Today’s Author: Carol Swanson
Paul wrote: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15: 3b)
How do we make sense of the cross? That question has been asked in one form or another since the day Jesus was nailed to it. None of Jesus’ followers expected such an ending. Afraid, panicked, in despair… And then something incredible happened! Jesus, risen, appeared to them. I think of the lovely story in Luke’s Gospel of the couple on the road to Emmaus who unknowingly walked with Jesus and listened to him interpret the scriptures for them. When they broke bread together, they suddenly recognized Jesus, who disappeared. “They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:32) They could hardly wait to get back to their friends to tell them, “Jesus has risen indeed!”
How do we make sense of the cross? The followers of Jesus searched their Jewish scriptures to see how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection made sense. Each of the four gospels are faith stories that offer interpretations to their communities and to us. Each deepen our understanding of who Jesus is, who God is, who we are. Listening to the Gospel of John these four months or so, we can’t help but notice how different the Gospel of John is from the Synoptics: Mark, Matthew, and Luke. This week’s text, John 19:1-16, is crucial in understanding how the Gospel of John makes sense of the cross.
But first, I’m struck afresh by the fear that drove this crucifixion. We are told that after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Jewish authorities called the “council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’” (John 11:47-48) And Caiaphas replied, “’You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’” (11:50) So they were afraid that, with the Passover crowds, there could be demonstrations and much bloodshed and destruction when Rome cracked down.
In chapter 19 it is the chief priests and temple police who shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” After explaining to Pilate that Jesus “claimed to be the Son of God,” we are told that Pilate was afraid. Afraid of Jesus? Afraid of the crowd? The Jewish authorities then pressured Pilate. “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” As I see it, both sides were driven by great fear of the emperor: Pilate feared for his own political future and life; the Jewish authorities feared losing the temple, themselves as the people of God. So, Pilate handed over Jesus to the soldiers to be crucified. And it was not the first time the Roman government crucified a rebel. Such a tragedy!
But how does the Gospel of John find meaning in this tragic crucifixion? We are told, “Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon.” (John 16:14) From noon on, the priests would be slaughtering the Passover lambs. It was the blood of the lambs put on the doorposts and lintels that had saved the lives of the Israelites and their animals in Egypt. God freed them from slavery and brought them to the Promised Land. Also recall, at the very beginning of the gospel, on the banks of the Jordan, where “John was baptizing…he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:28-29) The gospel writer saw Jesus as the Passover Lamb, who brings us life and freedom, who conquers death! This was interpreting Jesus, in accordance with the scriptures.
Jesus said, “I AM the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (10:11) And then Jesus becomes the Passover lamb, who lays down his life for the world.
In the Hebrew scriptures (for example, Psalm 23, Ezekiel 34), God is referred to as the people’s Shepherd who protects and provides for his sheep. Again, John was interpreting Jesus, in accordance with the scriptures.
A little earlier in chapter 19, Pilate asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” And that brings our hearts and minds back to the Prologue. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. …From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” (See Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8:22ff.)
We talked about spiritual practices this Sunday, and I love to read books as a way of life-long learning (which also is the “value” we will be discussing this week). I feel compelled to recommend two books I have enjoyed and learned from. Some years ago, Adult Forum held a book study on David J. Lose’s book, Making Sense of the Cross (2011, and edited by Scott Tunseth). The second book is Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes by John Shelby Spong (1996).
Loving God, in you we “live and move and have our being.” Inspire us to see your abundant love as the primary lens as we read and interpret scripture. Amen.
Mid-week devotions are authored by members of our community. If you are interested in creating a trio of reflections to be shared on an upcoming Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, contact Pastor Peter.