The cross itself, in short, stands at the center of the Christian message, the Christian story, and the Christian life and mission. It has lost none of its revolutionary and transformative power down through the centuries. The cross is where the great story of God and creation, focused on the strange story of God and Israel and then focused still more sharply on the personal story of God and Jesus, came into terrible but life-giving clarity. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was a one-off event, the one on behalf of the many, the one moment in history on behalf of all others through which sins are forgiven, the powers robbed of their power, and humans redeemed to take their place as worshippers and stewards, celebrating the powerful victory of God in his Messiah and so gaining the Spirit’s power to make his kingdom effective in the world.
N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, p. 416
Maturing in our life of faith brings us to a sense of God’s grace. As we realize how vast the resources of energy of God are in our everyday lives, we find that we don’t have to carry the weight of the world’s sins on our shoulders, that our moral sweat isn’t going to make the critical difference in history, but that the difference has already been made by Christ’s blood.
I wrote these words this morning. On the second Friday of each month I meet with a group of men for the study of Scripture, prayer, and mutual encouragement. These men are my elders, and they have met together for over twenty years. I’ve served this group as part of a teaching rotation since summer 2017, at which time they welcomed me. Today we were unable to gather due to the pandemic, and thus I sent a meditation via email. This is it.
32 As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. 33 They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”).34 There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it.35 When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots.36 And sitting down, they kept watch over him there.37 Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.
38 Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!”41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him.42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink.49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs.56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.
I’ve been slowly reading through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I.1: The Doctrine of the Word of God. Barth was a Swiss Reformed theologian who lived from 1886 to 1968, and he is considered a giant in the history of theology. He was educated by Adolf von Harnack at the University of Berlin and then by Wilhelm Hermann at the University of Tubingen, both leading theologians during their time.
Barth later came to reject the form of Protestant liberalism that he was taught by his mentors while pastoring a small church in a village called Safenwil. It was there that Barth wrote his commentary The Epistle to the Romans, which he revised several times. Barth later taught theology in Germany, until he was pushed out by the Nazis, whom he rejected. He was asked to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. He refused.
Barth is well known as the primary author of the Barmen Declaration, which, in short, proclaimed that the Church’s highest allegiance was to Jesus Christ; thus Christians should not pledge fealty to the Nazis or other earthly lords. Barth mailed a copy of the Barmen Declaration to Hitler personally.
In The Doctrine of the Word of God, Barth describes what he calls “The Speech of God and the Mystery of God.” One of his observations, which has stuck with me, is that Jesus came into the world publicly, and yet not everyone received him the same (this is an observation that preceded Barth in Scripture, but nonetheless, a good reminder!). The Word of God was revealed, and yet not all said, “Oh, here is God!” Even in God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, many where still unable to see what was plainly in front of their face. Barth observes that this has been the case with many events throughout time.
Barth says it simply: “The veil is thick.” Barth writes that when God speaks, God acts, and what was concealed is suddenly revealed as “not just His act but His miraculous act, the tearing of an untearably thick veil, i. e., His mystery.” Barth goes further, saying that those who are able to perceive God’s action and hear God’s speech are enabled to do so by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit’s action that opens our eyes, softens our hearts, and unblocks our ears.
Today is Good Friday. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is one that we tell often. If we are preaching the gospel, we should constantly and routinely bring ourselves back to a fresh consideration of what Jesus did in his life, death, and resurrection. We should keep all three in view. But we shouldn’t minimize or ignore or gloss over or neglect the cross. I think we do. We move too quickly past the cross. Why?
In the Protestant tradition, at least in more recent years in the North American church, we have often focused on Jesus’ life or his resurrection. We emphasis Jesus’ example and his moral teachings, or we focus on our eternal hope and the gift of eternal life.
Too often, we think we’re pretty good people, and Jesus’ teachings can help us be a little better. We like the idea of resurrection and eternal life, because it offers comfort. But the cross is where our sin is dealt with, which means we must think and consider carefully the fact that we are sinners. We must consider how we have failed and rebelled, we must look at the ugliness within. We move too quickly past the cross, for it reminds us not only of the death of Jesus, but what also needs to die in us. It is a horror to behold.
We are rightly horrified. But we must look. We must gaze upon the Christ, and consider how in his death what was hidden has now been revealed. We must consider how your sin, my sin our sin, has been dealt with. God’s mystery is ours to contemplate and to enter, to encounter and to behold.
In our Scripture reading today, we see that there are some who are plainly unable to see Jesus as he is, as Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior, the Redeemer, and our truest friend. They see Jesus as a threat, a false teacher, a revolutionary, an outsider, even an enemy. The veil is thick. Having rejected Jesus, they nail him to a cross. Jesus is stripped, mocked. He is considered a spectacle. A weirdo. A fool.
And yet, there were some who saw something very different, and perhaps the longer they gazed upon Jesus, something more profound began to come into view. They began to perceive that this was no ordinary human being. Yes, he was a human being. There, he bled, he suffered, and he died.
And yet! The moment Jesus gives up his spirit (it is Luke who tells us that before Jesus did this, he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” and prior to this, Luke tells us that Jesus prayed to the Father to forgive those who crucified him, “for they know not what they do”), Matthew reports that something incredible happened. The veil in the temple, which separated the temple sanctuary from the Holy of Holies, was torn in two from top to bottom, and that many miraculous signs accompanied this event, including earthquakes and the raising from the dead of “many holy people.”
You might have noticed that the first people to proclaim that Jesus was indeed God’s Son were a centurion and others who were overseeing the execution. Outsiders to the Jews; people who were not in the covenant community. Matthew also notes the presence of the women, watching from afar. Some walked away from Golgotha unchanged. But a few wondered, “Did God do something there? I’ve never seen anything like it. Was I seeing God? Who was this Jesus?”
Romans 5:8 tells us, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That’s no small claim. Do we give it due consideration? Do we allow it to sink in?
On this Good Friday, let’s consider that claim afresh. Let’s behold the mystery. On the cross, Jesus died for us. God, in the flesh, made atonement through sacrifice, he instituted a new covenant in his blood, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). That’s the tearing of a thick veil. Do we see?
He has done it. Because Jesus has done it, he is now doing a new thing. In me, in you, and in us. Those who receive Jesus by faith are given the gift of eternal life, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and an imperishable, everlasting hope.
There is joy and peace, for in our inmost being, we can know, by God’s grace and with the Spirit’s consolation, that our sins–every last one–have been paid for on the cross. There is power, for as Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Thank God that in and through Jesus salvation has been extended to us as a gift. Don’t rush past Good Friday too quickly. Behold the mystery and the magnificence. Behold the love. And let that love move and melt you, transform and change you. Let the life you now live in the body by one that is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved you and give himself for you, and for us.
Father, I give you thanks that you are a Redeemer, a Savior, a God who rescues us, and who reveals yourself as a self-sacrificing, loving God. Your love for us is beyond measure, and because of this, you are worthy of our adoration and our praise. Help us to live today perceiving you, beholding you, and let us be changed by what we see. Thank you for Jesus, for his cross, for his death, and for the forgiveness of sin that has been extended to us in the new covenant. Help us to live as faithful stewards, as servants in your household, and to honor you with our words, deeds, and dispositions of heart. Give us your peace and your joy, and make us a testimony to your grace. In the strong name of Jesus we ask these things, Amen.
John Donne was an English clergyman and poet who lived from 1572 to 1631. I love his work, and I’ve been hanging on to this poem since Good Friday, when it was shared by my friend Matt Anderson. Here is a link to the poem.