March 30, 2018 – Good Friday
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Everyone who passed by the Skull Place could see the sign that hung above Jesus’ head. And everyone who was literate in any language of that day—Aramaic, Latin, or Greek—could read it. This crucified criminal had been identified as “The King of the Jews.” Pilate put the sign there. The Jewish authorities asked him to change it, but Pilate refused. “What I have written, I have written,” he said. The Roman governor wanted every would-be rebel to see how the Empire treated so-called Jewish kings.
I wonder how many people who saw that sign laughed at its irony as they beheld a king-pretender stripped of his power and majesty, naked and crucified. I wonder how many of his countrymen covered their eyes in embarrassment at the sight of another Jewish rebel executed by their Roman oppressors. I wonder whether anyone who saw the sign that day understood it to be a statement of the truth. I wonder whether anyone standing there could possibly see that the crucified one was, indeed, the King of the Jews. I wonder whether we, when we look upon the cross of Christ, can see our king in his full glory.
The story of Jesus’ passion and death is a story of power, but I wonder whose power we will see within it. When the “company of soldiers” came with Judas to arrest Jesus in the garden, it was not a small detachment of armed men. The word that John uses to describe them is “cohort,” which was a group of 600 Roman soldiers. Imagine that: 600 armed men rushing into the garden to arrest Jesus and his dozen disciples. How threatening! How ridiculous! The members of the mob, John tells us, were carrying lanterns, torches, and weapons, all meant to strike fear into the hearts of any who saw them, yet Jesus did not run away. Instead, he stepped toward them, defying their intimidating power by confronting them. Without raising even a fist, Jesus said to them, “Whom are you looking for?” And, when they replied, “Jesus the Nazarene,” Jesus said to them, “I am.” His utterance was an echo of God’s self-disclosure, the great “I AM,” and, as soon as the words left his lips, the cohort stumbled backwards and fell down. Right from the start, John wants us to see where true power lies.
Then, in an act that threatened to derail Jesus’ display of godly power, Simon Peter picked up his sword and slashed at the head of the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. It was an instinctive act, but Jesus intervened. “Put your sword away!” he commanded his irascible disciple. “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” In order to follow the path that God had placed him on and fulfill his divine mission, Jesus and his followers must not fight. God’s power must be revealed in another way.
The exposition of power continues in Jesus’ encounter with Pilate. “Are you the king of the Jews?” the governor asked him, perhaps taunting the helpless prisoner. But, instead of the kind of angry response that a captured rebel might give, Jesus said, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.” Pilate was so confused that all he could say was “So…you are a king?” For the Roman official, the only kind of power he knew was the kind that he wielded, the kind that rebels like Barabbas fought for and were imprisoned for, the kind that the crowd wanted to see its leaders exert. But Jesus, on the other hand, saw power differently. His kingdom—his reign, his rule, his way—refused to seize power in the earthly sense. Instead, it sought to give that power away. “You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above,” Jesus said to Pilate. It seems that all power comes from God, but the princes of this world choose to use that power to come against the way of God, while the passion and death of Jesus reveal to us that, even in response to their evil, the way of God continues to give it away.
By the time the soldiers came to break the legs of the prisoners, Jesus had already breathed his last, having given up his life rather than having had it taken from him. When Joseph of Arimathea came and took the body away, he held the lifeless corpse in his arms, yet even the dead weight possessed a silent power. The body of the martyr contained within it a power that did not belong to this world, a power that compelled Joseph to approach Pilate and that brought Nicodemus out of the shadows so that they could boldly and defiantly honor the Crucified One by preparing his body according to their burial custom. Normally, this would not have been allowed. Normally, Rome would have left the prisoner’s body on the cross until the vultures had consumed its flesh, denying it the dignity of a proper burial. But not Jesus. Even in death, Jesus gave Joseph and Nicodemus the power to confront the authorities who would have left him there.
What does Jesus give us in his death? We are here, in part, to see the origin of our forgiveness, to behold how our reconciliation to God is wrought in the death of God’s Son. But have we become so accustomed to the thought of Jesus’ salvific death that we have forgotten how costly it was? I do not mean costly in the physical, tortuous way that crucifixion surely was to the fully-human Jesus. I mean costly in the sense that, in order to grant us forgiveness, God must give up God’s power, yielding over to humanity the debt that we owe. To forgive someone always means giving that person back the power that you have over him or her. To say, “I forgive you,” means that you do not own me anything. It means that I no longer have the right to hold your wrong over you. It means that you no longer need to do or say or give anything to compensate me for your wrong. There is power in withholding forgiveness from another person, but that is a power that God never grasps. In Jesus, we see that God freely and continually relinquishes that power for our sake and, in so doing, reveals a different sort power, one that is not of this world, a power that comes only from surrender.
What do we see when we look upon the cross of Christ? The sign above the Crucified One proclaims that he is the “King of the Jews.” But do we see him as our king—not when he is robed in splendor but when he hangs there, naked, humiliated, robbed of his dignity, short of breath, and dying? If Jesus is our king, then the one hanging on the cross is the one who reigns over us, and his ways must be our ways. His power must be our power. The power of God comes not in strength or wealth or might but in weakness and brokenness and vulnerability. God’s power is revealed in the one who gives it up for our sake. And, if we would be his disciples, we cannot then pick that power up and take it for ourselves. Instead, we must take up our own cross. We, too, must give up all power for his sake. To do that, we must forgive as we have been forgiven and love as we have been loved. May the power of God reign in our hearts until we are as empty as the one who was crucified for our sake. Only then will we be filled with the power that comes from God.