beautiful vineyard. He really invests in setting it up. Then he rents out his land to some farmers, to tenants, while he went away on a journey. At harvest time, the landowner sends his representative to collect rent, but the tenants are happy to use the land but unwilling to acknowledge the landowner’s rights. They treat the representative badly and send him back with nothing. So the landowner sends another representative, but this one they assault. For a third time the landowner sends his representative and this time the tenants kill him. The landowner continues to send many representatives, but all are ill-treated, assaulted or killed. Eventually the landowner decides to send his only son, his beloved, thinking that surely they will respect and listen to him. Alas, they beat and kill the son also. This terrible and personal assault is too much for the landowner. He comes in person and destroys the tenants and gives the vineyard away to others.
The parallels are striking, aren’t they? God delegates the care of the garden to Adam. God commissions humanity to rule over the world, taking care of it on his behalf. Humans are happy to use and exploit God’s blessings, but all too often we do not pay homage to God, we do not acknowledge the source of the blessing, we carry on as if God did not exist. God sends prophets as ambassadors to speak God’s mind, God’s heart. But all too often, the prophets were reviled, ignored or even killed. But God persists over hundreds and hundreds of years to get God’s message across to us.
Eventually, some two thousand years ago, God sends the Son, the one and only, the Beloved. Surely we will listen to God incarnate? Surely we will respect the Son of God? Even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows, however, the extent to which Jesus’ message was not heard. He was attacked, criticised and ridiculed. On several occasions people plotted or attempted to kill him. His message was twisted and distorted. And precious few recognised and accepted him for who he was – God’s son.
And then we killed him. We killed the Son of God. We killed the second person of the Trinity.
How will God respond?
Perhaps God will respond with Divine Wrath. Perhaps God will wipe humanity from the face of the earth; burn up the earth; obliterate all trace of the creation.
And rightly so, don’t you think? What else could be an appropriate response to a crime as massive as the murder of God? I don’t think any of us could deny that that would be an appropriate and fully justified response. Divine retribution. Divine judgement.
I have a 15 year old son – my only child. Occasionally, in a darker mood, I find myself imagining what I’d do if someone hurt him. I think I’d go insane – I cannot imagine how I would hold on to my mind. I think I would become a raging homicidal monster. I’d like to think I might be heroic and forgive. But I don’t think I am that hero.
How our murder of Jesus must have hurt and enraged God. And how terrible that rage would be for us if God chose to vent it. We have seen God’s wrath at times in the Old Testament, but I imagine those times would pale in comparison to this.
God’s wrath does not descend. There are no fiery balls falling from the sky. No shattering earthquakes. No volcanic eruptions. No lakes of burning sulphur. No tsunamis.
Indeed, there was no response at all. On the second day after the crucifixion, the Saturday, the cosmos held its breath, waiting. What would God do? Waiting… waiting… no response. It was as if God was grappling, as Christ had grappled in the garden of Gethsemane. God, grappling with emotion, God weighing up the options, God deciding whether or not to live out what Jesus had told in that parable. Holy Saturday is the day we wait on God, to see how God will respond. We wait, silent, by Jesus’ grave.
And on the third day, the Sunday, early in the morning, Jesus comes back. He comes back! The Son, whom we killed, is returned to us. He returns with words of grace and peace, with words of encouragement, with words of salvation. We move past Lent and Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and encounter a glorious Easter Morning!
How is that possible? How is it that God, the triune God, would return to us after we had murdered the Son? How is it that the parable of wrath and judgement is not fulfilled? How is it that we are not forever Godforsaken?
Jesus’ resurrection is evidence of God’s forgiveness!
God’s grappling on Holy Saturday between divine wrath and divine forgiveness resolves into forgiveness. As we have seen so often before over the past 34 reflections, God’s inclination is towards love, towards forgiveness. God remains true to God’s heart, which is full of love. Even in the face of the greatest crime against the very being of a God, God chooses to forgive. God chooses love over wrath.
