Stations: Death (Good Friday)

7-8-33tWe’ve encountered a lot of darkness during this journey; betrayal, violence, conspiracies and injustice, wars and prophesies of wars, all of these have walked alongside Jesus. Now these forces are gathered at the top of a hill, powers and principalities coalescing around a piece of wood, crowding around for a glimpse of the nails.

Those nails are driven through Jesus’s wrists, hammered through his ankles, and he’s raised up, hanging naked from a cross, crown of thorns burning into his brow, a sarcastic sign posted above his head. He is raised up, a spectacle for all the world to see, and people spit at him, hurl abuse and insults, the apparently victories of Palm Sunday forgotten by the mob as they scent blood.

The gathered soldiers, the weeping relatives, the curious bystanders, all of these see a young man cut off in his prime, struggling for breath as his blood falls and is absorbed into the dust.  They see what the world sees, but for those who sing of incarnation during the long nights of winter, something else is happening. Maybe the principalities sense it too; this isn’t just a moral teacher dangling from a cross, this isn’t a demigod reaching the end of his myth. This is God Himself, become human to take on the worst of the world, and now we can almost hear the baying of violence, the mockery of injustice, the whispers of betrayal, guns cocked for war and swords unsheathed. This looks like a victory for the bad, and even Jesus feels foresaken.

And yet this is a divine self-sacrifice, and instead of turning spirits to stone and sin to noxious smoke, instead of salting the earth with the crushed bones of legionaries, instead of unleashing angels of judgement full of rage and fire, God hangs on the cross, suffocating.

I can’t pretend to know how this works, can’t sit here and turn this into some mechanism, some transaction, a coin in a slot. This is something far more profound, something ineffable and unknowable. Its roots reach from sacrifices in the desert and from a King in his Kingdom and crying in a stable. The supernatural collides with the natural, earth is staked to heaven by an executioner’s tree, and God refuses to flood the earth anew, refuses to cleanse the world with fire. Instead he dies, the one without beginning or end piercing a veil. And in doing this, by dying in grace rather than warring with vengeance, those powers that climbed the hill are neutered and defeated. The skies darken; the world shakes; a centurion acknowledges that which has always been true, and death and sin are broken and brought to heel.

It’s a victory, no matter how it works, but at a cost. A bloodied body hangs on a cross as oblivious crowds pull their cloaks around them and start down the hill for home. We may be forgiven for thinking that this is the end.

But the final victory is still to come, and that will be as strange as today’s upside-down inauguration. And we’re going to have to wait – two days left to go…

The other posts in this series can be found here.

 

Reclaiming Easter 2: Good Friday

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(This is one post in four parts – Part 1, Part 3, Part 4.)

So if the church has a desire for power or ignores the poor,  when it participates in hate and when it perpetuates abuse, it crucifies its Lord all over again.

I hate this. I loathe the child abuse and the ‘God hates fags’ signs. At its worst, the church has a nasty habit of punching down, which it can only do from a position of power. And, as everyone who loves a cliche knows, power corrupts.

Ironically, Good Friday is a case in point. Religious and political power structures, conspiracies and the mob’s thirst for blood all combine to send Jesus stumbling towards Calvary. And if you think it’d turn out differently in 21st century Britain (or America, or Australia, or…) then you’re more optimistic than I am.

Good Friday shows how Easter is reclaimed by laying down all the things that get in its way. The Son of God sets heaven aside for a cross. He sets power aside for a vicious beating. He sets worship aside and ends up hanging next to a couple of dying revolutionaries. And yet in doing so, he brings salvation.

This is a choice we have to make. Maybe not execution (although check your privilege and think about those living under ISIS), but death to self, death to power, death to violence, death to hard. That’s an individual choice, but it’s also corporate. All those choices mushed up together turn into the church, and we want the world to see that as the Body of Christ, not a zombified corpse with no resemblance to Jesus. We can be the thief who, slowly dying, continues to hurl anger and bile, or we can be the thief who asks for, and receives, the forgiveness of God.

Or, to put it another way, Jesus needs to be our Saviour,  not just our mascot.

“A king who dies on the Cross,” Dietrich Bonhoffer once noted, “must be the king of a rather strange kingdom.” That forces us to ssk a question: What kingdom do we really want to live in?

Before we do that, we need to look down and see what’s in our hands.

Are we carrying a cross?

Or are we carrying nails and a hammer?

(Continued tomorrow….)

Good Friday 2014: Crucifixion

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It’s Good Friday. The long road to Calvary has reached its awful climax and all we can do is watch in horror as the kingdoms of the world go to war with the Kingdom of God, as those who want Jesus dead unleash their most brutal, terrifying weapon.

Crucifixion was barbaric and brutal and slow – the word ‘excruciating’ means ‘to torture on a cross”. Its primary purpose wasn’t just to kill – after all, there are far more efficient ways to get rid of an enemy – but to humiliate, to horrify, to send a message. Crucifixion was all about communicating power – that’s why the Romans crucified rebels and revolutionaries, as the ultimate deterrent, as a means of stamping their authority on the world.

This didn’t originate with Rome. It’s said that, when Alexander the Great besieged Tyre, he crucified 2,000 of the city’s inhabitants, nailing them to crosses lined up across a beach. Woe betide anyone who crossed Alexander.

It’s no surprise then that Jesus was crucified. The Romans and the Temple authorities recognised the world-shaking challenge of his teachings, perhaps more than we do. After all, if we take Jesus at his word then everything must change, the status quo must be rejected, abandoned, cast aside as meaningless in the light if God’s holiness, love and grace. To some this is recognised as hope and salvation; to others it’s a threat to be overcome, a blasphemy that needs to be crushed.

