Over the next few weeks, I'm reflecting upon Jesus as God's salvation. These meditations are selected from my book,"Why Jesus?" (Abingdon, 2010). Lent is the season of the cross. The cross rearranges our definitions of God - God defined not as almighty power but rather as suffering love.
The night before his death on a cross, Jesus cries out in Gethsemane, in prayer, "I don't want to die," he, who was one with the Father, shows the peculiar nature of God's love: God's love is not sentimental or sweet; it is costly love that is free to love completely, even unto death. Jesus in Gethsemane also embodies God's freedom: God is free to walk away from the horrors of humanity or to love even down to the dregs of suffering and death. In love, God chooses to love all the way to the end.
Still, from what we know of Jesus, it's hard to imagine him doing anything less than drinking the cup of suffering down to the bottom and being obedient to the Father for, in so doing Jesus is being true to his deepest self. The God whom Jesus reveals in Gethsemane is not being less-than-godly in this anguish in the Garden but is rather disclosing true divinity - suffering, sacrificial love, all the way to the end. And the God who loves humanity enough to die with and for humanity reveals what true humanity really is - obedient, trusting love. Here is a God who is truly known only in Gethsemane as the cross looms before him. So when, after the Garden, the next day as Jesus breathes his last and the soldier says, "Truly, this man was the Son of God!"[i] we hear a statement that can only be made at the foot of the cross after a night like that - Jesus is fully human and fully God, God truly human, humanity truly caught up into the divine heart, Mount Calvary become Mount Zion, the veil in the temple ripped in two.
A wonder as great as his resurrection was his death on the cross. The miracles he performed were wonderful but they were temporary fixes, holding death at bay for just awhile. Jesus did more than love the world through an occasional good deed here and there - a random act of kindness to somebody's mother-in-law, the restoration of sight to one blind man. On the cross he accomplished something cosmic, decisive, something that went right to the heart of the matter.
By the way. Where were Jesus' disciples during all this sweat, tears, and anguish in the garden? Once again, true to form, they are sleeping like babes, thereby aggravating Jesus to no end. It isn't like he asked them to die for him; all he asked was that they watch and stay half awake one hour for him while he prayed.[ii]
Repeatedly Jesus predicted his death but his disciples found it impossible to believe.[iii] Perhaps having seen so much good and so much God in Jesus, it was inconceivable to them that the world would eventually turn on the God who had so graciously, in Jesus, turned to us. Perhaps it was that they just couldn't conceive of anyone named "God" acting in such a way as to get crucified.
So when soldiers come to arrest Jesus, his lead disciple, Peter, swings into action, takes matters in hand, draws a sword (Jesus had earlier expressly commanded his people not to take extra baggage while walking with him[iv]) and nicks a piece of an ear of the High Priest's servants. Jesus rebukes Peter telling him to put away the sword, not because Peter is such a lousy swordsman but because this isn't at all the way God's reign comes.
"Do you think," Jesus asks, "that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me twelve legions of angels?"[v]
But that would be the way of Caesar, not Jesus. Rome promised their allies and subject peoples peace, security, good highways and the best legal system in the world. But at a price: high taxes, an oppressive bureaucracy, a far flung military, a few worship services to honor the Emperor, and much crucifixion of Jews.
Jesus went to the cross between vacillating but dangerous Pilate and the colluding religious authorities. Rome had an economic and military stranglehold upon the whole known world; Jesus commanded his followers never to take up the sword. Jesus' sovereignty was different from Rome,[vi] as is dramatized by the Romans mockery of Jesus just before crucifying him, putting a royal robe upon him and shouting, "Hail king!"[vii] Rome solidified power with the whip, nails, and a cross; Jesus accomplished what he wanted to do through nonviolent, suffering love.
To the mob crying, "Crucify him!" Pilate said, "Behold the man," not knowing his double entendre. Pilate is no real man in his dithering appeasement of the crowd. This bedraggled, whipped rabbi before whom Pilate smirks is the real man, the model for true humanity. Yet Pilate is not alone in infamy. Pilate tells the chief priests that he is inclined to release Jesus, for this little rabbi is no real threat to the Empire.
And the reply of the religious authorities? "If you let Jesus go, you are not really a true friend of Caesar,"[viii] they say, implying that they are Caesar's friends. They seal their apostasy with the astounding claim, "We have no king but Caesar." They thus forsake the teaching of the whole Old Testament. How many times did the God of Israel need to say, "I am the one, the only Lord. All the world is mine. I am King"? The cross is a sad reminder to religious leaders of any age about the cost of subservience to the government and the predominate order, the substitution of Jesus' way for Caesar's.
In Gethsemane and on Calvary's hill, Jesus redefined the sovereignty of God. The one we expected to be the royal Victor became the tortured Victim. The one who looked like the failed Victim became the divine victory. As Paul said, Christ "humbled himself.... Therefore God has highly exalted him....that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."[ix] The King who reigns from a cross redefines power for the Caesars of all time, be they democratically elected or not. Early Christian preachers, like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John told the story of Jesus in such a way that subverts the stories of Augustus, Louis XIV, Queen Victoria, and all the imitators of Caesar closer to home. Divine sovereignty redefined on a cross.
William H. Willimon
[Taken with permission from the Bishop's blog on the website of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. Originally posted 4/18/2011.]
[i] Son of God! Mark 15:39.
[ii] while he prayed. Mark 14:32 ff.
[iii] impossible to believe. Matthew 20:18.
[iv] walking with him Luke 10:1 ff.
[v] legions of angels?" Matthew 26:53-54.
[vi] different from Rome. John 18:13-40.
[vii] "Hail king!" John 19.
[viii] friend of Caesar," John 19:12.
[ix] Christ is Lord." Philippians 2.