And the most powerful way that God can demonstrate forgiveness of our choice to kill the Son is to return the Son. The resurrection is divine forgiveness.
Jesus’ resurrection does not make the cross something wonderful or beautiful or glorious. Rather, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that God’s love is wonderful, beautiful and glorious!
There has been no greater demonstration of love than the resurrection. God created out of an abundance of free love. The incarnation demonstrated the selflessness of divine love desiring intimacy with humanity. The cross is a sign of divine love willing to risk everything in the hope of salvation. But the resurrection is the decision of God to forgive and reconcile in the wake of the ultimate betrayal. The ultimate sin requires ultimate forgiveness; ultimate forgiveness requires ultimate love.
If ever you are in doubt of God’s willingness to forgive your sin, look to the resurrection. If ever you need assurance that God has not forsaken you, look to the resurrrection. If ever you doubt God’s love, look to the resurrection. The resurrection is divine forgiveness.
Meditation for the Day
Put yourself in God’s shoes on Easter Friday. What would you have done? Consider the resurrection. Consider its message. Consider the resurrection as divine forgiveness. What is God saying to you?
Prayer for the Day
God of infinite love and mercy, I give you heartfelt thanks and worship for the great gift of your return to us after we had murdered your only begotten Son. Thank you for that ultimate forgiveness. Empower me to honour your gift in how I live my life.
This is the fifth and final talk in the series on “Being God’s Beloved”, presented at St Martin’s Anglican Church, Irene, South Africa, on 9 April 2014. We conclude the talks by focusing on the Cross and Resurrection, and the way in which the sequence of events over the Easter weekend reveals God’s love to us.
“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50).
“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last” (Mark 15:27).
“Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).
“When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).
Jesus died on that cross.
God died on that cross.
This is a hard concept for many of us. We may prefer to think that just the human part of Jesus died on the cross. But, as I have noted before, Jesus Christ was a perfectly integrated person comprising both human and divine natures, blended together, distinct but inseparable. When Jesus suffered and died, God also suffered and died. That is the inevitable and right conclusion to draw in light of the incarnation.
Let me try to put this more precisely. When Jesus suffered and died, God the Son – the Second Person of the Trinity – also suffered and died. ‘God’ is shorthand for the triune God – Father, Son and Spirit. Of course, God the Father was not incarnate in Jesus; nor God the Spirit – only God the Son.
Let us step back a bit and reflect on this notion, which many Christians find hard to digest. Indeed, it is one of the great mysteries of our faith.
In the incarnation, which we reflected on back on Day 19, we saw how the eternal Son of God had to empty himself – we used the Greek word kenosis – in order to become human. It was a diminishing of God. Philippians 2 tells that for this to happen, the Son had to not consider equality with God something to be grasped. This suggests that the Son had to separate himself out from the perfectly intimate fellowship that had been enjoyed by the Godhead since before the beginning of time. God – Father, Son and Spirit – had spent eternity in the most wonderful and intimately connected relationship. At the incarnation, God the Son separates out from that fellowship in order to become small in order to become human.
This was a tremendous sacrifice for God to make – the Son experiences smallness and aloneness for the first time in his existence. And the Father and Spirit experience a gap between themselves, without the Son. What an amazing gift the incarnation is – God’s offering of Godself to be immersed in human form among us!
This separation of God from God – of Son from Father and Spirit – explains why Jesus spent so much time in prayer. He was working to maintain his fellowship with Father and Spirit, a fellowship that he had always taken for granted, but was now pulled apart by the incarnation.
Thirty something years later, as Jesus hangs on the cross, he draws closer and closer to a much greater separation, a much more fundamental pulling apart. He anticipates death. And he suffers with it.
