At the Foot of the Cross

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 10-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text that follows.

It is sometimes easy (and more comfortable) to gloss over the death of Jesus on Good Friday. I grew up in a church that didn’t have a Good Friday service, and so for years I’d hop from the happiness of Palm Sunday to joy of Easter Sunday. For sure, on Easter Day, we’d get a gruesome account of Jesus death, but the sermon would end with “but he has risen from the dead, hallelujah”.

I believe that it is important and good for our faith to position ourselves with the disciples and particularly with Jesus’ mother Mary, who did not (like us) know the happy ending to the story. As they stood at the foot of the cross watching Jesus’ life ebb away on that Friday afternoon, they could not foresee his resurrection. Imagine the pain and horror they experienced, the utter loss of hope, the grief at seeing someone so beautiful and innocent dying in such a dreadful and slow way. Their hope for a better society was shattered and their own sense of having a part to play in the transformation of the world was in pieces.

And this experience persisted through Friday and Saturday until Easter Sunday.

During this time of crisis, they did what needed to be done. Joseph of Arimathea negotiated with the authorities to claim Jesus body, placed him in a tomb he owned and wrapped Jesus temporarily in a burial shroud. He sealed the tomb to protect Jesus body. The disciples and Jesus’ family went home to observe the sabbath and remained at home until dawn on Sunday, when they went back to prepare his body properly for burial. In their shock and dismay, they continued to do what needed to be done.

I encourage you to stay with it. To stay in the midst of the distress and the heaviness of Jesus death over the coming days.

2020.04.10_Good_Friday

Featured image “Calvary” by Edward Munch (1900), from https://arthive.com/edvardmunch/works/269172~Calvary

Being God’s Beloved: Day 27: Jesus is Moved

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

“The gospel writers paint their portraits of Jesus using a kaleidoscope of brilliant ‘emotional’ colors. Jesus felt compassion; he was angry, indignant, and consumed with zeal; he was troubled, greatly distressed, very sorrowful, depressed, deeply moved, and grieved; he sighed; he wept and sobbed; he groaned; he was in agony; he was surprised and amazed; he rejoiced very greatly and was full of joy; he greatly desired, and he loved.”[1]

This is such a lovely opening paragraph from an article on the emotions of Jesus. The author, Walter Hansen, gives us a quick thumbnail sketch of the rich and varied emotional life of Jesus Christ. The emotions give evidence of the full humanity of Jesus – he felt just like we feel. But there is sometimes a tendency for us to associate such emotions with Jesus’ human nature rather than with his divine nature. This would, however, be incorrect – they are rather a reflection of the whole person Jesus Christ, fully human and fully God.[2] In fact, we could go through the Old Testament and locate passages where all of these emotions are attributed to God.

We feel emotion because God feels emotion. Jesus feels emotion because he is both God and human. Emotion is not a human weakness or deficit – it is part of how God created us, it is part of the image of God, it part of God. It is something important enough in the life of the Triune God for God to impart it to us. Emotions are not the antithesis of faith, nor a distraction from faith, nor a sign of a weak faith. They are simply part of what it means to be alive and to be God’s creatures. Even in heaven, we can expect to continue to experience emotion.

I have suffered, on and off, from depression, reaching back into my childhood. In my mid-twenties I was hospitalised for a month in a psychiatric ward due to a major depressive episode. Although this was the darkest period of my life, I retained a sense, albeit a very tiny sense, of God’s presence. Truthfully, at the time, I was barely conscious of this and it brought little comfort. But it was like a spider’s thread – almost invisible and fragile, yet curiously strong. As I journeyed out of depression, a chapter of a book became meaningful to me: Gifts of Depression.[3] This time of intense and life-destroying emotion is one of the touchstones of my faith – I look back and see God journeying with me in the hospital, experiencing my despair alongside me, never abandoning me.

One of the most powerful passages that reveals the depths of Jesus’ emotion is found in John 11 in Jesus’ encounter with the death of his friend, Lazarus. Jesus’ friend Lazarus was ill and died. Jesus comforts and reassures Lazarus’ sister, Martha, and then goes to the graveside. Mary, Lazarus’ other sister, is there, together with a crowd. Mary and crowd are upset with Jesus – had he come sooner, he could have saved Lazarus. Three times we are told of Jesus’ emotions; in two of these John says that he was “deeply moved”.

“When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (John 11:32-33).

In this first passage, Jesus’ emotions are reported as being “deeply moved in spirit and troubled”. John relates these emotions to Jesus’ witnessing Mary’s and her companions’ “weeping”. Because ‘deeply moved’ can also be translated as ‘indignation’, some commentators have suggested that Jesus was disturbed by Mary’s lack of faith in his ability to handle this situation (in comparison with Martha’s greater faith).[4] However, this does not accord with what we know of Jesus overall, and it seems better to interpret him as experiencing a deep hurt that he shares with Mary and the other.

