Gazing at the Cross

The prophet Zechariah wrote a text that calls us into meditation; calls us into gazing at God on the cross. He writes, "I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son."

Today I want to invite us to look, however difficult it may be, at Christ crucified, in hope that it will grow in us a spirit of grace and supplication. Richard Rohr puts the invitation this way: “I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified to soften our hearts toward God, and to know that God's heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer.”

Our passage today is John 18:1-19:42.

My first meditation deals with the violence of the story: the violence of men and the non-violence of God. Obviously, the Romans are violent. The soldiers were paid to be violent. They were professionals. The flogging, the crown of thorns, the nails, all
doled out despite the Roman leader’s insistence that he could find no crime committed by Jesus. Rome’s violence didn’t need to be justified and it’s really only shocking because we know the innocence of this particular victim. But all empires and kingdoms use violence to gain and keep their power. It’s almost expected.

The violence of the Jewish leaders is more unsettling. I cannot imagine what it would take to make Steve or our shepherds violent towards someone. And yet not only do the Jewish leaders plot and scheme the murder of Jesus, when they have him in custody, they blindfold him and take turns punching him. Stop and think about how far fear and
pride can push us.

Even Jesus’s own disciple resorts to violence. Peter pulls out his sword and takes a swing, hoping to end one life to save his Lord. But Jesus will have none of it. He orders Peter to put away his sword. He never retaliates. And he tells Pilate, my kingdom is different than yours. If it were like yours, we would be fighting right now. But I look at violence differently than you do. Jesus would rather die than participate and give legitimacy to systems that kill their enemies.

My second meditation on this passage is about the fickleness of our loyalty; the fragility of human faith. Peter, the Rock…. Peter, who just verses earlier pulled his sword and took a swing at Malchus’s head…. Surely, if anyone was going to remain loyal it was Peter. Peter was probably hatching some scheme to free Jesus, some escape plan. But no. Instead, Peter’s plan was to save himself. When confronted, “Aren’t you that man’s friend?” Peter denies knowing Jesus, not once, but three times! Matthew, Mark, and Luke all remark that after Jesus was led away, Peter followed, but at a distance. In remarking on
this, Beth Moore writes, “When we tiptoe to keep from being too obvious or to obscure ourselves in safe places and remain unidentifiable, we are already bounding toward denial.”

How could Peter, the same Peter who walked on water, who saw Jesus calm a storm, who had his close relative healed by Jesus…How could Peter deny Jesus? This is where Zechariah might say, ‘Stop. This is for you. Meditate on this. Find yourself in this story.’ Because how many times have I received a great blessing from God, renew my commitment to Him, only to let life chisel away at it, until I am again following at a distance? How many times has my fear, pride, or ego caused me to be more concerned with what people think than God? I am Peter.

Beth Moore also writes about this story, “Needless to say, the enemy was hoping for “three strikes and you’re out.”  Thankfully, he discounted Christ’s mercy.” God’s mercy is the same for us. Maybe we have followed at distance. Maybe we have been cowards about our faith. Jesus forgives us. And like Peter, he still wants to use us to spread the Gospel and build up His church.

My last meditation is about the finality of grace. On the cross we have the best picture of God’s love for us (John 15:13, Romans 5:8). As we gaze at Jesus on the cross, nothing could be more unfair: God dying at our hands to show us that He is our Savior. It’s irrational. It’s absurd. It’s a reversal of justice. It’s reckless. And… it’s true.

I am so thankful that God is not fair. I am so glad that though I don’t deserve anything, God, in Christ crucified and resurrected, offers me everything. And in His dying breath, Jesus makes it clear that He has done all that needs to be done. Nothing is left to be done because, “It is finished.” I heard a minister put it this way: "If Jesus had said on the cross, ‘it is started,’ grace would be a wage we had to earn.  Instead, Jesus said, ‘It is finished,’ and grace is a gift we receive.” In a culture that values retributive justice and due penalty for crimes/sins, this is difficult to accept. But any notion that sin must have its consequences - “you can’t just get a free pass” leads us to a picture of God that Jesus has consistently led us directly away from. That is the false god of the Older brother (Luke 15), of the praying Pharisee (Luke 18), and of the religious leaders yelling, “Crucify Him!” Instead, we get a God that looks straight into the face of hatred, violence, and sin and says, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”

So gaze at the cross. Meditate on the man upon the cross. May the story expose the ugliness of violence. May it remind us that God, in Christ, shares in our suffering. May it reveal the beauty of God’s grace. And may it proclaim the world-changing truth that God is on our side and that in Christ, He saves the world.

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