This is Love? (Good Friday)
Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
The Apostle John wrote, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
The following is an excerpt from a book authored by Greg Paul, Close Enough To Hear God Breathe; The Great Story of Divine Intimacy. “Places where sacrifices have been made are holy places.”
All my life I have been “brought to the cross” so that a tepid version of it, sanitized by art and comfortable church sanctuaries, has long since become a familiar, safe place for me. But standing here on a dusty road, jostled by outbound pilgrims eager to get home and local farmers carrying their produce to market, it’s hard to see the sanctity of it. Three short, mean little crosses, planted so close to the road that passersby can spit on the groaning figures nailed to them without breaking stride. They don’t even know who the criminals are; most can’t even read the satirical title nailed, along with its defendant, to the cross in the middle.
There is no serene, back-lit hill here. The crosses are not majestically distant. There is only a ghastly lump of rock behind them, its rough domed shape and a couple of shallow caves like empty eye sockets providing a macabre backdrop. A couple of bored soldiers gambling in the background.
If I dare to stand close enough to the middle cross and can filter out the rough jokes and catcalls of the commuters, I can hear Him breathing. Gasping. He is in constant, increasingly feeble motion, rising on pierced feet to take the weight off His hands and to relieve the crushing pressure on His lungs and heart. His breathing eases a little then, but He begins to sag again almost as soon as He has pushed Himself up straight.
This is love? … This is not what I want love to look like.” (We leave Greg Paul’s reflection)
It is an understatement to say that crucifixion was cruel. It was a method of execution designed to humiliate and inflict a painful drawn-out death. Why then, do the Apostles glory in the cross? We does the church adorn its sanctuaries with a symbol of this execution? Are we being ghoulish?
Everyone in this room finds any instrument of execution repugnant. We aren’t the first to feel this way, for in the ancient world everyone found the instrument of execution repugnant. The cross was repugnant to Romans, Greeks and Jews alike, albeit for different reasons.
The Romans viewed the cross with loathing. No Roman citizen could be crucified – for any reason. Then who could? Only subject peoples could be crucified, and in Roman eyes subject peoples were scarcely human in any case. Subject peoples who happened to be terrorists or military deserters or rapists: they could be crucified. Terrorists, deserters, rapists: the scum of the earth, Romans thought: loathsome.
The Greeks viewed the cross with loathing as well. The Greeks sought wisdom in philosophy. Philosophy dealt with notions that have universal validity: truth, goodness, freedom. Then Christians came along and insisted that truth and goodness and freedom were found not in universal ideas but in a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, who wasn’t even a philosopher. Greeks regarded all of this as ridiculous to the point of repugnant.
Jewish people viewed the cross with loathing as well. After all, they deemed Jesus to be a Messianic pretender. Since Jesus had been a victim of cruelty when the real Messiah was to eradicate cruelty, Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah. What’s more, any Jewish person who knew the sacred scriptures, especially the book of Deuteronomy, knew that anyone impaled on a stake was under God’s curse.
So what do the Apostles, why does the church treasure the cross? On the surface it looks nothing like love.
As I read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion I note that the Apostles do not focus on the physical horrors of crucifixion. To be sure, they aren’t denied but here, for example, in Mark’s gospel he simply writes, “and they crucified him.” Indeed they talk about the events and people and what they said; all of this going on around the crucifixion of Jesus, but the physical horrors on the cross are not dwelt on. We should remember that these horrors were as equally horrible for the two men who died on either side of Jesus.
In coming to Good Friday (an odd name for such an event) and recalling the cross we aren’t recalling any execution, as if it made no difference who was executed. We don’t come to this place again because there is something fascinating about crucifixion as if we find cruelty entertaining. Like the Apostles we glory in the cross because of whose cross it is. In recalling the cross we are seizing afresh the crucified one himself; in recalling the cross we are embracing as ardently as we can the one who died there for us, now lives among us, yet lives among us forever bearing the wounds of the cross. For while we can embrace our Lord Jesus today only because he’s been raised, he’s been raised with the signs of his crucifixion upon him still.
