Isaiah 52:13–53:12; Psalm 40:1-14; Hebrews 10:1-25; John 18:31-19:37
It’s been a hell of a Lent.
It began for my family with the diagnosis of our middle son with epilepsy after two terrifying seizures. It continued when a group of friends from seminary began, through an extended email chain, sharing with one another the trials we were facing: one friend wrote that she had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, after which another friend shared that her father had inoperable cancer, after which a third friend wrote and said “Our Good Friday came today with news that my father, too, has metastasized cancer.” In the midst of this my brother-in-law was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder. There’s more to be said, but that will suffice. I’m sure you could add to this list your own sufferings and the troubles of those you love. Several of us in this community over the last forty days have spent time in hospitals, seen loved ones sick or injured, have lost old friends or family members.
It’s been a hell of a Lent.
And sometimes I can’t help but wish God would just fix things. Just do the God-magic and make everything better. But as soon as I think these things I realize that what I am asking from God is precisely magic; I’m asking for a god who looks more like the pagan pantheon of divinities who exert power and control over defined areas of our lives; divinities who can be coaxed and bribed into interfering in human affairs. This interference, of course, in the Greco-Roman mythologies is sometimes beneficial to us and sometimes harmful, depending on the whims of the gods. You see, the very power I wish God would exert to magically make this world better is a power that is but human power writ large and projected upon a transcendent screen.
Karl Barth has urged us to remember that God’s power is not an “empty, naked sovereignty.” He adds, “God, . . . if conceived of as unconditioned power, would be a demon and as such his own prisoner.” My desire for a God who would reach in and act in a punctiliar and unpredictable intervention of sheer naked power to make things better sounds more like Zeus than Jesus on Good Friday.
Jesus on Good Friday has an encounter with Pontius Pilate in John’s gospel that forces us to rethink divine power. “Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’” Jesus refuses to answer, but instead questions Pilate about his question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” To which Pilate replies, “I am not a Jew, am I?” Jesus answers him, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Jesus’ answer is yes and no. “Yes, I have a kingdom,” which presumable makes him a king, but his kingdom is not “from this world” and so it is unclear what his kingship means. Pilate’s worry, of course, is that Jesus’ kingship will be a threat to his, but could a kingship not from this world threaten a kingship of this world? Pilate seeks further clarification, “So you are a king?” Jesus answers him, again obliquely, “You say that I am a king.”
Rowan Williams interprets this exchange to mean, “The kingship [Jesus] exercises is the kind of power that cannot (not should not, but cannot) be defended by violence.” Pilate’s question of kingship is a question, then, that “cannot be answered in the language in which it is asked.”
In the City of God Augustine argues somewhat paradoxically that violence and coercion can only be used to defend relative or penultimate things. This seems odd, because one might imagine that violence, as a last resort, would only be used to defend the most important things, things that are absolute and ultimate, things like the kingdom of God. But Augustine refrains, saying that if we were to try to defend the ultimate good with violence we would only have shown that what we were defending was not the ultimate good. To inaugurate the peaceable kingdom by a show of force is, of necessity, to inaugurate something other than the peaceable kingdom.
“Are you a king?” Pilate asks. “What kind of power do you wield?,” he wants to know. Jesus refuses to respond on his terms and finally becomes silent—a silence that opens a space, an empty space, a pause, in which questions of violence, power, defence, and rivalry fade before his determination to end this competition for verbal territory. At this point of the conversation, his answer to questions of power and authority cannot be spoken but only enacted. His answer will be the cross.
And given what Jesus has said and done in the face of Pilate, I’m not sure we interpret the cross rightly if we think of it as kenotic, self-emptying—at least not from the perspective of John’s gospel. We must be careful not to conflate John’s story too quickly with the Christ hymn of Philippians 2 in which incarnation and cross are described precisely in kenotic language. In John’s gospel, Jesus is not emptying himself of power in order to undergo the cross and then reclaim power through resurrection.
If the cross is what Jesus looks like when he has laid his power aside, then we don’t really have a challenge to power as we commonly construe it—that is, as naked sovereignty. But if the cross is Jesus’ enactment of power, then all abstract, unconditioned power is shown to be fundamentally demonic. To borrow a phrase from a wonderful recent essay by our own Tony Baker, the crucifixion challenges all “unhinged power”— power unhinged from justice, unhinged from order, unhinged from love.
The cross is not Jesus’ Clark Kent disguise that will be set aside when he is resurrected and restored to his true identity as Superman. Jesus just is Clark Kent.
Cross and resurrection are the same power, the power of God to be always entirely true to who God is and the power of Christ to make that divine activity radically and perfectly transparent. This power, always present as divine energy, always present as an unfailing and unstoppable pressure toward love, is a shared power that invites, partners, and cooperates with the creation in its redemption. “He who made us without ourselves,” Augustine writes, “will not justify us without ourselves.”
What are we to make then of Jesus’ words on the cross, “It is finished”? For those of you who have taken my ethics courses, and who have perhaps occasionally fended off boredom by counting how many times I said the word “telos” in a given class period, you might be interested to know that the word “finished” in this verse is tetélestai, from the root telos—“it is complete, it is fulfilled, it has been brought to its proper end.”
Done. Finished. Or is it?
If we are not careful we can fall into the trap of reading the “It is finished” as indicating the fulfillment of a divine decision to engage in a self-imposed and self-enclosed heavenly transaction by which the human condition is changed for us but not with us.
Yet the story does go on. The blood and water that pour from Jesus’ side suggest the founding of a church through baptism and eucharist that will continue Christ’s work. As Richard Neuhaus once commented, “‘It is finished.’ But it is not over.”
The divine power exhibited in the cross is a power that invites us into the continuing work of redemption and atonement. We become, again to cite Tony Baker’s words, “atoned atoners.”
On the cross the end comes, but the end turns out to be a beginning. The unhinged power of the demonic seeks quick and forceful solutions, but the power of God that is hinged to justice and formed by love, requires patience, for it seeks not to destroy what stands in the way of progress but to transform what stands in the way of the restoration of all things.
In his poem, “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot describes, as well as anyone, the way in which “it is finished” invites us into the ongoing work of atoned atoners.
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. . . .
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them. . . .
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.”