God in the Dock
April 14, 2017 Good Friday
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
(Please note: This is the 3rd in a Sermon Series that began with Good Friday, and then Holy Saturday. All were indebted to the work of Alan E. Lewis (Between Cross and Resurrection) and Hans vonBalthasar (Mysterium Pascale). The main theme is that whenever the story mentions “Jesus” we should immediately conclude that this “the story of God”!)
We speak of the Trinity as the best way to understand God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. So where is God this night. Where is God when Judas led those soldiers to arrest Jesus? Is it not God who is arrested and then put on trial?
The disciples of Jesus could not have articulated the faith and story they would live and proclaim in the years after that first Good Friday. For them it was just Jesus on trial. We must consider, however, that it was God who was on trial, God found guilty, and God crucified. It is also the last day in the life of Jesus. End of story. There is no tomorrow, certainly for any of his disciples.
And why did it end? Clearly Jesus offended the real powers-that-be. We love the stories of Jesus offering forgiveness to those marginalized and out-lawed. One theologian said that equally damning were the “outrageous acts of friendship” practiced by Jesus. (Lewis, p. 64) We picture Jesus sitting at table with those excluded and despised.
Perhaps we overlook the serious charges Jesus made against the “Keepers of the Law, and perhaps we don’t recognize how highly guarded were rules of their vertical world. We must realize that at the end of that Good Friday, they thought they’d sleep well, that Jesus, was dead, gone and silenced. And he didn’t come down from that cross. He failed, by their twisted standards, the final test. And he did so in the company of two others who deserved to die, by the logic of their rule.
Pulling back a little from the scene itself, we must face the fact as one theologian notes: “In the death of Jesus, the deity of his God and Father is at stake.” (Lewis. p.?)
We say we live in Christ. Does that not also mean we somehow, mysteriously, live in Christ at the point of his death?
The story of God, brought to it’s starkest and most ugliest moment in the arrest, death, and burial of Jesus is counter-intuitive, abnormal, and absurd. This can’t be happening to God? God is all powerful. As the detractors will shout: if he’s the son of god, then he should just come down from that cross. But in the rear-view mirror of faith, he stayed on that cross because he is God.
Many theologians, when reflecting on the crucifixion, also note that the God we seem to know, the one who is revealed in Creation, in the narrative of Israel, and in the stories of the birth of Jesus, seemed absent on that day. Even Luther wondered about God who was hidden, or in the Latin he sometimes used was “sub-contrario.” That meant that Luther came to believe that God always works ‘under his opposite.’ A similar observation was made by another theologian: “Jesus, however, did not come to encourage those who are well, but to cure those who are sick (Mark 2:17).” [von Balthasar, p. 56}
There’s a theory of what happened with Jesus called “Kenosis.” It’s based on a phrase from Philippians: (2:6-7). Of Jesus it says, “…he was in the form of God, [and] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” The Greek word for “he emptied himself” is kenosis.
Greek philosophy would picture divinity as totally separate and removed from all is earthly and material. It’s had a strong influence on the Christian story, so much so, that there were debates questioning if the divine side of Jesus actually suffered and died. Maybe it was just his humanity that died, while the divine side watched at a distance. Such thinking has always been contested.
Other arguments trying to define God—argument also influenced by Greek thought—attempted to say that God in order to be God had to be “immutable,” that is not subject to change. Always the same, and thus not affected by anything historical or material. Alongside of this were claims that God must be “impassable,” meaning that there was no way God could ever have feelings, and certainly never experience suffering or death.
Those two words: impassable (not subject to suffering) and immutable (not subject to change), must be challenged when we tell the story of the arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus. I say this because if we believe that God was fully in Jesus, that Jesus was the Son of God, then God is there in that baby in Bethlehem, and the fully grown man arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.
And on this one Friday, within a few horrible hours, he went from life to death, and there was real suffering. And at the same time people of faith know this Jesus as the Son of God, co-equal part of the Trinity. If this be true, and I think it is, it means just as God became fully human in his incarnation, God was fully human to the very last. There wasn’t a moment in his 33 years when he wasn’t the son of God. Not a single moment as John’s gospel says so eloquently “And the word (the logos) became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1: 14.
And then, on that fateful Friday in Jerusalem, they nailed the son of God to a tree. How far we have come from the shepherds who heard the song of the angels in the night in which he was born. And we cannot say that God in Jesus had stooped to conquer, as if this was some kind of manipulative trick. The theologian Alan Lewis says it better. “God stoops to endure.”
“God stoops to endure and thus to heal and conquer the most broken, terminal conditions of the human tragedy: that union of the eternal with perishability whose completeness Easter Saturday depicts most starkly.” Page 173
What we must confront is that God in so many ways seems off-stage on this day. Except, as we tell the story over and over again, we are telling the story of God in Christ. The extent of God’s love —of God’s mercy— isn’t something brand new on this day—but it can be said to be the revelation who God always was and who God always will be.
And then there is St. Paul. His letters are the oldest documents we have telling the story of Christ, especially as the first followers boldly proclaimed it’s truth. From quite personal experience Paul knew it was a stumbling block to Jews—that’ all, a stumbling block. He was a Jew who had stumbled over the cross story, but then he claimed that story, that cross, and that Jesus as Lord and Christ. He went on to say of Greeks, and he meant all others, that the cross seemed pure “foolishness”—folly, crazy, impossible.
While we may think of the crucifixion of Jesus as past completed event, for Paul it was past, but very present and would stand as well into the future—i.e. continuing—“I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:19) is really saying that “crucifixion had a starting point, but has no ending point, as least not this side of the eschaton.” (Gorman, Cruciformly, pp. 132-3)
Finally, the significance of the arms of Jesus on the cross
“God has opened wide his arms on the Cross in order to span the limits of the earth’s orb.”[From the Didache, an early 2nd century document] page 129
“So God in his suffering spread out his arms and gathered in the circle of the earth, so as to announce that, from the rising of the sun to its setting, future people would be gathered under his wings.” [From Cyril of Jerusalem] page 130
Arms stretched out on that cross—using Roman nails—lest those arms embrace and hold in mercy—all who might also face death. And indeed those arms of love would be stretched out again, but free of those nails, saying Peace Be with you. Peace be with you all. But not this night.