27 Mar The Tragic Victim Jesus
The Tragic Victim Jesus
John 12:12-19 and John 19:1-7
March 25, 2018
Calvary Presbyterian Church
As we continue our Lenten sermon series, “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?”, this morning we take a sharp departure from the view we saw last week in the Yuppie Jesus. Rather than a Jesus who promises us fulfillment and riches in our pursuit of the “good life,” the view of Jesus as tragic victim focuses on Jesus’ suffering. This is the view captured by artists who depict Jesus as bruised, battered and blood-streaked. It is a Jesus who struggles with death and succumbs to it. It is a Jesus who, in the words of Presbyterian theologian John Mackay, is the ultimate picture of “unrelieved tragedy.” The crucifix, a major symbol of the Catholic Church and one that shows Jesus hanging on the cross, is an example of an icon portraying this vision of Jesus.
It is appropriate that we consider this image of Jesus on Palm Sunday. Today is, after all, a pivot in the life and theology of the church. We start the service on a high note, singing “hosanna” and waving palm branches. But, then we make a turn. By the end of today’s service, we will be contemplating Jesus’ death and all that he suffered leading up to it. In fact, at the close of our service Jane will play a special postlude, and I invite you to remain seated and allow the music to take you to Jesus’ side so that you can walk intimately with him as he enters the final week of his life.
During this coming week, Holy Week as the church calls it, we are certainly made aware of the reality of Jesus’ suffering and death. We will gather for Maundy Thursday at Heritage Presbyterian Church and then back here in our own sanctuary for Good Friday specifically to remember and commemorate what happened during the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life, ending at the cross. Jesus himself plainly and repeatedly told his followers that suffering was an inescapable part of his mission. It was inescapable and indeed, inevitable, because Jesus came as pure goodness in a world of sin. As John’s Gospel puts it, “In him was life and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (1:4)
Jesus came as the light, as the one whose life pierced the darkness of the human experience. He spoke the truth of God to all who would listen to him. He was righteous and just in the midst of an unrighteous and unjust people. He was loving and compassionate in a harsh and uncaring world. It was wholly predictable that the darkness would hate the Light and try to snuff it out.
Jesus’ suffering and death were not facts that he—or the early church—were ashamed of, even though the death of someone who claimed to be God’s Messiah appeared to be a resounding defeat, and crucifixion was the most shameful form of death available. These are the kinds of circumstances you’d typically want to hide—you wouldn’t go around touting the fact that the leader of your movement, the guy who said he was a king and a savior, turned out to be a fraud, was publicly humiliated by the government, leaving the movement itself in shambles. But Jesus, always doing and saying the thing you least expected, told his followers that his suffering and death was so important that they needed to regularly re-enact it and remember it. So on the night of his arrest, gathered as he was to observe the Passover meal with his friends, he broke bread and shared a cup with them: “this is my body broken; this is my blood shed.” And as Paul put it, “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
Have you ever wondered why Jesus told his disciples to remember and proclaim his death? Why not his birth? Or his astounding miracles? Why his death? Perhaps it’s because his death is of such significance.
It was through his death that God did something that forever altered the course of human life. Jesus took our place, willingly offering his sinless life and dying for us, in our place. Jesus bore our sins, the sins of all people, to Calvary. There he received the punishment for those sins so that by his death, we are free from the penalty of sin because Jesus took it for us. We remember Jesus in his suffering and dying, remembering also that we have been healed by the wounds he bore for us.
The suffering of Jesus is also important for us to remember because he is a model for us in our own suffering. As we talked about last week, suffering is part and parcel of the human experience. Peter lays it out succinctly when he says, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12-13) According to Peter, the identity of those who follow Christ is so closely tied with the identity of the Lord that our suffering is a way that we participate in Christ’s suffering. Paul echoes this same idea in his letter to the Philippians saying, “I want to know Christ, yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” (3:10-11)
Finally, the view of Jesus as tragic victim also reminds us of God’s surpassing love for us. At the cross we see the depths to which God will go to reach us, to love us, to redeem us. We see how far God is willing to stretch his arms to bridge the gap created by sin between fallen humanity and a holy God. We see love, not as sentimental drivel, but as self-sacrificing action. At the cross we learn that love is a verb, not an emotion, and we see God embodying that verb for the sake of all creation.
