In the Gospel of John, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion is pretty long: two lengthy chapters are devoted to the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. But when I read the story, I keep focusing on one particular scene: the one where Pilate has Jesus whipped and the soldiers beat him and mock him with a purple robe and a crown of thorns, saying “Hail King of the Jews.” It’s the scene where the crowd shouts “Crucify Him!” and “He ought to die because he claimed to be the Son of God.” I keep coming back to this scene, because it is the one, for me, that most powerfully expresses the humiliation and rejection of the one we confess is the Son of God. It’s where we see most powerfully that we worship one who suffers, and dies, and loses. And Good Friday, more than any other day in the Christian year, is a day for us to remember and reflect on that Jesus’ identity as the crucified one.
My writing here usually focuses on the identity of Jesus as the eternal Word, the ultimate source of light and life in the universe. All of that is true. But the great scandal of the Christian faith is this: we worship and proclaim as God the one who was crucified.
This message of ours that we call Good News is both offensive and foolish. It is offensive because we claim a monopoly on knowing God, boldly preaching that God—the Creator of all that is—is revealed on the cross more directly and more fully than anywhere else in human experience. It is foolish because suffering and dying and giving up all power goes against everything our reason tells us about who and what God ought to be. It’s nothing but scandalous for Christians to say, “We know who God is,” and then worship a man being beaten, wearing a crown of thorns and a purple robe to show that he has no trappings of royalty other than in mockery. We say “This is God” as we point to the cross.
This jarring message becomes especially clear in John’s Gospel. John has what we call a high Christology. What that means is that John portrays and emphasizes Jesus’ divinity more than his humanity. In John more than any other Gospel, it emerges clearly that Jesus is none other than the Son of God, one with God himself. And John begins his Gospel with that profound promise of salvation, saying in the first chapter that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
That is good news. That is a message we can get on board with—that God has become one of us, has decided not to leave us alone but to visit us and take up residence in our messy and broken world full of suffering and injustice. That is a message of hope and salvation we can receive with joy.
This message of God with us resonates through much of John’s Gospel. We see even in just before Jesus’ death that the people wanted Jesus crucified because “he has claimed to be the Son of God” (John 19:7). Now, if you’ve read the Gospel of John, you know that Jesus has not just claimed to be the Son of God. He has demonstrated it, clearly and repeatedly, through the miraculous nature of his signs and the wisdom of his teachings. My favorite story from John is when Jesus heals the man born blind, which he does by spitting in the dirt and making mud and spreading it on the man’s eyes (John 9:1-12). That detail always seemed to me to be both strange and gross—until I realized that in making mud, Jesus is acting in his role as the Creator God, who first made humans way back in Genesis, “from the dust of the ground.” When Jesus heals this man, he is in a way finishing the unfinished task of this man’s creation, making the functioning eyes that he was born without. This act demonstrates for us that this man Jesus is indeed One with God, the Word Made Flesh, the Son of God. Jesus does not just make a claim to divinity, but he is in actual fact the Son of God, the Word made flesh and living among us.
Story after story in John shows Jesus’ divinity. Yet how quickly our expectations are snuffed out when we get to John chapter eighteen, where we see Jesus betrayed and crucified. As late as last Sunday, Palm Sunday, we were welcoming Jesus as Savior and God, waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And then, just five days later, this triumphant cry is changed to shouts of “Crucify him!” The humble ruler on a donkey finds himself wearing a crown of thorns and a bloody purple robe, and the cries of “Hail king of the Jews” come from those who beat him and mock him. Can this really be our king, our messiah? Can this really be God? This man on the cross is God? That is offensive. That is foolish.
We instinctively turn away from a God like that. A God like that is unsettling. A God like that really and truly embodies the message of “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” A God like that means it when he says that “the greatest among you will be your servant.” A God like that forces us to take the rest of the Gospel very seriously, as if Jesus hasn’t been speaking in hyperbole all this time after all. A God like that means we have to re-think our expectations of who and what God is, and who and what we are supposed to be. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we don’t actually want a God like that. Maybe that is why we kill him.
And I say “we” because Good Friday is a time for us to acknowledge our own complicity in the death of Christ. So much of the Christian life involves finding our place in the biblical narrative—claiming the biblical story as our story and living it for ourselves in the 21st century. And friends, in this part of the story, in the Good Friday chapter, there’s only one innocent person and he’s not us. Whatever part we decide to play, we bear some responsibility in the crucifixion. At best we’re one of Jesus’ followers, perhaps the Beloved Disciple who stands by watching without doing anything about it. Or maybe we’re Peter, who denies Jesus three times because we’re too afraid we’ll end up on a cross of our own. Or we’re one of the others, who ran away and abandoned Jesus when he needed friends the most. Or we’re Judas, who betrayed him. Or we’re one of the crowd, actively yelling for this man to be crucified. When we recall Christ’s crucifixion, it’s appropriate to turn inward and examine how we have betrayed him too. And I can’t help but wonder if our betrayal stems from some sort of disappointment on our part. Because he came to us claiming to be God, and that turned out to be something quite different from what we expected.
At the same time, there is some hope in that truth—that Jesus has come to show us who God is, to shatter the figments of our imagination that would cast God in our own image. It’s hard to find hope on Good Friday, so we have to take it where we can get it. For most of the Christian year, we celebrate Easter, the Resurrection. But on that Friday two thousand years ago, Jesus was crucified and the resurrection was far from anyone’s mind. Any sort of hope was hard to come by. It was mostly a dark day, full of confusion and despair and resignation. But there is something in that ringing statement that “he has claimed to be the Son of God.” There’s something there that maybe we can hold onto as Friday turns into Saturday and Sunday feels far away. It’s a faint whisper of a shadow of a hope that maybe, just maybe, this is not an empty claim. And maybe, just maybe, what the prophet says is true, that he died not for his own transgressions, but for ours. Perhaps his death means our salvation. And maybe, just maybe, he really is the Word made Flesh. This beaten man with a crown of thorns and a purple robe might just be God after all. That would change everything.
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