CROSS OF JESUS ACCORDING TO JOHN
John 12:12-29; 13:31
Today is Palm Sunday. Our
service commenced with the familiar hymn, “Ride on, ride on, in
majesty; in lowly pomp ride on to die.”
The hymn has it right: Jesus doesn’t ride into
like a conqueror, only to have the ticker-tape parade fizzle out a week
later when the fickle crowd howls for his death.
He rides into
not on a horse (the sign of the military conqueror) but on a donkey, the
sign of lowliness, humility, ordinariness.
In the paradox that the gospel will always be, we must be sure to
note that our Lord’s humiliation is
his exaltation; his degradation is
his triumph; his dying gasp “It is finished” is
the declaration that his mission
has been accomplished. Paradoxically,
again, his victimization at the hands of miscreants is
his victory. And in the
paradox of paradoxes, Christ’s shame is
His shame? Sure.
reserved for the lowest classes in the
. Runaway slaves could be
crucified; so could despicable soldiers who had deserted; so could
vulgar fellows who had raped any of the Vestal Virgins, unmarried women
who had dedicated themselves to the Roman goddess, Vesta.
Crucifixion was regarded as a penalty for human scum.
Cicero, a prominent thinker in the ancient world, said that Roman
citizens (citizens couldn’t be crucified) shouldn’t be found so much
as discussing the topic.
Jesus, however, has lived for the cross.
“Now is my soul troubled”, he pours out.
“What should I say? ‘Father,
save me from this hour?’ No,
it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.
Father, glorify your name.”
Next we are told there were heard the words, “I have glorified
it; and I will glorify it again.”
The apostle John
insists that Easter isn’t the recovery of glory after the shame of the
cross. Easter is God’s
ratification that the shame of the cross is
starting point for John’s understanding of the cross is God’s
unfathomable compassion. Think
of our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus about what it is to be born
of God. When the
conversation has concluded, John, the writer of the gospel, interprets
the incident for us and comments on it.
First John tells us that Jesus must be “lifted up”.
Then he tells us the ground and consequence of our Lord’s being
lifted up: God so loved the world that he gave, himself, for no other
reason than that we might live in him.
Anyone with even minimal exposure to the church and its message
has heard of John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only
Son....” Few people have
lingered long enough, however, to grasp the next verse: “For God sent
his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the
world might be saved through him.”
It is God’s compassion, only his unfathomable
compassion, that can get us past the condemnation we deserve.
“Deserve?” someone asks.
Yes. Condemnation is
the sentence that an unbiased judge must pronounce on those whose
guilt is undeniable. We are
sinners before the all-holy God; our guilt is undeniable; God’s
judgement is unbiased; therefore we must be condemned.
I cringe every time I see or hear the category of justice thrust
forward as the be-all and end-all of Christian truth.
Everywhere in the churches of the western world, it seems today,
justice is deemed to be the category that is now to control our
understanding of every last aspect of the Christian message and the
church’s life. In other
words, all we are to think about and do must now pertain to justice.
The gospel can be reduced without remainder to the pursuit of
I am not denying for a minute that victimized people should
be redressed; justice should be done and be seen to be done.
Any church that obstructed natural justice would be a church in
disgrace. Nonetheless, when
I see the attempts at reducing the gospel to the category of justice
without remainder I cringe for three reasons.
In the first place, this reduction is a falsification of the
gospel. That gospel which
reconciles sinners to God and restores reconciled people to each other
in the fellowship of Jesus Christ; this gospel cannot be reduced
without remainder to a concern for justice.
To pretend that it can be is an out-and-out falsification.
In the second place, while justice may be necessary, justice
alone, justice by itself is terrible.
Justice means that people get precisely what they deserve,
nothing more than what they deserve, nothing better than what they
deserve. To plead for
justice only is to plead that God will grant every last one of us
(sinners) neither more nor less than what we deserve.
Is there any good news here?
In the third place, in biblical Hebrew there is no word for
justice. The Hebrew word is
Judgement is very different from justice. Justice is a
philosophical principle, an abstract category; judgement, on the other
hand, is a personal category. Judgement
is the activity of a person. Here
judgement is the activity of the living God himself -- whose heart is
mercy. Judgement is
therefore to be welcomed. We
should run to God for his judgement.
