Monday, April 18, 2011

The Irony Of Grace: A Good Friday Reflection

Good Friday always leaves me wrestling with irony and paradox. It’s a dark day yet it is one filled with light and hope. It is sad yet joy filled. It leaves you thinking about the worst of Human depravity and violence and yet there is hope because it is full of God grace.

On the one hand we can see the worst of our human condition. Our violence, our injustice, our inhumanity all shown to this person Jesus: He experienced the worst we had to offer, betrayed by a friend, with a Kiss no less. Rejected by the people he had come to serve and save. Handed over to be killed by a cowardly government official, who feared the crowd more than he loved justice. He was mocked and tortured by an army of occupation, fighting a war on terrorism, who wanted to make a point about who was the real King, who had the real power. He was mocked at the point of his death, in a way that reflected the devils temptation he had faced at the start of his ministry, and executed by one of the most brutal and painful ways that mankind had envisaged. A torturous death measured in hours if not days, designed to show all who saw it the hopelessness in resisting roman rule.

On the other hand we see the best of God’s grace. We see in the midst of our injustice God’s justice and mercy. We see in what looks like ignominious defeat at the hands of the powers of this world, the coming of the kingdom of God, the earthly powers and greater powers sin and death and evil are the ones that are defeated here. Mark and Matthew in their gospels portray Jesus death as his coronation and enthronement. In John’s gospel we have Jesus assertion from the cross ‘it is accomplished.’ We see brutality and torture but in the face of that Jesus shows us how to overcome evil with good, living out what he had taught his followers in the Sermon on the Mount. We see him rejected by his people but we are left with the universal nature of what Jesus has achieved in his death by the assertion of a gentile soldier “truly this is the son of God.” We see death but in the midst of that we see a new way through death into new life.

We see God’s grace even as the crowd chose which Jesus they wanted. It was Jesus Barabbas, who had led a revolt against Rome and was a convicted brigand and murderer, someone who we would brand a terrorist today. We see God’s grace because the sinner goes free and Jesus, the messiah, the son of God, dies in his place. It foreshadows what Jesus death has achieved for us. The sinner goes free because he has died in our place.

Pilate and the crowd argue about who is to take the guilt for Jesus death, something that historically has sadly been used by Christians to justify anti Semitism. Pilate wants to be clean of the blame for Jesus death and so asks the crowd to take responsibility, which they do ‘Let it be on us and our children they say’. Pilate thinks that washing his hands can absolve him of this but it can’t. His wife had intuitively known that Jesus was innocent and sent word to him, which Pilate ignores. It’s interesting to note that throughout the gospel narrative it is the women who act correctly towards Jesus, from Pilate wife to the group of Judean women who loyally stay with Jesus to the end and looking to give his body the dignity it was not given, by anointing properly for burial. Pilate cannot wash away his responsibility with a little water. So we see In Matthew’s gospel a universal guilt being taken on by people. Jew and gentile religious and civil authorities, Yet with wonderful grace filled irony in the one they are condemning to death we see a universal offer of forgiveness release from guilt and new life.

Jesus is given over to the soldiers to be crucified. They are part of an army of occupation who have been fighting a bloody and elongated war against rebels and insurgency. When presented with a living symbol of that revolt, they react with brutality and inhumanity. They beat Jesus and mock him and in an effort to show that there is no other king but Caesar, they carry out a mock coronation and bow down and worship this king of the Jews. In the face of this we see Jesus living out what he had taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Turing the other check, not returning curses for curses. In Luke’s gospel we see Jesus loving his enemies by praying for them father forgive them they know not what they do. The Kingdom of God is not going to be bought in like the kingdoms of this earth with violence and military power; rather it would be healed in by this death on a cross. The soldiers may have thought they were mocking a defeated enemy but as you read through Matthew and Mark’s gospel it reads like a real coronation and enthronement. Jesus is hailed as the king of the Jews and he is raised up for all to see under the banner which reads ‘King of the Jews’. In an irony that is really hard to accept to look at. This torture and this brutal death are not a defeat for Jesus but the completion of his mission. We have a king whose kingdom is bought in by sacrificial love. Not by murder or violence but by death. More than that it’s if all the violence and injustice that is thrown at Jesus is taken with him to the cross and it is defeated. Jesus takes on himself the sin of the world and sin and death and evil are defeated. They think they have won but they haven’t, while we may see them around us and think that they still reign in our time, the fact is the vicious rearguard reaction of a defeated enemy.