Gathering it all up we can say that Jesus Christ stands among us as the one whose cross-shaped wounds continue to call us to him. But why is this love?
The first thing we must say in knowing why this is love is that it is here at the cross where God in Jesus Christ has identified himself with sinners. To be sure, prior to the cross, throughout his earthly ministry, he identified with sinners.
Sinners, by definition, are those who aren’t “at home” with God. Jesus knew what it is not to be “at home.” He was born in a stable since there was no room for him in the inn. He didn’t belong. Subsequently he said he had nowhere to lay his head. A wanderer. Homeless. Misunderstood by family. Abandoned by friends. Isolated. He tasted the full taste of what it is not be “at home” anywhere.
It’s a favourite theme with novelists and musicians. It’s a major motif in existentialist philosophy. Humankind is rootless, alienated, wandering, homeless; lost in the cosmos.
The problem with the analysis which novelists and philosophers supply is that it isn’t nearly profound enough. They don’t get to the bottom of problem. They don’t understand the real problem is that we feel we’re not at home just because we aren’t at home; we aren’t at home with God. And the reason we aren’t at home with God is that we’ve been driven from intimacy with God on account of our sin. God’s judgement upon our sin has driven us from him.
When the cross loomed in front of Jesus he said, “I have a baptism to be baptized with.” But hadn’t he already been baptized? Yes, he had. He went to the Jordan where his cousin John was baptizing startled people who were newly horrified at their sinnership and were confessing it and repenting it. When John saw Jesus he said, “What are you doing here? You’ve nothing to confess.” “Baptize me just the same,” said Jesus, “for I am confessing on behalf of all men and women everywhere; I’m confessing on behalf of those who have just begun (but only begun) to see how twisted their heart is and on behalf as well of those who have yet to see it. I’m identifying myself with sinners; that is, with every last human being who has ever lived or ever will.”
Having identified himself with us in his baptism; having identified himself with us in his being nowhere “at home” throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ now identifies himself with us to the uttermost in his Father’s judgement upon us sinners. Unquestionably sinners are under the judgement of God. God’s judgement means condemnation. When Jesus cries “Why have you forsaken me?” he is identifying himself with us in his Father’s judgement on sinners. “Why have you forsaken me?” This is the cry of a man who feels the anguish of not being “at home” with his Father and knows precisely why, even as men and women everywhere feel themselves to be not “at home” but don’t know why.
We know our Lord’s cross to be love because his identification with us sinners is our salvation. Sobered as we are at the disclosure of our situation before God, we nevertheless rejoice in the disclosure and thank God for it. For the revelation of our predicament is simultaneously the revelation of God’s provision for us. Certainly the cross acquaints us with the bad news about ourselves. But the cross acquaints us with the bad news only in acquainting us with the good news. For the good news is good just because the cross highlights our sin for us only in the course of bearing it and bearing it away. The cross acquaints us with the disease only in the course of providing us the cure. The cross informs us of our condemnation only in the course of telling us that someone else has borne that condemnation for us.
We keep talking about the cross (admittedly an instrument of execution) just because the cross announces life. And knowing now that the cross announces life, we now understand how it is Jesus insisted from the first day of his earthly ministry to his last that the cross was the purpose of his coming. “The Son of Man,” Jesus said of himself, “came to give his life a ransom for many.” “And I, if I be lifted up (i.e., crucified) will draw all manner of men and women to me.” “This hour is my glory. Father, glorify yourself in me.” Unquestionably Jesus regards the cross as the purpose of his coming and the glue that integrates everything he does in his life leading up to the cross.
As we come again to Good Friday, God’s Friday, and again contemplate the cross we must admit that it looks a little odd that we should be preoccupied here. On the surface it looks nothing like love that anyone would imagine. In fact, strictly speaking, we aren’t preoccupied with the cross; we are preoccupied with him whose cross it is; we are preoccupied with our Lord Jesus Christ, who comes to us in grace and wants only to bind us to him in faith.
And so we find ourselves able to say with the Apostle John, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”