Why? Because God
judges us for the sake of saving us.
In other words, there is mercy in God’s judgement; in fact
mercy is the ultimate purpose of God’s judgement.
There is no mercy at all in sheer justice.
God bothers to judge us only because his compassion aims at
saving us. To put it another
way, the great physician pronounces the starkest diagnosis only because
he intends the greatest cure.
At what cost? In
other words, how far will his compassion go?
Is there a limit to it? I
said a minute ago that the starting point for John’s understanding of
the cross is God’s unfathomable compassion.
His mercy is oceans deep, impenetrably deep.
Still, we are not left clueless about the cost.
After all, as repulsive as you and I might find the cross, our
revulsion is nothing compared to the anguish of him whose cross it is.
Father and Son are one in their anguish, for they are one in
their self-giving for the sake of us who deserve nothing more than
justice, one in their love for us who, because of that love, are visited
not with simple justice but with a judgement that clothes eternal mercy.
the gospel is the good news of God (rather than an invention of
humankind) there is eversomuch about God’s good news that
isn’t readily apparent to us humans.
We have already seen something that isn’t readily apparent: the
difference between justice and judgement, the hopelessness of mere
justice and the ultimate blessing of divine judgement.
There is more about the gospel that isn’t readily apparent.
God is most exalted when he appears most debased.
God does his most effective work when he appears most helpless.
God is most glorified when he appears most shamed.
In a word, God acts most tellingly when, from a human
perspective, he can’t do anything at all – the cross.
It’s different in our everyday world.
When the athlete sets a record for hitting three home runs in the
seventh game of the World Series; when the writer is awarded the
Pulitzer Prize or the musician first place in the international
competition, the athlete, the writer and the musician will be aware of
several things. One, they
have achieved public acclaim. Two,
their triumph has elated thousands, thousands who saw the game or have
read the book or listen repeatedly to the piano-recording.
Three, their triumph has guaranteed that they will be remembered
for decades. No wonder they
look back years later and glow, “That was my hour.”
Over and over in John’s gospel Jesus speaks of his hour.
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
“Now is my heart troubled, and what should I say?
‘Father, save me from this hour?’
No. It is for this
reason that I have come to this hour.”
Our Lord’s “hour”, however, isn’t an hour of fame and
adulation and fawning congratulation.
It’s an hour of public humiliation, of mental anguish that
outstrips even physical agony, of abandonment and isolation; indeed, an
hour of an isolation so naked that thinking about it leaves me weak.
Nevertheless, as soon as Judas has left the upper room in order
to betray the master, Jesus says, “Now is the Son of Man glorified,
and God is glorified in him.”
How could God ever be glorified in the deathly degradation of his
Son? It all has to do with
the purpose of God’s sending his Son in the first place.
People normally feel themselves to be glorified when they have
achieved that purpose which lies closest to their heart.
When we have achieved what we have long held as the goal and aim
and aspiration of our existence we are fulfilled and at rest.
As our Lord breathed his last he cried out, “Finished.
It’s finished.” The
Greek verb is in the perfect tense, telling us that an accomplishment in
the past will remain effective as far into the future as the future
extends. “It’s been
accomplished”, our Lord cries as he dies, “It stands done; it is
currently operative, and nothing in the future will ever be able to undo
it.” His achievement from
the cross is the “hour” that beckoned him from the time of his
Then what about his hour? Unlike
the “hour” of the public celebrity he won’t be put in anyone’s
Hall of Fame. But he will be
known and loved and thanked eternally by multitudes without number.
He won’t be held up as a “world-class” entertainer (for
that’s what athletes and writers and musicians are).
But he will be adored as one whose self-giving unto death has
brought others to a self-giving unto life with God. He
won’t be remembered as talented above his peers.
Strictly speaking, he won’t be remembered at all; we remember
those who are retired or dead, and Jesus Christ is neither retired nor
dead. Instead we shall hold
on to him whose sacrifice is precisely what has granted us access to
him, granted sinners like us access to the all-holy God whose Son he is.
This is what his “hour” is all about.
