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The Cross According to John


Isaiah 53:11 (RSV)
John 3:17
John 12:12-29; 13:31

Today is Palm Sunday. Our service commenced with the familiar hymn, “Ride on, ride on, in majesty; in lowly pomp ride on to die.” The hymn has it right: Jesus doesn’t ride into Jerusalem like a conqueror, only to have the ticker-tape parade fizzle out a week later when the fickle crowd howls for his death. He rides into Jerusalem not on a horse (the sign of the military conqueror) but on a donkey, the sign of lowliness, humility, ordinariness.

In the paradox that the gospel will always be, we must be sure to note that our Lord’s humiliation is his exaltation; his degradation is his triumph; his dying gasp “It is finished” is the declaration that his mission has been accomplished. Paradoxically, again, his victimization at the hands of miscreants is his victory. And in the paradox of paradoxes, Christ’s shame is his glory.

His shame? Sure. Crucifixion was reserved for the lowest classes in the Roman Empire . Runaway slaves could be crucified; so could despicable soldiers who had deserted; so could vulgar fellows who had raped any of the Vestal Virgins, unmarried women who had dedicated themselves to the Roman goddess, Vesta. Crucifixion was regarded as a penalty for human scum. Cicero, a prominent thinker in the ancient world, said that Roman citizens (citizens couldn’t be crucified) shouldn’t be found so much as discussing the topic.

Jesus, however, has lived for the cross. “Now is my soul troubled”, he pours out. “What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Next we are told there were heard the words, “I have glorified it; and I will glorify it again.”
The apostle John insists that Easter isn’t the recovery of glory after the shame of the cross. Easter is God’s ratification that the shame of the cross is Christ’s glory.

I: — The starting point for John’s understanding of the cross is God’s unfathomable compassion. Think of our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus about what it is to be born of God. When the conversation has concluded, John, the writer of the gospel, interprets the incident for us and comments on it. First John tells us that Jesus must be “lifted up”. Then he tells us the ground and consequence of our Lord’s being lifted up: God so loved the world that he gave, himself, for no other reason than that we might live in him. Anyone with even minimal exposure to the church and its message has heard of John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….” Few people have lingered long enough, however, to grasp the next verse: “For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” It is God’s compassion, only his unfathomable compassion, that can get us past the condemnation we deserve.

“Deserve?” someone asks. Yes. Condemnation is the sentence that an unbiased judge must pronounce on those whose guilt is undeniable. We are sinners before the all-holy God; our guilt is undeniable; God’s judgement is unbiased; therefore we must be condemned.

I cringe every time I see or hear the category of justice thrust forward as the be-all and end-all of Christian truth. Everywhere in the churches of the western world, it seems today, justice is deemed to be the category that is now to control our understanding of every last aspect of the Christian message and the church’s life. In other words, all we are to think about and do must now pertain to justice. The gospel can be reduced without remainder to the pursuit of justice.

I am not denying for a minute that victimized people should be redressed; justice should be done and be seen to be done. Any church that obstructed natural justice would be a church in disgrace. Nonetheless, when I see the attempts at reducing the gospel to the category of justice without remainder I cringe for three reasons.

In the first place, this reduction is a falsification of the gospel. That gospel which reconciles sinners to God and restores reconciled people to each other in the fellowship of Jesus Christ; this gospel cannot be reduced without remainder to a concern for justice. To pretend that it can be is an out-and-out falsification.

In the second place, while justice may be necessary, justice alone, justice by itself is terrible. Justice means that people get precisely what they deserve, nothing more than what they deserve, nothing better than what they deserve. To plead for justice only is to plead that God will grant every last one of us (sinners) neither more nor less than what we deserve. Is there any good news here?

