‘Look’, said Pilate, ‘here is your king!’
‘Take him away!’ they shouted. ‘Take him away! Crucify him!’
‘Do you want me to crucify your king?’ asked Pilate.
‘We have no king’, the chief priests replied, ‘except Caesar!’
Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. John 19:14-16 KNT
By 6:00 P.M. on the first Good Friday, the world was a different place. That may sound very odd, but that is what the first Christians said again and again. They said things like ‘on the cross Jesus disarmed the principalities and powers and led them in a captor’s triumph making a public example of it’. It didn't look like that on the evening of the first Good Friday but as they looked back, that's what they said had happened. They said that that day a revolution had begun.
There is a famous story (I wish I knew which archbishop it was that it concerned) that concerns a Roman Catholic archbishop who told the story of three naughty young lads who one day for a laugh went into a Catholic Church and went into the confessional one by one and confessed to all sorts of outrageous sins that they claimed they had committed. The priest being an experienced guide saw through them quite quickly. And the first two lads ran out of the church laughing but the priest hung on to the third one and said, ‘Okay, you have confessed these sins. I want you to do a penance. I want you to walk up to the far end of the church and I want you to look at the picture of Jesus hanging on the cross, and I want you to look at his face and say, “You did all that for me and I don't care that much.” And I want you to do that three times'.
And so the boy went up to the front, looked at the picture of Jesus and said, ‘You did all that for me and I don't care that much’. And then he said it again, but then he couldn't say it the third time because he broke down in tears. And the archbishop telling the story said, the reason I know that story is that I was that young man. There is something about the cross. Something about Jesus dying there for us which leaps over all the theoretical discussions, all the possibilities of how we explain it this way or that way and it grasps us. And when we are grasped by it, somehow we have a sense that what is grasping us is the love of God.
I've often thought when I go into a restaurant and have a meal, I don't know much about cooking. I certainly don't know much about the theory that lies behind it, but if I have a good meal, I don't need to know the theory. Somebody else has done that bit. Or if I hear a wonderful piece of music, I didn't have to understand how the violin strings actually work or how the brass or the woodwind actually function. I simply take in drinking this fantastic music but unless somebody understood that, there wouldn't be any instruments made unless somebody understood it, those instruments would never get played.
So in the church and for the sake of the church's mission, we not only have to celebrate the fact that the cross does still carry an extraordinary evocative power. But we have sometimes reflected on, if you like, the theory behind it, not for its own sake, not so that the theory can replace that power and passion which we sense with the cross and with great pieces of art like J.S. Bach’s, St. Matthew Passion or St. John Passion, but so that in our thinking, our praying, our preaching and teaching, and not least our mission, we can understand so that we can be like the chefs who are cooking the meal or the instrument makers and players who are producing the music for the next generation.
One of the reasons it's a puzzle is that the New Testament doesn't give us a single theory. Every time the New Testament talks about Jesus’ death it seems to say it slightly differently. We’re in danger sometimes of collapsing those differences and simply imagining that there is basically one theory and then everything else conforms to that. That certainly isn't likely to work. Okay, there are other simple summaries in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul says, ‘Here is the summary of the Gospel which I preached and which you believed and it goes like this: The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures and he was buried and he was raised from the dead in accordance with the Scriptures on the third day and he was seen by many….’ And then he gives a list, ending with himself.
And so the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. Even that can be a bit of a puzzle. Which Scriptures are we talking about? How do we know? Is it just three or four proof-texts which we can go to and say that Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, or something else gave us an advanced theory of what this would mean? Or is it somehow deeper than that? And when we try to probe, we find that already by the middle of the first century, that is within 25 or 30 years of Jesus death, there is an apparently bewildering range of ideas.
The New Testament draws on sacrificial imagery, draws on the imagery of the slave market trying to explain, or if not to explain, at least to evoke something of that power and meaning of Jesus death, though again and again coming back to the central fact that Jesus’ death was the expression of the love of God. That’s there all the way through one of the best known verses in the Bible, John 3:16, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son’, and that's in the context of talking about Jesus’ forthcoming death. And particularly we have a puzzle here because, though we in the West have often thought that Jesus died so that we could go to heaven, neither the Old Testament nor the Gospels nor the Epistles nor the Book of Revelation actually say that. Isn't that bizarre? We have assumed that that's what it's about. We are sinful; that's stopping us getting to heaven; so Jesus died so that we will be all right after all.
The Bible never actually puts it like that. We need to get back into the mindset of those Christians in the first century experiencing Jesus, his death and his resurrection, and then his new life and the power of his spirit and reflecting right in those early days on what this actually meant. Coming back to this question by 6 P.M. on Good Friday, what was different? What had changed? The Gospels all say something had changed. Paul says something radical had happened. John says it was finished. What was finished? What was accomplished that day? How can we express that, and more particularly, live by it ourselves?
By Prof. N.T. Wright from a lecture in the course The Day the Revolution Began.
© 2017 by N.T. Wright. All rights reserved.