Reflections on this Good Friday

Following is the text of a message I am delivering at our Good Friday service today. The Good Friday services at King's Harbor are rather intense and somber, and the message is meant to match the character of the day...

Good Friday Message 2009

In Philippians 2, Paul quotes the lyrics of a hymn sung in the earliest Christian churches. This hymn paints a compelling portrait of the self-emptying and humble nature of Christ Jesus. The first half of the hymn says this:

6[Christ Jesus] Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but emptied himself,
taking the very nature of a slave,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This hymn describes how God the Son took two giant steps downward in his plan to come and rescue us from our own self-destruction. The first giant step downward is that God the Son became human. People have long wondered how the infinite God can enter the brokenness and finitude of human existence. It is a mystery how he did it, but it is a fact that he did it. And we know why he did it – one word: LOVE.

When the hymn says that he was in very nature God but then took the nature of a slave, it strikes up imagery of a king dropping his royal status and voluntarily becoming a slave. Not only did God the Son become human, he became the slave of humans. Jesus took nothing for himself. His entire life was an expression of self-giving. In Jesus, the king had become the slave. He acted this out the night of the Last Supper, when he did something reserved only for slaves. He removed his outer garments, wrapped a towel around his waist, and knelt before each of his disciples, washing their feet in a basin of water and gently drying them afterward. When he was finished, he asked them, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” In other words, “Do you see that I demonstrated tonight that I am your slave? Will you then be slaves of one another?”

God the Son’s second giant step downward is that not only did he become human and a slave to humans, he humbled himself and became obedient to death. Yes, in his love for us, the eternal God experienced human death. But this is not all. We hear a special emphasis in the ancient song in Philippians 2: “He became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” Death on a cross is the ultimate expression of the “downward mobility” of God the Son.

In Paul’s day, everyone knew the horrors of crucifixion. They witnessed it from time to time, and the threat of punishment by crucifixion hung over the heads of everyone conquered and subjugated by the Roman Empire. For us, crucifixion is not so familiar. We have to talk about it in order to understand what it means that Christ submitted “even to death on a cross.” It is important to talk about Christ’s death, because the nature of his death reveals the extent of his love.

In the Roman world, crucifixion was public punishment intended to make a statement. When the Roman Empire crucified someone, the point was to openly humiliate the victim and demonstrate to others the futility of opposing Rome. Crucifixion was a means of dissuading others from committing similar crimes. It was so heinous that the cross was reserved only for non-Roman slaves or free persons of the lowest status.

Crucifixion meant both degradation and torture. Victims were stripped down to their undergarments and hung up for all to see as they cried out in misery. Crucifixion was a public event, and it was common for passersby to stop so they could jeer and insult the victims. Victims longed for death, but it did not come quickly. It lingered nearby, taunting the one who begged for it. Death only took the victim after he had spent hours or, more likely, days descending a tortuous and very public staircase into oblivion.

If a victim was nailed to the cross as Jesus was, every movement to breath or shift his weight was a new adventure in searing agony. A victim could not breathe without raising himself up. In Jesus’ case, he had been severely flogged, and every time he moved up and down the cross to take his next breath, the rough wood of the cross re-aggravated the open wounds on his back. The slow and agonizing road to death wound its way through frontier after frontier of ever-deepening trauma. Victims’ bodies slowly broke down, and they would spend their last hours awash in their own blood, sweat, and body fluids. Historians have speculated that the reason the Romans nailed the feet of victims to the cross was that the wood of the cross would become too slippery with the victim's body fluids. Simply using rope to bind the victim’s feet to the cross would leave the victim no way to push himself up to take his next breath. The problem? He would suffocate too quickly. In order to prolong and heighten the agony of crucifixion, Romans took to securing victims to the cross by driving nails through their feet or heels. Rising to breathe meant pushing up one’s body weight on the only two supports available – 4 to 6-inch nails driven through one’s feet or heels.

We have an idea, then, of what crucifixion commonly looked, felt, and sounded like. We cannot fully understand the humiliation involved in being stripped, nailed to a piece of wood, and hung there for hours or days until our slow descent into oblivion was complete. And let us not forget that all of this took place in front of everyone – casual onlookers, enemies, mockers, friends, and family members. For the victim, crucifixion was a punishment designed to strip away every last shred of human dignity.

While on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This famous cry is a quote of Ps 22:1. It is commonly understood that Jesus was referring to the entire Psalm not just the first verse. The Psalm describes an acute state of persecution. In verse 6, the psalmist pens words that would later come to express the dehumanization of crucifixion: “But I am a worm and not a man…”

Paul and the early church confessed that in Christ, God the Son had radically emptied himself simply by becoming human. For God to become human would be like a king becoming a slave. But the sacrifice of God the Son does not end there. Beyond emptying himself to become human, God the Son humbled himself and submitted to human death, ultimately even death by crucifixion. His crucifixion drove Jesus right through the floor of human existence. Crucifixion represented all that could be done by the powers of darkness to dehumanize the God who had become human.

For the Romans, the cross was meant to symbolize the power of the Empire and the cost of opposing it. The cross has become a symbol for Christians too. It speaks of Christ’s suffering on our behalf. But the meaning of the cross does not end with suffering. The cross illuminates Christ’s selfless humility and incomprehensible love. That is why we call it “the wonderful cross!” For us, the cross symbolizes “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph 3:18). It is the passion and relentless commitment of God’s self-emptying love that drove him to the cross. This is a love that transcends comprehension and overcomes all opposition. It is a love that says, "I'll do anything for you."

The heart of God is revealed on the cross as nowhere else. He will stop at nothing to liberate us and bring us to wholeness.

We marvel that God became human.
We are stunned that he served humans.
We are reduced to awed silence that he submitted to death on a cross.

Anglican bishop William Barclay wrote, “The Cross is the proof that there is no length to which the love of God will refuse to go, in order to win [our] hearts.” Now we know why Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I resolved to know nothing among you except Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). To know Christ, and him crucified, is to be a carrier of this intense, self-emptying, divine love. May we also resolve to “know nothing except Christ, and him crucified.”

As we take communion, let us receive by faith this intense, self-emptying, humble love of God. Let us know Christ and him crucified.

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