If there is anger in Jesus’ response, it more probably stems from his empathy for those who are bereaved – an anger at death, which resulted from the Fall, and which has ruled in the earthly realm ever since. Death is not part of God’s intention for us and not part of God’s future vision for us. Jesus rails against it as the enemy of God and of all humanity. Most probably, he felt a mixture of anger and grief, rage and anguish.[5]

“‘Where have you laid him?’ [Jesus] asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept.” (John 11:34-35).

“Jesus wept.” One translator says, “Jesus bawled.”[6] Though this term may not connect with you, it implies that there was more to Jesus’ weeping than a polite, restrained shedding of a tear. It tells us of an intense and overwhelming expression of grief, revealed in tears and crying noises. We may say that Jesus was heartbroken:

“The world’s certainty that the ultimate reality is death breaks Jesus’ heart. The world’s (and the Church’s) anguish in the experience of death breaks Jesus’ heart. The deep pain that death and the devil (who uses death so mercilessly) both bring to human hearts breaks Jesus’ heart.”

It is helpful to think of these tears as not only Jesus’ tears, but also as God’s tears. As we said at the start of today’s reflection, Jesus’ emotional life is a reflection of God’s emotional life. God, too, experiences sorrow. Potamius of Lisbon, writing in AD 350, said of this verse, “God wept, moved by the tears of mortals.” Perhaps Potamius is over-interpreting here, but perhaps not. Perhaps when Jesus weeps, God weeps too. Perhaps when we weep, God weeps with us.

“Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. ‘Take away the stone,’ he said. … Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” (John 11:38-39, 43).

For the third time in six verses, Jesus’ emotions are stated; this “deeply moved” is the same Greek verb as in verse 33, emphasising the intensity of his emotion – his pain, grief and empathy. But this time it is followed by action, to unravel the power of death and restore Lazarus to life. This seems to support the idea that if there was anger or indignation in Jesus, it was directed at Death. And here he engages in battle against Death, as he will again shortly in the grave.

Jesus’ grief and anger at the tomb of Lazarus is important for us in our daily Christian walk. It assures us that God knows what it is like to be human. God, in Christ, has experienced death both as the bereaved (as in this case) and as the deceased (Christ’s own death on the cross, which we come to next week). God knows the pain and suffering of grief and loss, and by inference God knows a wide range of painful human emotions – fear, loneliness, depression, anxiety, rejection and so on. The doctrine of the impassibility of God says that “God is not moved by emotions”.[7] But this does not mean that God is not moved at all. Rather, it means that God is not given to wild, out of control, emotive outbursts, like the pagan gods at the time of the early church. God feels with us. In modern English, God empathises.

However, while God is moved by our life experiences, God does not merely empathise. Counsellors sometimes do little more than empathise. I have at times been able to do nothing for a client other than empathise with them. This stems from lacking the power or the wisdom to do anything constructive – in the absence of being able to do anything, I fall back on being emotionally present. That is the least I can do and something I must do. But God is not disempowered, thus God’s empathy is combined with God taking a stand.

God stands with those who suffer – with those who are oppressed, marginalised, silenced, abused, poor. (We reflected on this on Day 16.) As Jesus stood by the tomb of Lazarus, he wept in empathy with those who grieved and raged against Death and Satan. And when he had wept and raged, he acted. He raised Lazarus to life. Jesus does the same for us. Sometimes we experience this immediately in divine intervention; other times we see it only in subtle signs that may appear only later. One day we will see if fully when Jesus returns to restore the heavens and the earth.

This is the hope that we have – the hope that the story of Lazarus gives us. We hope because we know that God feels with us, which tells us that God cares for us, which tells us that God loves us deeply. We hope because we know that God has worked on our behalf, that God continues to work on our behalf, and that God will one day work out everything on our behalf. We hope because we can see an emotionally engaged God standing up for us. We hope because we are God’s Beloved.

Meditation for the Day

Recall about the painful feelings that you have experienced over the past few months. Try to describe what it was like to feel those feelings. Reflect on the fact that God shares those feelings with you.

Prayer for the Day

Lord Jesus Christ, you have grieved with us and suffered with us. Please be present with me when I go through hard times. Please stand up for me always. Give me the assurance that you are always by my side.

Being_Gods_Beloved_square_3


[1] Hansen, G. W. (1997). The emotions of Jesus. Christianity Today, February 3.

[2] Bruner, p. 677.

[3] Moore, T. (1992). Care of the soul: A guided for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life. New York: HarperPerennial, p. 137.

[4] Bruner, pp. 676-679.

[5] Hansen.

[6] Bruner, pp. 676-680.

[7] Hansen.