In the third place, in biblical Hebrew there is no word for justice. The Hebrew word is MISHPAT, judgement. Judgement is very different from justice. Justice is a philosophical principle, an abstract category; judgement, on the other hand, is a personal category. Judgement is the activity of a person. Here judgement is the activity of the living God himself — whose heart is mercy. Judgement is therefore to be welcomed. We should run to God for his judgement. Why? Because God judges us for the sake of saving us. In other words, there is mercy in God’s judgement; in fact mercy is the ultimate purpose of God’s judgement. There is no mercy at all in sheer justice. God bothers to judge us only because his compassion aims at saving us. To put it another way, the great physician pronounces the starkest diagnosis only because he intends the greatest cure.

At what cost? In other words, how far will his compassion go? Is there a limit to it? I said a minute ago that the starting point for John’s understanding of the cross is God’s unfathomable compassion. His mercy is oceans deep, impenetrably deep. Still, we are not left clueless about the cost. After all, as repulsive as you and I might find the cross, our revulsion is nothing compared to the anguish of him whose cross it is. Father and Son are one in their anguish, for they are one in their self-giving for the sake of us who deserve nothing more than justice, one in their love for us who, because of that love, are visited not with simple justice but with a judgement that clothes eternal mercy.

II: — Because the gospel is the good news of God (rather than an invention of humankind) there is eversomuch about God’s good news that isn’t readily apparent to us humans. We have already seen something that isn’t readily apparent: the difference between justice and judgement, the hopelessness of mere justice and the ultimate blessing of divine judgement. There is more about the gospel that isn’t readily apparent. God is most exalted when he appears most debased. God does his most effective work when he appears most helpless. God is most glorified when he appears most shamed. In a word, God acts most tellingly when, from a human perspective, he can’t do anything at all – the cross.

It’s different in our everyday world. When the athlete sets a record for hitting three home runs in the seventh game of the World Series; when the writer is awarded the Pulitzer Prize or the musician first place in the international competition, the athlete, the writer and the musician will be aware of several things. One, they have achieved public acclaim. Two, their triumph has elated thousands, thousands who saw the game or have read the book or listen repeatedly to the piano-recording. Three, their triumph has guaranteed that they will be remembered for decades. No wonder they look back years later and glow, “That was my hour.”

Over and over in John’s gospel Jesus speaks of his hour. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” “Now is my heart troubled, and what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No. It is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” Our Lord’s “hour”, however, isn’t an hour of fame and adulation and fawning congratulation. It’s an hour of public humiliation, of mental anguish that outstrips even physical agony, of abandonment and isolation; indeed, an hour of an isolation so naked that thinking about it leaves me weak. Nevertheless, as soon as Judas has left the upper room in order to betray the master, Jesus says, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.”

How could God ever be glorified in the deathly degradation of his Son? It all has to do with the purpose of God’s sending his Son in the first place. People normally feel themselves to be glorified when they have achieved that purpose which lies closest to their heart. When we have achieved what we have long held as the goal and aim and aspiration of our existence we are fulfilled and at rest. As our Lord breathed his last he cried out, “Finished. It’s finished.” The Greek verb is in the perfect tense, telling us that an accomplishment in the past will remain effective as far into the future as the future extends. “It’s been accomplished”, our Lord cries as he dies, “It stands done; it is currently operative, and nothing in the future will ever be able to undo it.” His achievement from the cross is the “hour” that beckoned him from the time of his baptism.

Then what about his hour? Unlike the “hour” of the public celebrity he won’t be put in anyone’s Hall of Fame. But he will be known and loved and thanked eternally by multitudes without number. He won’t be held up as a “world-class” entertainer (for that’s what athletes and writers and musicians are). But he will be adored as one whose self-giving unto death has brought others to a self-giving unto life with God. He won’t be remembered as talented above his peers. Strictly speaking, he won’t be remembered at all; we remember those who are retired or dead, and Jesus Christ is neither retired nor dead. Instead we shall hold on to him whose sacrifice is precisely what has granted us access to him, granted sinners like us access to the all-holy God whose Son he is.