And so those who perceived this threat engineered not just Jesus’s execution, but his utter humiliation and his irrevocable defeat. He was scourged and mocked and beaten, paraded to Calvary so weak that a random member of the crowd was drafted in to carrying his cross. And that very cross alluded to more than just physical death, it implied that Jesus would be rejected and cursed by God in accordance with the law of Moses.

Look at this scene again. Everything here speaks of defeat and death; even geography proclaims that Jesus is doomed as he stumbles towards Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. Jesus is defeated, both physically and spiritually. This is the end.

And yet…

And yet there are glimmers of truth here, breaking through in moments and mockery and realisation that, in the upside down world of Easter, feel prophetic. The ‘thief’ on the cross – more rightly understood as a revolutionary – realises, at the last moment, the futility of his actions and aligns himself with Jesus. The sign above the cross and the crown of thorns may be mockeries but they’re also true.

And the centurion who sees something that makes him proclaim that this is the Son of God? He becomes a symbol of God’s triumph on the cross; the power structures and the tools of intimidation used by this world aren’t just defeated, they’re transformed.

Crucifixion was one of empire’s greatest weapons. But we no longer fear the cross, we see it as a symbol of hope and salvation. We don’t commemorate Good Friday as the end, but as part of a transforming, resurrecting cycle that climaxes a couple of days later with a garden and an empty tomb. The power of death and hell, of evil and compromise and oppression is shattered at the very moment they appeared to have won.

But first there were the nails, the spears, the jeering troops. We can be resurrected, but often with pain and never without change. God’s grace costs us nothing, but that’s not to say a price wasn’t paid. The pain of Good Friday was real.

And yet Sunday is still on the way.

Good Friday and the Vulnerability of God (Matthew 27:27-31)

imagesHere, on Good Friday, in Matthew 27, we see the vulnerability of God.

This isn’t new; Jesus didn’t appear just in time to get crucified. For over thirty years, God became human, growing from a helpless child into a man who spent at least three years of his life in the firing line. This is the paradoxical, near incomprehensible truth of the Incarnation; that the God who appeared in fire and blazing light became small, became approachable, became vulnerable.

He wandered the desert, vulnerable to hunger and heat stroke and wild animals. Throughout his life, he was vulnerable to colds and measles and broken bones and headaches. He needed food and clothes and shelter, to go to the bathroom, to cut his nails, to cough and sneeze and belch, to the possibility of accidents or cancer or plague.

He became vulnerable to death, not just his own but the death of loved ones, of a father, of friends, to watch the tears and to hear the wailing and to sit quietly comforting. He cried, he yelled, he got overwhelmed and scared. See, there, in a garden, the man crying and praying and sweating blood – that’s God and he’s vulnerable.

He was vulnerable to authority, even when that authority was oppressive, even when it engaged in cover-ups and conspiracy, when it fabricated evidence against the innocent and plotted to save itself from a perceived threat. He became vulnerable to corrupt police, scheming politicians, occupying invaders and a friend turned informant. The Son of God, victim of whispered conversations in shadows and broken authority structures, collateral damage in the pursuit of Religion and Empire.

He was vulnerable to his principles, because they got him killed. His wasn’t a message of flower power and kittens, it claimed that kings and priests had it wrong, that their palaces and temples would fall. He confronted people about the things that kept them from God. Sometimes that lead to freedom; other times it just lead to rage.

He was vulnerable to violence, a God capable of being beaten and broken. Skin gives way to flesh, to blood and God is vulnerable to sticks and thorns and spears and nails. He becomes a victim of torture, of unimaginable pain and the equally unimaginable anticipation of that pain. His friends are nowhere to be found, his family are far away. abandoned by those who know what’s going on, isolated from everyone else. It’s just him and a group of soldiers, the swords of the emperor. He’s vulnerable to mockery, a whipping boy for people who probably didn’t care who he was, just another outlet for the boredom and frustration of men who were probably just obeying orders.

He was vulnerable to gossip. Well, that’s no surprise, I mean, everyone thought Joseph was his dad, but if you ask around in Nazareth you might hear different rumours. And then he started implying he was the Messiah, that he was God, but he was from the back-end of nowhere so maybe he was just a crazy person, but then he does hang around the wrong crowd… I heard this, I heard that, all the snarky whispers and knowing looks. He was aware of them, of course, people always are, as much as the gossips try and tell you that this is just between you and me.

He was vulnerable to politics, a nuisance to be disposed of. He was vulnerable to spiritual abuse, a church more interested in structures and power than in revelation or the possibility it was mistaken. He was vulnerable to the mob, a conquering hero at the start of the week, the latest hate figure at the end. He was vulnerable to a twisted public morality, a terrorist favoured over a peacemaker, a healer rejected for a killer. Why? Well, it was more lucrative to back the killer, and besides, everyone loves a bad boy.

He escaped a mass slaughter that claimed the lives of other children, and in doing so, he fled to another country, a country in which he was a stranger, an immigrant, the suspicious Other.

He was vulnerable to blunt force trauma and nails through his hands and thorns tearing his flesh and suffocation and organ failure.

Here is the mystery and the majesty of the Incarnation – that God became, in Jesus, vulnerable to the things to which we are also vulnerable. He stands alongside the beaten, the oppressed, the innocent, the survivors of torture and rape and child abuse. He was on the receiving end of anger and malice and gossip, of violence and conspiracies and betrayal. As Jesus hangs there on the Cross, he’s the victim of all these things the world finds so powerful.

In one way he hangs alongside countless millions; but in another… This is the Servant King, the Vulnerable God. And that cross, instrument of torture and oppression is now so many other things beside. The world is being transformed, a new kingdom is on the horizon, and those things that once made us feel strong will be thrown aside and broken. But for now it’s Good Friday and the story of a vulnerable God.

Who are we standing next to?