Thursday, March 28, 2013

The God Who Died

… Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Reading the account of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution today in John’s Gospel (John 18 and 19) at our Good Friday service, one phrase kept nagging at sub-conscious - could have. There are so many could haves in this story, each presenting its own escape-hatch to an increasingly desperate situation, I have to wonder why it ended as painfully as it did.

Jesus could have crossed over the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives (John 18:1) and kept walking. He could have continued his campaign from the desert, returning to challenge the authorities in Jerusalem after capitalizing on his popularity to negotiate his position on the back of a sizeable army.

Jesus could have dodged Judas and his posse, and slipped away into the night, instead of belligerently presenting himself to them (John 18:5).

Jesus could have bossed them with his claim to divinity (the phrase “I am he” in John 18:5 and 8 echoes the name of God in Exodus 3:14)

Jesus could have backed up Peter’s initiative in beating off the posse with swords (John 18:10). There would have been a scuffle, some injuries and even some deaths, but he and the civic leaders could have come to an accommodation later on, as political leaders are wont to do.

The disciple who was known to the high priest (John 18:15) could have lobbied behind the scenes for Jesus' release, or even a more lenient sentence. (This disciple is probably the primary author of the Gospel and, if it was John, he would have been barely out of his 'teens at the time, though that’s not an excuse for inaction.)

Peter could have stood up in Jesus’ defense (John 18:15-17 and 25-27), but in a now-famous act of cowardice, disowned him.

Annas and Caiaphas could have been less defensive about the perceived threat from the Galilean preacher before them (John 18:19-24). However, Jesus was spearheading a counter-temple movement in their own constituency, and they knew the stakes. They could have been more concerned with the substance of the controversy at hand than the consequences on their own religion and their positions in it.

Pilate could have been equivocated less (John 18:31, 19:6). He was in an impossible position, caught in the vice between Rome’s imperative to maintain civil order, and the Jews who had been enraged at the insult Jesus had paid to their Temple. He knew that the crowd wanted blood, not justice, but he capitulated at the prospect of (politically inexcusable) bloody riots on his watch.

Incidentally, John’s Gospel walks us through Pilate’s calculations in some detail. It’s as if John is looking for some mitigating circumstances in the Governor’s actions. Even so, despite the all the best incremental judgments, it still ends in disaster, which I find to be a shrewd comment on the effectiveness of our good intentions.

The Chief Priests could have expressed a higher allegiance than to Ceasar (John 19:15). Weren’t they the servants of the Most High? Could they have delayed proceedings until a more thorough investigation had been carried out into the truth of the matter? The rich irony here is that though they were professing allegiance to Ceasar, it wasn’t Ceasar (strictly speaking, Ceasar’s representative) who was agitating for Jesus’ death. They had to manipulate Ceasar into doing what they wanted. This appears to me to be a telling parallel on what they hoped to achieve through their activities in the Temple, except that the One being subject to their manipulations was much, much higher than Ceasar.

The soldiers could have insisted on clearer orders (John 19:16). John’s Gospel records no explicit instruction from Pilate to crucify Jesus and, as the mob had already pointed out, no-one else had the authority to give the order. It seems to have been an implied understanding, but no-one was willing to sign it off. The soldiers would have been within their rights to question it.

Jesus' own family could have launched a last-ditch attempt to rescue Jesus from the cross (John 19:25). It might have been a suicidal mission against the professional soldiers who ensured that the crucified one would end up very dead indeed. However, their efforts might have galvanized the many Jews and residents in Jerusalem who were sympathetic to Jesus’ cause (see Luke 23:27) to come to his aid.

Finally, Jesus, the Word of God who had brought the cosmos into being, could have called on the mighty armies of heaven to get him down, but he didn’t.

Everything that is good and noble in the human spirit simply crumbled in the events that led to Jesus' death. It was as if all that we hold good was swept away in a tsunami of failure and weakness. We were confronted with the worst of what we are.

It's tempting to distance ourselves from this by blaming others. Who was responsible for Jesus' death? Not us, surely?

Medieval antisemitism held that the Jews were responsible, thus justifying the various pogroms in European history. Many have recoiled in recent times from this position (rightly so), but ignoring the part of "the Jews" in this story would be to write their very human faces out of the script. My own understanding is that if we view "the Jews" as categorically representative of the whole of humanity (think of their function in the office of the High Priesthood, or the sense of their “pure” decadency from the first son of God, Adam), then they represent us. In other words, they did exactly what we would do in the same circumstances. Their culpability - their sinfulness - is ours.

However, the allocating of human culpability is not entirely satisfactory in the theological context of John’s Gospel. Surely the Creator and Sustainer of all things could have set things on a different path? Surely He is not as vulnerable to the foibles of human nature and circumstance as we might think? There is another profound truth about Good Friday – the One who was ultimately responsible was the One who was crucified. He ordained it because that’s how He wanted it to be.

Of all the characters in this story, He could have had it differently, but He became the God who died.

(For further reading on the historical circumstances of Good Friday, and the social, political and religious pressures on the people involved, see

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