Preached at Holmfirth Methodist Church
18th April 2014: Good Friday
Psalm 22:1-11; John 18:1-19:42
Today we have come to the coronation ceremony for God’s chosen King. Today a crown is set on his head, a purple robe is placed over his shoulders and he is installed on high for everyone to see. On Sunday, Jesus came into Jerusalem with palm branches waving, cloaks strewn before him and shouts of joy filling the air. We were there with him. We sang hosannas with the assembled masses. We hailed him as the Son of David, the true heir to Israel’s throne. We blessed him as the one who comes in the name of the Lord. All week we’ve been waiting for him to make his move, waiting for him to rise up and wrest control of the world back from the dark forces of evil and oppression, and today, at last, our waiting is over. My job today is simple; it is, in the words of Pontius Pilate, to bid you come, “Behold, your King!”
You might be forgiven for thinking that today is about a crucifixion, not a coronation. But the truth is that they’re one and the same thing. In John’s Gospel, the throne is the Cross. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, he says to his friends, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” When he prays for his friends shortly before his arrest, he prays, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” We’re not meant to feel sorry for Jesus today. Today is the hour of his glory. He is no mere victim; rather, he is the Victor. Now that is profoundly challenging for us because this is not what we think victory is supposed to look like. And if this is glory, it is a very peculiar kind of glory. Never before, in fact, has strength looked so much like surrender, courage like capitulation, and triumph like tragedy. Yet such is the mystery of the day.
The Passion story, as John’s Gospel tells it, is laced with irony throughout. Inadvertently and unwittingly, it is left to Jesus’s enemies to reveal the most profound theological truths of that day and it is by their words, their deeds, that God communicates the lessons of that day to us. The soldiers weave together a crown of thorns for Jesus to wear. They put a royal robe on his back and bow down, hailing him as King. Pilate wheels the bloodied, bruised and battered body of Christ out in crown and robe to the assembled crowd and declares before them, “Behold, your King!” As if that wasn’t enough, he orders an inscription of the charge against Jesus to be written above his head on the Cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” What’s more, he orders it to be written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek (the three languages of Roman Judea) so that everyone could read it:
ישוע הנצרי מלך היהודים
Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudeaorum
Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ Bασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων
And when the chief priests complain and demand it to be changed, Pilate says no, that it shall stand—about the only firm decision he makes all day. “What I have written I have written,” he says.
Have you got the message yet? This guy on the cross isn’t just some poor unfortunate soul who just happened to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. No. That is the King up there on that cross; our King. And reading the story of Christ’s Passion rightly makes us ask the question: “Who’s really in control here?” Because the more we look at it, the more we see that it’s Jesus. Everything plays exactly as he wants it to and I do mean everything.
When Jesus is arrested, for instance, he sees Judas and the soldiers coming towards him and he steps forward to hand himself over to them. At the trial, where Pilate is meant to be interrogating him, Jesus turns it around and starts asking Pilate the difficult questions, like: “What is truth?” After Jesus is flogged, mocked and humiliated, Pilate presents him to the gathered crowd as their King. As Jesus hangs dying on the tree, Pilate’s inscription translates the significance of events every language spoken in Judea. Jesus dies, but not because anyone takes his life from him; but because he gives up his spirit. Even the timing of the death is at Jesus’s prerogative, dying as he does before the soldiers have to break his legs so that he can be seen as the perfect Passover lamb without spot, blemish or defect. Be in no doubt about it: Jesus is no unsuspecting casualty here, he is the willing victim.
Jesus himself reminds Pilate: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” In other words, “You’re not in control here.” Or, as George Herbert in his poem ‘The Sacrifice’ puts it quite beautifully: “I him obey, who all things else command … I, who am Truth, turn into truth their deeds.” Here is truth nailed upon a cross and ultimately, this is what makes Good Friday so good: Jesus isn’t dragged off to the Cross kicking and screaming, he goes willingly for us. To quote the words of St. Augustine: “For our sake he stood to [God] as both victor and victim, and victor because victim; for us he stood to [God] as priest and sacrifice, and priest because sacrifice, making us sons and daughters to [God] instead of servants by being born of [God] to serve us.” It is the willingness of his self-sacrifice which is Christ’s glory. It is his readiness to suffer and die for love of our love which is his triumph.
Jesus could have revealed himself as King with power and authority by coming down from the Cross and proving wrong his doubters. He didn’t because if he did, we would have no choice but to believe him. We wouldn’t be wooed into loving him so much as we’d be forced into serving him. In that instant, he’d become the worst dictator imaginable. Rather, as Russian theologian Nicholai Berdyaev has said, “Truth nailed upon the cross compels nobody, oppresses no one; it must be accepted and confessed freely.” The Cross offends our sensibilities because not only does it confront us with the cost and the consequences of our sin, but because it also challenges us to re-evaluate what we mean by glory and victory. To see the Cross as anything other than an unmitigated disaster takes one heck of a paradigm shift, and that is a task that God alone can accomplish in us.
The crown of thorns Jesus wears today isn’t a substitute for some other crown made of gold and silver, adorned with expensive diamonds and sparkling rubies. Likewise the Cross on which Jesus is enthroned is no accident, nor is it simply a sick joke. No. Rather, these are the crown and throne of a King who breaks hearts with love, not fear: the King of love. It isn’t that the suffering itself is glorious, because it isn’t. It is that the suffering is glorified by love: that Christ loves us, that he hands himself over to us willingly, that he dies freely for our sins. Don’t weep today because you think Jesus is a helpless pawn in a game of imperial chess; rather, weep for the love which drove him to such desperate measures on our behalf. Jesus didn’t die because he was weak. He died because he was strong and courageous enough to embrace the path of sacrifice, to travel the road of costly self-giving, to walk the way of suffering love to the Cross that it may be for us the way of life and peace.
Truly, this is what makes him our King. Thanks be to God. Amen.