Just after Jesus breathed his last breath, one of the Roman soldiers who helped fasten him to the cross uttered the surprising confession, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” This soldier, who, at one moment, blindly hammers away in the darkness of deception only to, in the next moment, be awakened to see the weight of his sin in the light of truth, acts and speaks for more than just himself. He both acts and speaks for the whole Church of Jesus Christ. Our hands are his and his confession is ours.
And so it is, this soldier is the truest image of a Christian at the strained feet of the truest image of God. It is too soon, at this point, to speak of the day after tomorrow, too soon to speak of life after this moment. All we know at this moment is that we have just discovered God, just after we have killed him. Today Nietzsche is right: “God is dead, and we have killed him.” The only one more helpless than the Christ-corpse are the ones at his feet, we who look to God for strength, for power, for justice, for hope–it is we who today discover utter weakness, powerlessness, injustice: the total eclipse of this world’s future. Our faith today seems so ethereal and phony, so unrewarding as the concreteness of our sin still pools below, splattering our upward gaze with the darkest shade of red. We have blood to show for our sin and nothing to show for our faith. We dare not think of the sweet bye-and-bye in the sky at this moment, because eclipsing our view of the heavens is a gaunt draping face, whose open mouth and hollow eyes cry out to us that we have all sinned more passionately than we have believed. And the blood now flooding this ark-less earth cries out from the ground for justice for an all-consuming justice.
The tomb prepared for the criminal wraps is now a tomb prepared for the world. This Friday, we bury all hope. Like the days of Babel, humankind has come together with its hammers and nails in the concerted effort to conquer God. Rallying behind Judas and Caiaphas and Pilate, our leaders up to this point, we have joined the whole world in the war against God. And we won. But just as soon as he is gone we somehow realize that our victory is precisely our judgment; that our preference for godlessness is precisely our hell; that the enterprise of human rebellion is avenged precisely by its success.
This is our cursed confession: we cannot confess that Jesus is the Son of God without confessing that we are the son of the Soldier. Our claim to righteousness and our claim to judgment are the same claim. We speak of the cross of Christ as God’s altar, but it never becomes other than a cross. We come to receive forgiveness from the fountain and are handed a hammer and a long iron stake. We must tap into this fountain with our own guilt. Blood spills out from Jesus’ hands before water can spill out of his heart.
And thus the cross is for us the truest image of ourselves and the truest image of God: mirror of earth, window of heaven. In it we see at once a love that is furious enough to die for another and an evil that is furious enough to kill for itself. God stayed the hand of Abraham to save Abraham’s son, but he did not stay our hand to save his own Son. The cross and the soldier face the world and show us both who God is in Christ and we are in the soldier. We are drawn in a moment to the contradiction of the strange beauty of Calvary, oscillating between ray and shadow but without ever changing its form. We quickly look away only to realize that we cannot look away. Like a sun spot in our vision after glimpsing the naked noonday sky, the man on the cross, whom we so desperately want only to be a man, becomes the indelible image that demands we affirm either the hammering of the soldier or confession of the soldier, Christ’s condemnation or ours, for we all are that soldier. There is no middle ground on the razor summit of this hill. Jesus came not to bring peace but to bring a sword.
Either way, what we surprisingly discover is that the witness of Jesus Christ was not just a radical picture of the divine life in a herculean human form, a human life so infinitely removed from our own (cf. Heb. 4:15; 2:18). Jesus will one day come out of the clouds of heaven, but when he first came he came out of the thorns of earth. We do not simply look to Jesus and see God; we look to him and see ourselves, and in so seeing we see the sad realization that if the human experience is wholly embraced in the radiant transparency of truth, even God himself cannot escape its sorrow. His call to cross-bearing is as much a call to honesty about the human situation as it is a call to do anything unique. It is not the pain of the cross that we fear–indeed, we already suffer from its pain–it is rather the shame of the cross. We fear exposure. We do not want to identify with the guilty precisely because we know that we are guilty. But to hear the good news of God’s grace can only be heard as God’s grace. Jesus comes not for the righteous but for sinners. We must come to grips with the fact that the way of Jesus is the way of every man, a way which is full of cursed thistles and twisted thorns, and believe the announcement that God has come to dwell with us in the briar patch, indeed, to be crowned its king.
So here we all are, entangled in the thorns. Christ did not come to hover above and offer salvation by way of abduction. Instead, he just got stuck. And in so doing he removed all doubt about how we are to interpret this life and this world. The death of Jesus is hanged before us today as the purest human self-portrait painted against a narrow setting that envelops the universe, the intersection of time and eternity, the finite and the infinite, of man and God. The cross consists of both fragments and lines. It is, indeed, the truest mirror of our world, of God’s world, of another world–this one. In it the veil of heaven is lifted to see the chaos we have made out of the beauty that God made out of chaos (Gen. 1:1-2), to see as reflection what God sees as sight–a world of incongruence: a world whose smiles do not match its anxieties, whose thrones do not match its fears, and, thank God, a world whose present does not match its future.
If Jesus reveals something about the essence of the human experience, it should perhaps alarm us on this day that we never once read in the Gospels that Jesus laughed, but we do read that he cried. We never read that Jesus smiled, that he was happy, but we do read that he was enraged, that he “made a whip of cords” (Jn. 2:15). We never read Jesus found even one piece of fragmented hope as he wandered the dusty streets of Galilee and eventually on into Jerusalem, the city that, if any, would have enshrined the hope of the world in its temple. Even as he approached the city, there was no hint of a glistening reflection of hope as the temple was reflected in his eyes. All hope beaded up and fell to the dirt as “he drew near and saw the city, and wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes'” (Lk. 19:41-42).
The curtain had fallen. The eyes were darkened. The temple preserved only an illusion. They looked at the temple and saw God. Jesus looked at the temple and saw godlessness. He marched directly to its courts and announced its end (Mk. 13:1-2; Jn. 2:19). The people condemned him for it (Mk. 14:53-65; Jn. 18-19). And when they crucified his flesh, a startling thing happened, the temple curtain, the dwelling of God, tore in two (Mt. 27:51). We dared to look beyond the curtain and to our dismay found nothing. Then, in a shrieking moment of terror, turned to the Crucified One and saw ourselves. And we saw God. And we saw the tomb. And together, with God and with Hope, we all marched tomb-ward. On Good Friday we discovered the love of God and the power of men, but that is all we discovered. If there were more of God to be shown, there was no possibility of seeing it, for the tomb is absolute darkness. And our eyes had been imprisoned behind its stone. There nothing more to say about this day, nothing else to see. If ever there is, it will require the miracle of a new day. Until then–silence.