When we think of Jesus’ suffering – and we have heard this often in sermons – we often emphasise Jesus’ physical suffering. To be sure, death by crucifixion is a grotesque way to die – too awful for me to even begin to write about. But in truth, many many people were crucified and Jesus’ crucifixion was no worse than anyone else’s. In fact, mercifully, he died quickly, while others lasted a day or two – a prolonged and agonising death. The physical suffering was bad, but this is not what crushed his heart.
An important aspect of Jesus’ suffering was the Cup of Suffering that he drank, on which we reflected on Day 31. While in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus anticipated this Cup, grappled with what he understood was coming, and eventually agreed to drink it. But on the cross, he did the drinking. He took into himself the sins of the whole world. The hatred and arrogance and carelessness that prompted his execution were devastating. This man of peace and love treated with such contempt and violence. I imagine my own sin – spread over the past 46 years – and Jesus drinking that. Ghastly! And then I imagine the sin of my family and friends, and then the whole world, and then the whole human race throughout history, together with this history of the world to come. I cannot conceive how deep that Cup must have been, how long it took to drink, how bitter its contents. Jesus the human and Christ the Son of God suffered.
But as his death was immanent, Christ Jesus experienced a new and most painful suffering – he realised that he would be entirely cut off from the Godhead. God the Son would die and be separated from God. The separation of the incarnation was a tremendous sacrifice, but nevertheless the Son still had a relationship with the Father and Spirit. But in death, this would terminate, and he would be cut off.
And so, “at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’– which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34, also Matthew 27:46). As his death approaches, Christ Jesus experiences separation from God – he experiences being completely alone. One theologian refers to this as Jesus’ experience of “Godforsakenness”. Let us not take the easy route of thinking of this as the human Jesus experiencing the loss of the Son of God – as if the Son quickly abandoned the man just before he died. No! Let us affirm that when Jesus died, it was the whole divine-human person who died. And thus it was the whole divine-human person who experienced being forsaken by God.
It is so shocking. Almost overwhelming our mind as we try to contemplate the horror.
Can you try to imagine the devastation experienced by God the Father and God the Spirit, as they lose a third of the Godhead? The terrible rupture in God’s being? The huge hole as a third of God is ripped away? The terrible loneliness of death?
As much as Christ felt Godforsaken, so too the Father and Son, because they too had lost contact with the Second Person of the Trinity, with God. No wonder there was darkness and earthquakes – the whole cosmos reeled with the enormity of the death of God.
Perhaps you need to just pause here for a few minutes, and close your eyes, and consider what you’ve read.
We need to accept our part in perpetrating this terrible deed. We may feel that because it occurred before our time, we personally did not do this. But in the cross, all time – past, present and future – come together, and so we were as much a part of it as those who cried out “Crucify him!”. The Cup of Suffering contained our sin also. And it was his drinking of that Cup that resulted in Jesus’ death. It was the collective sin of the entire human race that did this. And you and I are members of that race. We did this to God.
This is the part of Easter that should cause our hearts to be wrenched asunder. That I should have done this to God.
In my church, on Maundy Thursday evening, the day before Good Friday, we strip the sanctuary. In other words, we carry everything out from the front of the church – all chairs, tables, books, decorations, flowers, linen, everything. All that is left is the altar – stripped naked. And the lights are dimmed. And we leave in silence. It always devastates me.
Then on Good Friday afternoon, we have a three-hour service, where we keep vigil at the cross during Jesus last hours, until he dies, and then we leave in silence. This long, quiet, contemplative service is often excruciating. I want to run away from the terribleness of it – I can barely bear to stay at the cross.
By the time I get home on Good Friday, I am a spiritual and emotional wreck. I stay at home quietly until Easter Sunday. I cannot go out, cannot go shopping, cannot get together with family. I am immobilised. It feels like a lead weight is resting on my heart. I can’t breathe.
This is the death of God.
It is time to be silent.
Meditation for the Day
Make some time to be silent. To just sit with this. To not rush off to something happier. To not sugar coat it.
Prayer for the Day
Lord, forgive me.
 Moltmann, J. (1993). The crucified God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, p. 227.