This is what his “hour” is all about. No wonder it preoccupied him the day he began his public ministry, if not before. And no wonder we recognize his hour by featuring the cross everywhere: church architecture, church furnishings, church decoration, Christian symbolism, and of course Christian hymns. (You must have noticed that the hymns of Charles Wesley, the finest hymn-writer in the English language, sing about the cross more than they sing about anything else.)

Several minutes ago I stated that the starting point for John’s understanding of the cross is God’s unfathomable compassion. His compassion is unfathomable; we cannot measure the depth of it. Still, we can see more than a little way down into it; we can see enough to know that while our visceral instinct is to flee humiliation and mental anguish and physical torment, above all flee heart-stopping isolation; while our visceral instinct is to flee all of this, Father and Son are one in pursuing this and enduring it. But not because Father and Son were masochists who relished suffering; rather because what they pursued and endured was the unadjustable cost of sparing us that justice which foolish people thoughtlessly say they want. It was the cost of giving us not what we want but what we need; namely, divine judgement whose sentence of condemnation is absorbed by Father and Son alike, with the result that judgement blossoms into salvation and blessing.

When John the Baptist saw his cousin Jesus approaching, John said to his followers, “Don’t look at me; look at him. He is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The cross deals with the sin of the world in that our Lord absorbs in himself, and the Father with him, that impediment which barricaded our access to the holy God who, because holy, neither traffics in sin himself nor trifles with it in us nor will finally tolerate it. The barricade crumbled, sinners can return to the God who rejoices at their approach as surely as the father of the prodigal son rejoiced to see his boy come home.

I understand now what I couldn’t seem to grasp when I was very young: how it could be that our Lord’s wretched death, miserable in every aspect, is nonetheless that “hour” when Father and Son are glorified together. You see, I used to think that the day of the cross was a bad day, the all-time bad day, in Jesus’ life – but never mind, he got over it. I used to think that this “bad day” was a momentary dip, a one-day dip in the outworking of his vocation. But Jesus never suggests that the cross is the temporary frustration of his vocation. On the contrary, Jesus insists that the cross is the fulfilment of his vocation, the crown and climax of his vocation.

Then what is Easter? Easter is the Father’s pledge that this fulfilment is eternally efficacious. “For this reason — my self-offering — have I come to this hour.”

III: — There is one last matter for us to emphasize today. As we behold our Lord in his sacrifice for us we must get beyond gazing at him. Being moved to speechlessness before his sacrifice, together with being sobered upon realizing the need for it; this is certainly appropriate. But appropriateness suggests common sense and good taste. Common sense and good taste are not what we need now. We need to make a sacrifice in the spirit of that sacrifice we trust. The sacrifice we trust is his; the sacrifice we make is our own.

As we do just this, the word of the prophet in Isaiah 53 will be confirmed again. Isaiah 53 is the prophet’s depiction of the servant of God, a depiction that was seen, centuries later, to fit our Lord like a glove. As the prophet concludes his portrait of the self-giving servant of God he comments (Isa. 53:11 RSV), “He shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied.” As you and I give ourselves, or give ourselves afresh, to the One who has given himself for us, we shall be the fruit of the travail of his soul. And as we are the fruit of the travail of his soul, he will indeed be satisfied.

On Palm Sunday Jesus ‘rides on’, indeed; he rides on in order to die; and he rides on deathward in majesty just because he, this king, is king like no other. The only crown this king will ever wear is a crown of thorns; the only throne he will ever adorn is a gibbet; and the only subjects who will ever thank and praise and adore him are those who have given themselves to him as surely as he first gave himself to them and for them.

Since it is the efficacy of the cross in drawing men and women to him that satisfies our Lord, I have no difficulty seeing now that his humiliation, degradation and shame are his glory. But once again, what matters finally isn’t that I see this or see anything else. What matters is that I – you too; what matters is that we give ourselves up afresh to him who finds our adoring gratitude and love the fruit of the travail of his soul. For then he will be satisfied for ever and ever.

Victor Shepherd
Palm Sunday 2010