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Friday, April 14, 2017

Reflections on the Day Mankind Killed God

In the Gospel of John, we are told that the last thing Jesus did before He died was drink sour wine from a sponge stuck to a piece of hyssop, or "brush."  "It is finished!" Jesus said. Then He bowed His head, and "gave up His Spirit."

Athanasius of Alexandria convinced me, in his treatise On the Incarnation, that every small detail of Jesus's death mattered--how his trial and conviction proceeded, the twists and turns of a day marred by chanting mobs and haughty bureaucrats, the number of days His body lay in the tomb, the way the tomb was found empty, etc. Indeed everything in the Word of God matters.

God is all-powerful and all-wise, infinite and eternal. That Jesus died in obscurity, without glamour or theatrical spectacle, tell us something about who He is and what His death did for us. Our imperfect minds cannot see God's light automatically. We need help, which God provides by arranging these all-important events in the way He did.

What would it mean if Jesus Christ died in a melodramatic sword fight against hordes of warriors attacking Him from all sides? Perhaps such a scene would have been more entertaining. Maybe the record of His crucifixion would have been recorded in annals recognized all the way in Rome, allowing Jesus's early disciples to skip the heroic evangelizing of Acts.

But our flawed and fallen minds would have missed a crucial meaning in Christ's death. Jesus died, but that was not all that happened that day. Jesus "gave up His Spirit," willingly experiencing death for our sake, but there is something else that happened that day too. Humanity killed Jesus.

The story makes it clear to us that Jesus died for humanity's sins, but humanity's sins also caused His death. The convoluted details of the events leading to the crucifixion always puzzled me. Jesus is betrayed by people close to Him, trapped by high religious authorities who were sneaky and laid rhetorical traps for Him with their riddles and passive-aggressive interrogations, then delivered to Roman authorities who seem utterly unmoved by Him. Pontius Pilate tells the Jewish leaders to kill Him, but the Jewish leaders do not want to, opting instead to have His blood be on Roman hands. Pilate even offers to whip Jesus and then set Him free, but the mob cries out for the violent radical Barrabas to go free; they insist that Jesus be crucified in Barabbas' stead.

Humanity killed Jesus, with the man-made things that are least glorious: gossip, backstabbing, money-grubbing, egotistical insecurity, intellectual laziness, procedural banality, pettiness. There is violence in the Passion too, but nothing brave or praiseworthy--rather pathetic sadists enjoying the little power they have other others who are helpless, whipping someone who is about to die and amusing themselves with crowns of thorns and the sarcastic sign THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Jesus chose to die as He did, lest we ever be confused about what and who killed God. It is our puniness, our small-minded self-absorption, incurious bureaucracies, two-faced deceit, false veneers, vanities, and hypocrisies that led creatures made in God's image to the depravity that killed Jesus Christ. As He died on the cross, He did not look down on a swarm of Napoleons all striving for exceptionalism and fame, and willing to charge into danger to achieve as much. Rather, He looked down and saw the face of smirking clerks, envy-ridden middle managers, narcissists seeking the adulation of dull-witted sycophants. We are meant to weep but not be inspired by human greatness in this story. We are meant to try to see humanity as God must see us: mean-spirited and cruel, for sure, but still tiny and helpless enough to merit the mercy of grace.

The crucifixion story forces me to lament the recurring call for "civility" and "winsomeness" among some Christian leaders of our day. Yes, we must show truth and grace, as the Bible tells us. But grace is not the same as decorum and courtesy. If anything, decorousness and protocol were integral elements in the shameful behaviors by human beings, leading to Christ's death. We are told to be "winsome" when we are discussing major matters of faith, most often, with people who reject God and think Christianity is false. Jesus would have wanted us to show kindness to non-believers, providing them food if they are hungry, and drink if they are thirsty. But Jesus would not have wanted us to be warm and cordial while we sit with people worshiping a golden calf. If "civility" means feigning agreement and accommodation for people who are saying things we know are blasphemies against the Holy Spirit, then it is the same underhandedness and insincerity that pervaded the acts of those who killed Jesus.

It is worth thinking about every personality flaw that contributed to the events culminating in the crucifixion. The religious leaders were egotistical, the commoners were bitterly projecting their own frustrations onto powerless prisoners, the Roman overseers were mediocre wits, countless people in the mobs were simply too scared to defy popular opinion, Peter denied Christ, while Judas greedily chose pieces of silver over his chance to stand with God, and distorted a kiss to make it something destructive and damning.

The villains in the Christ story are not dazzling geniuses like the cartoon foes of Batman and Superman--they are, rather, the pathetic reflections of us at our least noble. There are many ways to honor God on Good Friday. I choose to reflect on all that I might have done that would have contributed, in ways great or small, to the killing of God, were I set down with all my neuroses in an ancient Roman province rather than in the redeemed world of today. We should confess such things to Jesus and repent for doing the very things that killed Him. And we should thank Him for the mercy He showed us, that we might overcome these human weaknesses and become the beautiful creations He always wanted us to become.