We have heard again the dramatic, heart-breaking story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution as recorded in the Gospel of John. For those of us who know it well, it is a story that grips us with gut-wrenching power. It also may repel us because of the ways it has been interpreted, the ways we’ve internalized the story and meaning of the crucifixion, and in John’s case the unrelenting, offensive anti-Judaism that jumps out at us.
We avert our eyes in horror at the scene of the crucifixion. We close our ears at John’s biases. Like any familiar story, the details may be so familiar that they are robbed of their power; perhaps we barely listen, because we think we know it so well or because we are afraid of what the story might arouse in us.
The central event itself, the crucifixion, was a horrific form of execution—execution by torture. It was intended to be humiliating and degrading. Romans used it for the crimes they considered the worst—for slaves who rebelled and for those who challenged Rome’s power and authority. In Jesus’ lifetime, a Jewish revolt in his home province of Galilee ended in defeat. Rome executed thousands of participants. The practice was to leave the bodies hanging, for carrion birds and vermin to eat. When Jesus told his followers, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he didn’t mean it metaphorically. His listeners didn’t understand it metaphorically. They had all seen crucifixions. They all knew about the crosses that stood outside of city walls, lining the roads—symbols of Roman power and oppression, the scenes and means of excruciating, lingering deaths. They probably knew some of those who were crucified after that Galilean uprising 20 or 25 years earlier.
The Roman orator and Senator Cicero wrote that the word cross, Latin “crux” should not even be uttered by upstanding Romans—it was too offensive, too humiliating.
In the twenty-first century, the cross is as ubiquitous as it was then but in very different ways. On chains and pendants, on roadside markers, throughout our churches—the cross serves as a symbol of Christianity. It pervades our hymnody, our devotion, our culture, yet in some ways, it seems less powerful now than ever.
What might it be like to recover its early meaning—the sort of meaning that Jesus made out of it, the sort of meaning the gospel writers or even Paul explored when he wrote:
“we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Paul leaned into that paradox. It became the heart of his preaching: Power made perfect in weakness, the notion that in the humiliating, degrading, utterly horrific death of Jesus on the cross, when a human being is at his weakest, when it is clear that the forces of evil have conquered, then, at that very moment, we see the transcendent power of God, power made perfect in weakness.
The Gospel of John makes a similar point in different language. One of John’s favorite words for the crucifixion is “glorification” by which he means not only Jesus’ death on the cross but also the resurrection and ascension. For John, it’s all one event; the end, the telos toward which the gospel has been propelling itself from its very beginning. When Jesus says “It is finished” and breathes his last, he’s not only relinquishing his spirit and leaving his life, he is declaring that the purpose for which he came is accomplished.
Like Paul, John embraces the offensive language and action of crucifixion, redefining it as power, promise, sign, and symbol. Alongside language of glorification, John’s Jesus refers again and again to his coming crucifixion as “being lifted up” by which we must understand not only the actions of soldiers nailing him to the cross and raising him up for his execution. We must also see it as being lifted up in the sense of returning to the God from whom he came. Instead of being lifted high on the cross so that watching crowds might mock and humiliate him, Jesus was lifted high on the cross to draw all people to himself. Jesus was lifted high on the cross to show us in his obedience, humility, and love, what true humanity is. Jesus was lifted high on the cross to reconcile us to God and each other. Jesus was lifted high on the cross so that in dying, we might have eternal life.
Today, what does the cross mean? It has become not so much a scandal or stumbling block but a symbol of division separating people on the basis of religious commitment or political affiliation. It has become not so much a symbol of God’s weakness but an instrument of power to assert dominance over those who look or believe differently. The cross seems so often a site of suffering and pain, an occasion for guilt and despair, a symbol of division—the division between ourselves and God, division in the body of Christ, division in the body politic.
We carry all of that in our hearts today. These burdens weigh us down, as the cross weighed Jesus down on the path to Golgotha. We struggle with our personal doubts and fears, with the turmoil in our nation and world, with the evil we do, the evil we see, evil we cannot control or vanquish.
We come to the cross with our doubts and fears, with our pain and anguish. In the darkness of the world, the darkness of Good Friday, we pause here, to pray, to wonder, and yes, to hope.
Nevertheless—whatever our doubts, our suffering, our pain.
In spite of the noise and confusion of the world, the evil that swirls around.
On the cross if we can only bear to look, we will see the one who draws us to himself, we see the one whose love for us and for the world, led him down this journey.
If we open our ears, we will hear his words, “It is finished, it is complete” in the midst of that darkness, evil, and death we will see and know our salvation and the salvation of the world.
For here, on the cross, in suffering and weakness, we see, if we only have eyes, and hear, if we only have ears,
Here we see God’s victory over the forces of evil, God’s victory over sin, death, and the devil.
Here on the cross, we see God’s love sacrificed for the world, God’s love, sacrificed for us,
Here we see God’s love creating a new world, a new reality, creating us anew in God’s image, making us into the humans God intends us to be, making the world, into the world God desires.
All of this on the cross, in the weakness and pain, in suffering and silence, in humiliation and death Here we see God revealed to us, God coming to us, God healing and restoring us, God healing and restoring the world. Thanks be to God.