Who is Jesus… on the cross?
That’s right, who do we say Jesus is, when Jesus is on the cross?
Going back awhile (oh about 13 years or so) I have been very intrigued by the above question. But let’s take a step back first. It is one thing to answer the question of who Jesus is upon birth, in his ministry of calling his first disciples, and in his healing and teaching. We say “God with us,” we might quote scripture with him being the “Son of God” or “Son of Man” or maybe just “the Messiah.” Of course it is very hard to pin Jesus down to saying more than “that’s who you say I am,” or “okay but don’t tell anyone.” Jesus makes “I am” statements but they aren’t so clear as all that… and of course in John’s Gospel he does ramble for a good while about being “one with the Father” but then in John 17:20-23 he makes clear that he is praying that we are as “one” together as Jesus is with the Father, and that their oneness would be extended to include us in the same oneness together (sorry if that’s not clear… but he really is rambling – or John is, or the Spirit is… whoever – rambling is the “order” of the day). Jesus, it seems to me, imagines that Jesus is no more one with the Father than we might be one with each other and even with God. So it hardly makes a great case for Jesus as God, or a strong case for his being unique in his oneness with God.
So who is Jesus? If this isn’t answered by the Bible with clear authority (and I would argue that it is not, though it certainly provides fertile ground for faithful imagination) the early traditions claimed Jesus not simply as Messiah, Lord, and Son of God… but as God. (There is quite a bit written by smarter and more informed people than myself on the subject so I’m not going to tarry here.) Perhaps this comes from asking, who was the risen Christ, and who is Jesus today?
The Church began to pray to Jesus, we come to understand God through Jesus, we imagined the great act of God on behalf of the fulfillment of creation as coming again through Jesus in his “second” coming. (One might ask why Jesus has “gone away” necessitating his “coming again” but again I won’t take that rabbit trail, and I’ll try to get to my point.) When we ask of this Jesus, who are you – we imagine no other answer than ‘God.’
But now I want to back up again… I want to return to this week in our liturgical year. I want to inquire – in a Pilate kind of way, I think – of the Jesus of triumphant entry, of eye’s wide open betrayal, of doubt ridden abandonment from his friends, his followers, even from his God, and of the crucifixion and death… I want to inquire of this Jesus, who are you?
I imagine what he will say. He will say, “well who do you say that I am?”
And that’s the rub of it all – Jesus just doesn’t want to be pinned down into any easy to understand identity. But let me tell you from experience. (Having done this on more than one occasion.) If you gather a group of passionate Christians together and tell them that on the cross God dies… they will not respond in the affirmative to the thought (but from experience I can say you will also have a really good conversation ensue). We can imagine Jesus as God in just about any place or time – even the manger of a stable as a babbling infant – better than we can wrap our minds around the idea that God dies on the cross. We imagine that somehow Jesus can be God in all other times but that God pulls some divine magic to make sure God doesn’t die when Jesus does. And… I don’t know. God hasn’t let me in on the secret. It’s a mystery to me. But I’ll admit the philosopher’s training in me struggles with the inconsistency of claiming Jesus is God and yet trying to claim that God doesn’t die. I’m not content with some spiritualized attempt to imagine that just the incarnation of God dies, but not the God behind ‘the Jesus.’ I don’t know what really happens – my faith is mixed in with lots of doubts, and nothing about my journey as a follower of Jesus is predicated on the absolute truth of my interpretation or understanding of how all this works. If Jesus was actually married, if Mary wasn’t a virgin, if God admitted to not being perfect in some kind of cosmic confession booth… none of these thing would come to me as a shock. They would not rock my faith or cause me to doubt any more than I already do. But I still question. I still seek to know with a very lower case “k.” Not because I want to pin God down… but because I really think there are powerful takeaways for my life in this story at the heart of the story of Jesus.
If the whole of God was on that cross. Not just a sliver, not just a fleshy sub-part, not just a prophet, not just a sacrificial lamb or substitute person to represent the idea or corporation of all people, not just a sent out image like some billboard evangelist, not just a child of promise… but THE promise AND the PROMISEER wholly, complete, and total ? That’s really scary. How can the world survive that loss? Why would God risk that? We aren’t really worth all that, are we?
It’s okay for God to give up a son for us… but for God to risk God’s own eternal annihilation for us? What if the resurrection didn’t happen? What if that was the end? What if…
I sure hope God knew what God was doing. Jesus doesn’t seem all that sure in the garden. Was that just an act? What if God didn’t know… what if God surmised but wasn’t certain? Or forget that… what if God was certain… to a point. What if God knew that it should work… has no reason not to work… Is it responsible for God to put it all at risk on the gamble that it would work? And what did working even look like? How do we even know?
I want to know… but it seems I do not need to know.
But here is what I look and imagine and feel and wonder about this week… this week that God dies.
- God really does know what it means to suffer, not from hearing cries, not from an emotional substitute. God suffers in God’s self.
- God knows what it means to stare death in the face wishing it could have gone a bit differently. God has regrets… regrets about friends’ actions, communal activities, even regrets about God’s own chosen course of action. God agrees – this is not the way it’s supposed to be, but God rolls with it anyway.
- God is willing and able to risk the death of beloved reality for the hope of greater life on the other side. God even imagines that proper engagement of death is a fertile ground for new emerging hope (Yellowstone fires anyone?)… that death is a servant to life though we have to think beyond ourselves to see it sometimes.
- God really does think we are worth it. God has gambled on us – does gamble on us – and there is nothing, not logic or fear or stubborn waywardness or orthodoxy or hate or hesitancy or… well there just ain’t anything that will prevent God from giving up everything for us.
God. Everything. For Us.
It is all on the line.
That’s why all the right answers, or good theology, or learned scriptural analysis, or long-held tradition aside… that’s why when I look up on the cross this Friday I will won’t just say, “Jesus died for me.” I won’t join the centurion in Matthew saying, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” I will say God is dead… dead… dead. I will sit there in awe (both awe as awful, and awe as uncomprehending overwhelmedness). Because it’s a pretty amazing thing to put the shoe on the other foot and imagine that we worship a God who would let us put God to death – rather than the other way around. I will sit in that space and imagine how anyone goes on after that. And on Sunday? Well… we’ll see when we get there.
But when we get there, whatever we see, I hope I hold on to the knowledge that death isn’t so scary. That we are worth the risk. And that allowing us to burn ourselves down to see what rises is about the biggest affirmation of abundant life I can imagine.
Thanks be to God.