Filed under: Sermons | Tags: atonement, Cross, crucifixion, Good Friday, Jesus, John 18:1-19:42
Tonight, we hear John’s account of Jesus’ victorious death on the cross. Victorious death? Yes, the cross is where the path of faithfulness leads. Jesus is victorious in his faithfulness to the end. Especially in the Gospel of John, we are told that Jesus knew the betrayal, abandonment, suffering, and death that was to come in his last days. Jesus knows the danger that is to come, and he continues directly for it. To die on the cross will be to triumph. It is the central reason Jesus has come to earth. Jesus’ death is key in Jesus’ victory.
John writes his passion from a different light than the synoptic Gospels. Jesus has foreknowledge of what is to come and is confident in continuing his mission, knowing that mission leads to his death.
Let’s consider a few examples of Jesus’ faithful confidence from the Gospel of John. After Jesus enters Jerusalem with palm branches waving, he declares, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” and speaks of his death as the falling of a grain of wheat which dies and bears much fruit. He continues to speak of the hour of his death as the reason he has come. As he preaches this, the crowds hear affirmation in the thunder of God’s voice. In tonight’s gospel, when the soldiers and police come to arrest Jesus in the garden, Jesus does not fight back or run away, rather he declares, “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Jesus carries his cross to the site of the crucifixion, whereas other Gospels tell that Simon of Cyrene carried it. Even John’s description of Jesus’ death emphasizes Jesus’ powerful choice to follow through with his mission: “When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30). Jesus “gave up his spirit” in the active voice: Jesus is not a passive victim in this gospel. John paints a portrait of one who knows what is to come and desires to follow through with it. Jesus chooses to suffer and die.
As John tells Jesus’ passion, he lifts up meanings for his community and for us. Kingdom and power emerge as major themes.
The major exploration of kingdom and power begins as Jesus is brought before Pilate, the governor of Judea. Pilate has heard Jesus has been called the “king of the Jews” and questions him about his kingship. Jesus replies that his kingdom “is not from this world.” Jesus’ kingdom is greater than this world, it existed before the world was brought into being. Jesus declares that Pilate’s power is dependent on a greater power. Pilate is both fearful and scornful.
When the crowd outside Pilate’s headquarters gets involved, the debate about kingship expands to a reflection of whose leadership we follow. The faithful response is to acknowledge God alone as the one to whom we owe allegiance. But, instead of declaring “God is our king,” the chief priests and police declare “we have no king but the emperor.” They reject the promised king that God has sent. Many Christians have done violence to modern Jews because of John’s portrayal of their rejection. But that was not his point. Rather, John was reflecting on the rejection his Christian community felt from the Jewish communities in which they worshipped and with whom they identified. For us today, the religious authorities’ rejection invites us to consider our rejection. When God acts other than we expected, when we don’t get what we think God should give us, when other people or things look more likely to give us life and security, do we also reject God? Do we also claim another as our king?
Pilate twists and mocks the idea of Jesus as king. He has Jesus dressed in a royal purple robe and crowned with thorns. Jesus is shackled and beated, condemned to death. As he hangs on the cross, Pilate’s royal declaration hangs above: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Pilate sees crucified Jesus as the furthest thing from an image of a king.
The cross is the throne Jesus ascends. Humility is the path he chooses. But his kingship is sure. Jesus is one with the creator whose power is greater than all. Jesus sets aside power in his incarnation and death. Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning testifies to the kingship and power that rightly belong to him. Pilate intends to mock the powerless king, but Jesus proves his victory in setting aside power. Jesus is ruler of a different kind of kingdom, in which the powerful one gives up himself for the sake of the weakest.
The cross is the moment of Jesus’ victory. What is it Jesus is victorious over?
Jesus is victorious over sin, death, and the devil. Jesus breaks the powers of this world that hold us captive and separated from God. Jesus opens his kingdom to all people.
The powers of evil, the rights of death, were broken when they tried to claim Jesus. From the beginning of the gospel, John wants us to know that Jesus is the word of God, Jesus is from God, Jesus is God. Jesus Christ is present at creation, bringing life into being, light out of darkness, creation out of nothing. So when this Jesus Christ enters into the darkness of death, and death tries to turn him into nothingness, death fails in his task. The one who creates life, light, and creation enters cannot be conquered by death. Jesus makes light in the midst of the darkness of death and turns the nothingness of death into full life. Jesus emerges from suffering death fully restored in newly created life.
What does all this mean for you and for me?
The cross is the place of victory for Jesus, and also for us. Jesus draws all people to himself as he is raised up on the cross. We who have been united with Jesus through baptism are united with Jesus in his death. Jesus’ death breaks apart the kingdom of this world that is opposed to God and firmly establishes the kingdom of God. We are brought into the kingdom of God now.
This means that you have been freed from all those things which take life away. Death, fear, greed, the need to live up to other’s expectations or ways of valuing life- none of these things have a hold on you anymore. Jesus has won you away from these powers.
Tonight, we welcome the cross into our midst. We honor the cross as symbol and place of Jesus’ victory, in doing so, we glorify the one who died there. As Jesus transforms the world with his kingdom, Jesus has transformed the cross from a place of shame to a place of victory.
Easter Sunday, the empty tomb, and the risen Jesus Christ are the final affirmations to Jesus’ victory on the cross. We know that the cross was a battle won because Jesus emerges from death. We celebrate Jesus’ faithfulness to the cross and God’s faithfulness in providing life. We rejoice in Jesus’ death, because we know that it is not the end of the story. On Easter morning, we will celebrate the bloom of the seed of victory planted this evening.
*http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=3/29/2013 Susan Hylen’s commentary regarding the power and kingdom aspects of this gospel were especially helpful in my thinking regarding this text, as was Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor and Raymond Brown’s A Crucified Christ in Holy Week: Essays on the Four Gospel Passion Narratives
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