By Jeffrey Hanson
Today, on Good Friday, we meditate on John’s account of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Passion of course comes from the Latin, and it can mean a couple of different things.
It can mean suffering. And, of course, our Lord suffers as a result of his being tortured and executed. Everyone who lived in first-century Jerusalem knew that crucifixion was appallingly painful and humiliating, and that the Romans purposefully designed this method of execution to maximize pain and humiliation. This was so well known that John’s gospel barely even speaks of it.
Passion is also the root of our word passive, because to suffer something is to undergo it; it is to have something inflicted on you. But in John’s telling of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and eventual death, Jesus is anything but passive. Quite to the contrary, from beginning to end, Jesus is active. He is, in fact, completely in charge of all that is to happen to him. According to John, while Jesus is in pain, he is not in distress. Jesus is in command.
Our first clue to this truth is provided right at the beginning of the Passion narrative. In the previous chapter, we read what has led up to the crucifixion. Judas Iscariot, accompanied by perhaps hundreds of armed soldiers, confronted Jesus in the garden. But all their show of force is just that: a show. They don’t overpower Jesus, and indeed they can’t overpower him. John says, “Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward” to meet the soldiers. Knowing all that was to befall him. Jesus knows exactly what is to happen. And the soldiers don’t take him; he comes forward on his own.
He asks them, “Whom do you seek?” “Jesus of Nazareth” is their reply. “Jesus said to them, ‘I am he.’” And at that answer, all of Christ’s would-be captors draw back and fall to the ground. Why does this answer cause the whole army to draw back and fall to the ground? We have to hear in this answer, “I am he,” Jesus’ claiming for himself the name of God, the God who told Moses in the burning bush that his name is “I am,” for this is what Jesus says: We seek Jesus of Nazareth. “I am.”
Like so much else in this story, at this moment Jesus fulfills his own words. For in John chapter 13 and again in chapter 14, he tells his disciples in advance about what is happening right now. Then he said, “I tell you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place, you may believe that I am.” Now everything he told them would happen is happening, and now we know that he is the great I Am. All this has been under his control from the beginning.
Jesus is in command of this situation because he is the king who is in command of every situation. If he does not want to go with the soldiers, he doesn’t have to. But he does. Because his hour has finally come, and he knows all that is to happen.
In John’s gospel, there is a profound difference between divine power and earthly powers. We see right away in John’s Passion narrative how sharp this difference is. Jesus has divine power because he is one with the Father and he does the Father’s will, even though it means suffering and death. And in doing so, he exposes how vain and weak earthly powers really are.
Is there any truly effective human power in this story?
How about the soldiers with their weapons? All Jesus does is admit who he is, and they are all flattened.
How about Pontius Pilate? He’s the governor of the whole region, backed up by the immense power of the mighty Roman empire. Yet the one phrase John uses to describe Pilate’s state of mind is “he was the more afraid.” Pontius Pilate — the governor — is afraid. His threat against Jesus is a flimsy veil for his fearful evasion and indecisiveness. It’s just so much bullying and posturing, and Jesus sees right through it. “Do you not know,” Pilate asks Jesus, “that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”
But Pilate enjoys the power to punish or acquit not because of any strength of his own or because of the strength of the empire but because of God’s power. Jesus says, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” So even the power of the governor is exposed as dependent and derivative from divine power. This explains why John says Jesus “went out, bearing his own cross.” Pilate in the end is unable even to compel the final actions of our Lord’s life on earth. The Lord goes out on his own power to meet his mortal end.
How about the soldiers that actually do the bloody deed? They probably think that by casting lots for Jesus’s tunic they are just idling away the time and claiming their just reward of the victim’s spoils, his garments and his tunic. But even this grim amusement of casting lots at the foot of the cross is not of their own doing. This happens, John says, so that the Scripture may be fulfilled. He says the same of the soldier who pierced his side. They don’t do these things because they have power but because the Word of God has power, and that Word must be fulfilled. So even Jesus’ executioners are following a script that they have not written for themselves.
And this is the main point, it seems to me, of John’s version of events. He tells us: “He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe.” John asserts that he saw all these things as they happened, and he is testifying to the truth of what he saw. And why does he testify to these things? Any eyewitness could have recounted what went on. Anyone who was there could have reported what Pilate said, how the soldiers gambled for the tunic, or how Jesus saw to it that his mother would be looked after once he was gone. John’s intent is much bigger than merely reporting the facts.
Incredibly, at this moment, John actually turns away from his story and speaks to you. “He who saw it has borne witness that you also may believe.” Who is he talking to all of a sudden? That “you” is you. That “you” is me. John is talking to us now, to anyone who is reading his gospel.
Because he doesn’t want us to just know what happened. He wants us to know what it means. He wants us to know that Jesus is the same God as the great I Am who revealed himself to Moses and who now reveals himself on the cross. He wants us to know that Jesus was and is in complete control of the entire universe because he is its maker and king.
John wants us to believe that, compared to the kingly power of God, all human power is utterly ridiculous. The true power is not to be found in treachery or weapons of war or in empire or even in religious authority. The true power in this universe is the power of Christ. And that power is never more evident than when all human powers — the power of force, of political rule, of religious institutions —conspire together to crush him.
Normally death is the loss of control. We lose control of our environment as we decline, and in the end we lose control even of our own bodies. But we have seen that Jesus is not a reluctant or unwitting victim. He remains in control all the way to the end. “He bowed his head and gave up his spirit” means that he gave up his life, not that it was taken away from him.
In fact, Jesus has said this very thing before. This too he has already told his disciples, in advance. It is the same John who also testifies to Jesus having said, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down.” No one takes my life from me. I am not passive. I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to do so.
Why does he do it? Well, Jesus told his disciples that in advance too. It’s John who also tells us that Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Jesus does not lay down his life for his ethical teaching, as marvelous as that is.
He does not die for a political cause or crusade.
He does not die for a theology or a theory about God.
He dies for his friends. So, he does it for us, for the human beings he loves. Jesus is not a helpless victim; he is a triumphant lover who loves his friends right to the end.
Because love is his power and his motivation.
Love is the power that confounds all earthly powers. It shows them to be fraudulent and bankrupt. And earthly powers are fraudulent and bankrupt because, for all their assembled might, for all their seeming solidity, they are still subject to death. The betrayer is betrayed. Empires crumble. All human beings, no matter how rich or mighty they might be, go to the grave.
Jesus Christ loves his friends so much that he will do whatever it takes to rescue them from this fate. But there is only one way. Jesus submits to this crushing universal logic of death so he can break its back.
The love of Christ is the one power stronger even than death, but to wield that power, Jesus has to die. Only Christ — by virtue of his perfect love for his friends — only Christ has power over life and death.
For the same Jesus who says, “I lay my life down of my own accord … and I have power to lay it down” also says, “I lay it down that I may take it again … and I have power to take it again.”
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Hanson is priest associate of the Church of the Advent in Boston.