The Undoing of Death
Meditations on Holy Week Inspired by Fleming Rutledge’s Sermons
I am determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2.2)
God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ [so that] you who were once far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2.4,13)
Good Friday or Black Friday is the day that differentiates Christianity from religion or spirituality in general. We today are so far removed from the gruesome reality of crucifixions that we have almost completely lost any sense at all of what a horror it actually is. We place crosses before our sanctuaries, hang them on the walls of our homes, dangle them on chains from our necks and tattoo them on our skin.
Unlike the ancient world, we have no sense of the offensiveness, loathsomeness and disturbing grossness of using a cross as the object of our religious reverence. If you were to walk into the Scripture House here in town or almost any other Christian book store in America you would find a quiet yet cheery atmosphere. Paintings of majestic scenes of nature. Pictures of tranquil lakes and sunsets over mountain peaks. All of it untouched by litter, smog or civilization. You can buy greeting cards and calendars stamped with the soothing verses of Scripture. Flowery and artistic crosses for sale cover a wall. You would never guess in walking into such a bookstore that the central symbol for Christianity is one of unspeakable ugliness. The polls say that the great majority of Americans believe in God. But a question Fleming Rutledge asks is the one that really matters, “What do you think of Christ crucified?”
This is not a day to spend contemplating the physical suffering of an innocent man and hero. All four gospels spend remarkably little time describing or discussing Jesus’ suffering during His passion. For this we can be glad. It was not His suffering alone that makes Jesus a worthy savior. Indeed we can easily imagine someone suffering even more gruesome torture, a longer death and greater humiliation than Jesus did. Instead the gospel writers were more concerned with the MEANING of the events surrounding Jesus crucifixion. Mark pictures Jesus as rejected by God but precisely in that moment proclaims for the first time that he is the only-begotten son of God. Matthew also shows the abandonment of Christ but focuses on Jesus as the son of David and messiah of Israel taking care to connect Jesus to the Old Testament and fulfillment of it. Luke shows Jesus as a reigning King, even from the cross where he has power to determine all our destinies (“Today you shall be with me in paradise.”) And John reveals the Passion and death of Jesus as a triumph of the lamb and the hour of glory when death and Satan are defeated (“Now is the judgment of the world, now shall the ruler of the world be cast out; and I am lifted up from the earth [on the cross] will draw all humanity to myself” John 12.31,32). These are the themes and messages that the gospel writers care about.
The suffering and death of Jesus in all the gospels is compared to the behavior of Jesus disciples, the Sanhedrin, and Pilate. While Jesus goes through trial, torture and death everyone else is working hard to protect themselves. Judas, Peter, Pontius Pilate, the religious rulers all are thinking of themselves and not Jesus. This is the biggest difference Black Friday shows between us and Jesus. Self-Help is America’s gospel. We love ideals such as “God helps those who help themselves.” Or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “make your own luck” or “you reap what you sow” or “you get what you deserve.” Even the mockery Jesus received on the cross was like this. “If you are really God’s son, the messiah, you would save yourself!”
But self-help was crucified with Jesus. Listen to what the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 5.6 “While we were still helpless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
Black Friday/Good Friday is not a day to focus on Jesus’ suffering. It is a day to focus on our own helplessness. It is a day to thank God for his mercy and gather at the foot of his grotesque cross and praise him for his help when we could not help ourselves.