No wonder it preoccupied him the day he began his public
ministry, if not before. And
no wonder we recognize his hour by featuring the cross everywhere:
church architecture, church furnishings, church decoration, Christian
symbolism, and of course Christian hymns.
(You must have noticed that the hymns of Charles Wesley, the
finest hymn-writer in the English language, sing about the cross more
than they sing about anything else.)
Several minutes ago I stated that the starting point for John’s
understanding of the cross is God’s unfathomable compassion.
His compassion is unfathomable; we cannot measure the
depth of it. Still, we can
see more than a little way down into it; we can see enough to know that
while our visceral instinct is to flee humiliation and mental anguish
and physical torment, above all flee heart-stopping isolation; while our
visceral instinct is to flee all of this, Father and Son are one
in pursuing this and enduring it. But
not because Father and Son were masochists who relished suffering;
rather because what they pursued and endured was the unadjustable cost
of sparing us that justice which foolish people thoughtlessly say they
want. It was the cost of
giving us not what we want but what we need; namely, divine judgement
whose sentence of condemnation is absorbed by Father and Son alike, with
the result that judgement blossoms into salvation and blessing.
When John the Baptist saw his cousin Jesus approaching, John said
to his followers, “Don’t look at me; look at him.
He is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the
world.” The cross
deals with the sin of the world in that our Lord absorbs in himself, and
the Father with him, that impediment which barricaded our access to the
holy God who, because holy, neither traffics in sin himself nor trifles
with it in us nor will finally tolerate it.
The barricade crumbled, sinners can return to the God who
rejoices at their approach as surely as the father of the prodigal son
rejoiced to see his boy come home.
I understand now what I couldn’t seem to grasp when I was very
young: how it could be that our Lord’s wretched death, miserable in
every aspect, is nonetheless that “hour” when Father and Son are
glorified together. You see,
I used to think that the day of the cross was a bad day, the all-time
bad day, in Jesus’ life – but never mind, he
got over it. I used to think
that this “bad day” was a momentary dip, a one-day dip in the
outworking of his vocation. But
Jesus never suggests that the cross is the temporary frustration of his
vocation. On the contrary,
Jesus insists that the cross is the fulfilment of his vocation, the
crown and climax of his vocation.
Then what is Easter? Easter
is the Father’s pledge that this fulfilment is eternally
efficacious. “For this
reason -- my self-offering -- have I come to this hour.”
is one last matter for us to emphasize today.
As we behold our Lord in his sacrifice for us we must get beyond
gazing at him. Being moved
to speechlessness before his sacrifice, together with being sobered upon
realizing the need for it; this is certainly appropriate.
But appropriateness suggests common sense and good taste.
Common sense and good taste are not what we need now.
We need to make a sacrifice in the spirit of that
sacrifice we trust. The
sacrifice we trust is his; the sacrifice we make is our own.
As we do just this, the word of the prophet in Isaiah 53 will be
confirmed again. Isaiah 53
is the prophet’s depiction of the servant of God, a depiction that was
seen, centuries later, to fit our Lord like a glove.
As the prophet concludes his portrait of the self-giving servant
of God he comments (Isa. 53:11 RSV), “He shall see the fruit of the
travail of his soul, and be satisfied.”
As you and I give ourselves, or give ourselves afresh, to the One
who has given himself for us, we shall be the fruit of the
travail of his soul. And as
we are the fruit of the travail of his soul, he will indeed be
On Palm Sunday Jesus ‘rides on’, indeed; he rides on in order
to die; and he rides on deathward in majesty just because he, this
king, is king like no other. The
only crown this king will ever wear is a crown of thorns; the only
throne he will ever adorn is a gibbet; and the only subjects who will
ever thank and praise and adore him are those who have given themselves
to him as surely as he first gave himself to them and for them.
Since it is the efficacy of the cross in drawing men and women to
him that satisfies our Lord, I have no difficulty seeing now that his
humiliation, degradation and shame are his glory.
But once again, what matters finally isn’t that I see this or
see anything else. What
matters is that I – you too; what matters is that we give ourselves up
afresh to him who finds our adoring gratitude and love the fruit of the
travail of his soul. For
then he will be satisfied for ever and ever.
Shepherd Palm Sunday 2010