As I read through Matthew’s account of Jesus passion, the thing that really jumped out at me this year was Jesus word’s on the cross, etched so much in the ears of their hearers that they are recorded for us in the Aramaic that Jesus would have used in his everyday life, “Eli, Eli, lema, sabachthani?” My God My God why have you forsaken me’. Such a profound identification with the human condition as Pete Grieg Comments

“What an alarming question for God to ask God. And there is no immediate answer. No word from heaven. No Miracle. No sign except the darkness itself in the middle of the afternoon. In this moment, Jesus legitimised for all time the need we have for explanation. He also demonstrated that the explanation may not come when we think we need it most. Although we will never suffer in the way Jesus did on that day, there are Good Friday seasons in all our lives when pain and disappointment, confusion or a sense of spiritual abandonment cause us to ask God the ultimate question why?”

Even with this sense of abandonment and cut offness from God that Jesus expressed and we can all encounter in what has been called ‘the dark night of the soul ‘there is an irony of grace. As Jesus passed through this deepest and worst suffering, as sense of separation from his father, You and I have been given a new and living way, as the writer to Hebrews says, to enter into the very presence of God.

At times when we find ourselves going through that dark night of the soul we need to recall the graffiti found on the wall of a cellar in Kohn, Germany, believed to be written by a Jew who was hiding there from the Gestapo

“ I believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining

I believe in love even when i am alone

I believe in God even when he is silent.

God’s answer to Jesus seemingly unanswered prayer comes on the third day when he raises Jesus from the dead.

We don’t know what it was about the way Jesus died, but as he did a hardened Military officer who would have seen many crucifixions and many battles is moved to acknowledge ‘that surely this is the son of God”. As Jesus rejection by his people is final and he dies, there is the irony of Grace: That while Jesus is facing the ultimate rejection of his people. Here is the hope for the world that he is recognised for who he is by a gentile. This death would make a path for all Jew and gentile to come to know God’s forgiveness and be reconciled with him.

In the world we live in today we need to remember and hold on to this irony of grace. We live in a world where we are still surrounded by the worst of the human condition. It’s not the darkest it’s been in fact our times very much echo the open line of Charles Dickens’s tale of two cities ”it was the best of times it was the worst of times”. We still live in an era where there is violence and torture. Words such as genocide are heard in places like the Balkan’s and Darfur. Where even a supposed free democracy like the US bandies round the euphemism ‘rigorous integration’ to hide a slippery slide into legitimising torture. Good people still face injustice, be it from political expediency or that it is for sale to the highest bidder.

In the irony of grace, that person who died and their death two thousand years ago on the cross is still the source of forgiveness and reconciliation, still the source of God’s justice and undeserved mercy to us. It is still the death in the place of the sinner, so the sinner may go free. It is still the defeat of the forces of sin and death in our world and the hope of new life beyond death with Christ. It is still the model to us that what Jesus taught about overcoming evil with good is the way to live, even if it does result in our death. It is the beginning of the kingdom of God in amidst our earthly realms. It is the hope we have the irony of grace. In the midst of the worst we could throw at him, Jesus returned the best of God’s grace and it available for us to day.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Sorry Op1keobi I accidentally removed your comment and now I can't reinstate it. But have replied below

  2. Thanks Op1kenobi for the feedback. To tell you the truth I wrestle with evolution and docrtrine like original sin as well. I beleive in a creator, who is active providentailly in his creation and maybe the mechanics of that creation and providence are shown in Evolution. The key question is it dumb chance and what the biologists call natural selection, almost giving nature a divine quality or is it providence, God's hand at work.

    Original sin, what can I say... I don't think you have to look very far in humanity and the world today to see that humanity is broken hurting. Thankfully you also don't have to look to far to see the spark of what Christians call the image of God in people in kindness and seeking justice.

    The key thing for me in the midst of that is that I just can't get away from the person of Jesus. As my mentor in print Leonard Sweet says Jesus maynot be the answer that some would want to always say but he is certainly the burning question in my life that draws me on to follow him.