One of the most widely known statements of Christ is recorded in John’s Gospel. For many of us it likely echoes in our minds in the wording of the old King James Version: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
We are confronted again in the passion reading (Mark 15:1-47) with the account of Jesus’ trial and execution. And, by being encouraged to once again take on the role of those who welcomed Jesus with palms of victory, only to turn and cry out for his execution a few short days later.
In past reflections on The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, I’ve dwelled upon this sharp transition, this ultimate illustration of the way people responded to Christ during his earthly ministry–following and listening (if not always understanding) one minute, offended, critical and even hate-filled the next. This has been a focal point because it demonstrates the capacity we all have to vacillate between the good and the bad, between evil and righteousness. It illustrates supremely well, the profound and honest observation of the great Russian author and anti-communist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book, The Gulag Archipelago:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.
But the story of human frailty and sin is only part of the story. A part we would to well do remember, but only a part, and not the largest part. The more wondrous element is the way in which God responds to such sinfulness. The grace of offering forgiveness and reconciliation to the world–even those who responded to the presence of God with murder–is impossible to grasp. The acts of God in becoming incarnate as one of us, in transforming an implement of torture and execution, a sign of judgement and condemnation standing over all humanity 1, into a sign of hope and forgiveness, deserve our full attention.
It’s important for us to understand, as scripture teaches, as as Christ emphasized again and again in his ministry, that God judges the desires of the heart.
But we turn to reflect today not upon our frailty and sin, and not upon the fact of the cross. Today, we go deeper and consider what the cross calls us to as followers of the Crucified Lord.
As Christians, we believe that we see the character of God most fully in the character of Jesus Christ. I would suggest, going beyond that point, that, save only for the incarnation itself, the trial and crucifixion of Christ reveal the heart of God for humanity–for you and for me. God declares the worth of every human being to be nothing less than the life of himself in Jesus Christ.
And so, we come to it. The reason why it is proper to say a little less on a day when we are confronted once again with the death of Our Lord. The reason why fewer words and a deeper reverence call to us. We have witnessed again what Christ has done. We have no need of lengthy interpretation to understand it.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
In no greater way has God revealed his love for humanity, than in going to the cross for our sins.
In no greater way has the forgiveness of God been pronounced, than in the forgiveness offered even to those who ridiculed him as he hung on that tree.
So that we might be forgiven and say, with the centurion “Truly, this man was God’s son.”
“For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16)
But in going to the cross, God goes beyond forgiveness, and by the effectual working of his grace, empowers us to answer his call to be more like him, as revealed in Christ.
Just as the passion calls for so little interpretation, but a great deal of listening, so too does the life we are called to lead require more action than we sometimes imagine. In the words of the great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If this deed is to have become a force, then the world itself will long to confess the Word. This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda. This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community. This is a matter between God and the community, not between the community and the world. It is the word of recognition between friends, not a word to use against enemies. This attitude was first learned at baptism. The deed alone is our confession of faith before the world” (A Testament to Freedom, 86).
I would argue that in going to the cross, Christ offers up the deed that interprets itself, and it is in baptism, when we say we have died and been buried, that we are a new creation, and that is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that we can adopt the same attitude as Jesus, and become a people whose hearts have been transformed by the Grace of God, so that we too can perform the deed that interprets itself, that is, so that we can offer the same love to one another that Christ gives us.
At the time of the crucifixion, because we did not and could not give ourselves over to God, we gave God over to the cross. But rather than judgement, we know–even in the midst of Holy Week–that the cross brings a deeper hope and abundant grace. Lent and Holy Week are here to remind us how desperately we stand in need of that hope and that grace. It’s at this time of year that we are called, more than any other, to examine our hearts and push forward in the struggle to make them a truer and truer reflection of Christ’s.