As important as the suffering and death of Jesus are—and they are critical—the picture of Jesus as tragic victim is incomplete. It does not convey the whole story of God’s redemption of humanity, and to be sure, without the rest of the story, the cross has no power to redeem us. First and foremost, it leaves out the resurrection. For some of us, especially those of us raised in Western, evangelical traditions, that seems obvious, but it is not always as obvious as we sometimes assume. Esteemed Christian author Henri Nouwen wrote in his journal about a visit he made to Lima, Peru. While there he visited a number of churches in which the suffering Christ became what he called “an overwhelming impression.” He went on to record that “the most haunting of all was a huge altar surrounded by six niches in which Jesus was portrayed in different stages of anguish: bound to a pillar, lying on the ground, sitting on a rock and so on, always naked and covered with blood….Nowhere did I see the sign of the resurrection, nowhere was I reminded of the truth that Christ overcame sin and death, and rose victorious from the grave. All was Good Friday. Easter was absent…the nearly exclusive emphasis on the tortured body of Christ strikes me as a perversion of the Good News into a morbid story that intimidates…people but does not liberate them.”
Nouwen is right. The passion of Christ is critically important, but it needs to be understood within the context of his resurrection. We are Easter people. Unlike the disciples on that first Good Friday, we have the advantage of seeing the crucifixion backwards, through the lens of resurrection. If we look at Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion without that lens, Calvary represents defeat and the loss of a helpless, innocent victim. But when viewed from the perspective of Easter, Jesus’ death is transformative. The cross becomes a place of sacrificial love, justice, and victory over the powers of sin and death.
I am afraid that the bigger problem for us is not that we don’t include the resurrection in our theology. We do, or at least we say that we do. The crux of the matter, though, is that we don’t live like we believe the resurrection. All too often, we don’t live like Easter people. We let circumstances overwhelm us. We fail to wait or hope in God. We don’t expect the impossible from God. We don’t look for new life in dark and lonely places. We succumb to fear and worry and mistrust. The headlines of the day and what’s popular in our culture shape our approach to life rather than the risen Christ. We are meant to be Easter people in a Good Friday world. The world has certainly got its part down pat—but are we holding up our end? Are we the people of hope and light, of love and forgiveness, of compassion and joy? That’s who we are because of the resurrection.
Focusing primarily on Jesus as tragic victim also does not take into account the ascension of Jesus. This is an event that often does not get as much attention as it deserves, so we need to ask, what is the significance of Jesus’ ascent to the Father following his resurrection and commissioning of the disciples? A clue is that it is the first story recorded in a book entitled, “The Acts of the Apostles.” The ascension is the event that marks the transition from Jesus’ earthly ministry to the ministry of the church through the Holy Spirit. The ascension also marks Jesus’ ministry of intercession on behalf of the saints. As a result of the ascension, Jesus assumes his position of High Priest, representing us before God the Father. A Jesus who is still on the cross cannot do that.
Lastly, the part of the story that is left out if we see Jesus only as a tragic victim is the presence of Christ in our world today. If the last chapter of Jesus’ life is that he is the dead victim of a Roman execution, then we have to wonder about the promise Jesus made to his disciples just before he ascended: “And I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20b)
Jesus is with us now. Jesus is with us as one who suffered—grievously, unjustly, painfully—so he knows how to be in solidarity with us in our own suffering. He is also with us as one who triumphed over sin, evil, injustice and death, which allows us to be people of hope and peace, even on the darkest of Good Fridays.
I trust it has become apparent throughout this sermon series that mature faith must be able to hold in tension a number of often paradoxical truths about who Jesus is. Immature faith wants pat, easy answers. It wants to be able to say, “Jesus is this, but not that; Jesus thinks ‘x’ but not ‘y’; Jesus says these people are ‘in’ and those people are ‘out’”. If you’ve heard nothing else this Lent, I hope it is that Jesus resists all our attempts to make him in our own image. Jesus is not at all interested in our comfort or easy answers. He is not interested in enabling our idolatry. Jesus confronted Peter and he confronts us today with one very potent and life-changing question: Who do you say that I am? If we answer like Peter, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the King of God’s kingdom, then our lives must reflect that reality. Let us enter Holy Week to listen again for Jesus’ question and for his call to follow him as true disciples. Amen.