Saturday, April 03, 2010

It is Accomplished

Psalm 22, Isaiah 52.13-53.12, Hebrews 10.16-25, John 18.1 - 19.42

Psalm 22 is the psalm which Jesus quoted from the Cross, and therefore it has always had a special fascination for his followers. What brought it to his mind? Some people have suggested that he was conducting a sort of long range Bible study, drawing our attention to the resonance that the psalm has with his own situation. But it seems more likely that he cried out in a genuine agony of mind and spirit. John is so embarrassed by the whole episode that he omits it from his narrative completely. It doesn't fit with his picture of Jesus being glorified by God through suffering.


As Bill Ind, the former Bishop of Truro, reminded us in Wakefield Cathedral this morning, his cry of dereliction tells us that - even for Jesus - the outcome of the crucifixion was not a foregone conclusion. Despite his own enigmatic predictions that his suffering and death would lead to resurrection and vindication, in the end, racked with pain and doubt, Jesus did not know for certain how it would all end.

For John that's too unsatisfactory. He wants us to know that everything is being played out according to God's plan. He sees the uncanny resemblance between the predicament of the Psalmist and the death of Jesus as part of the evidence for that plan. It's all written down, preordained in fact, in Scripture. And that's why, although he squeamishly omits to mention verse 1, he does quote verses 15 and 18.

Early Methodists were fond of calling themselves worms, and verse 6 gives us a clue as to why that might be. Shockingly, if we associate this psalm with the sufferings of Jesus and recall that these words were playing over and over in his mind as he died, we see that he too must have felt as though he had been reduced to something totally insignificant and subhuman, a mere worm. This is why he cried out that he had been forsaken.

The Psalmist is taunted by the same sort of taunts and derision which were thrown at Jesus. Perhaps this shouldn't amaze us. This is the kind of thing which believers always face from sceptics when they're in trouble. 'If there really is a good God he will surely grant you success, and rescue you from suffering.' Even the Psalmist cannot believe what is happening to him, and if Jesus quoted this Psalm it's surely because - faced with the intensity of his own pain and despair - he couldn't quite believe it either.


'I shall live for him,' says the Psalmist at the end. But he's not talking about resurrection, about being rescued and vindicated by God after death. Despite the reference to the dead bowing down before God, the people who wrote the psalms did not believe in real life beyond death. They hoped instead that their cries would be heard and answered in their lifetime.

Again, the Suffering Servant Song seems like a wonderful premonition of Jesus' death and vindication. The parallels are probably so striking because Jesus identified himself with the Suffering Servant and saw these Scripture passages as the blueprint for his own life and death.

The Servant achieves success, and is raised to honour and exalted, but only through terrible suffering. On the way to that recognition he first endures an experience so awful that the whole world is appalled and disgusted at his fate. Again, like the Psalmist, he is reduced to something subhuman, unrecognisable as a human being.

However, unlike the Psalmist, who feels that he began life enjoying God's blessing, the Suffering Servant was - from the very beginning - someone with no beauty, or grace or majesty to attract attention and popular acclaim. He was always despised and overlooked. Whereas the Psalmist says that he has previously been close to God, people thought that the Suffering Servant was being punished by God for some unnamed sin committed by his ancestors.

Yet, says the Prophet, the Suffering Servant is really enduring the punishment that belonged to other people - to generations yet unborn. His death is cathartic, making it possible for human beings to make a new beginning, freed from the curse of past iniquity and sinfulness. Unlike the Psalmist, who was ultimately rescued from suffering to live long enough to write the psalm, the Suffering Servant is arrested, sentenced, slaughtered and assigned a criminal's grave. There is no doubt that he dies.

However, he is also healed and vindicated. We end as we began, as the Suffering Servant is allotted a portion with the great.

Who then, is the Suffering Servant? A model for Jesus' own tragic death, certainly, but - from the Prophet's perspective - the Suffering Servant is probably the remnant of faithful people from Israel who were taken captive by the Babylonians and Assyrians nearly a hundred years earlier, exiled and put through terrible suffering, but whose faithfulness in adversity has allowed future generations to begin a new chapter in their relationship with God.

For the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, the power of past suffering to cleanse the sins of future generations and wipe the slate clean is underlined by another Biblical figure whom Christians quickly associated with Jesus - the High Priest who offers the annual sacrifice to God to cleanse the whole nation on the Day of Atonement. But, whereas High Priests like Annas and Caiaphas were condemned to do this year in, year out, Jesus makes a sacrifice which is effective once and for all. There need be no further offerings for sin.

Moreover, he has opened the way for us to make our own approach directly to God - without the need for other human intermediaries. Whereas the people of Israel had been dependent on the High Priest to enter the holy of Holies and make atonement to God on their behalf, we can all enter God's presence because Jesus has cleansed us, and wiped away the history of past selfishness and wrongdoing, even more effectively than the Suffering Servant, for his cleansing is not just for future generations but for all generations. And his example should rouse us to love and active goodness.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, we see at once that Jesus is in charge of proceedings. He is not a hapless victim, but a champion of the oppressed, someone who ardently believes in the cause for which he is about to die. He knows everything that is going to happen to him and reassures Peter, who has struck out in panic at the High Priest's servant. 'This is the cup the Father has given me,' he says.

John's account is very sparse. He omits the melodramatic details that we find in the other Gospels such as Jesus turning to look at Peter as the cock crows, or people blindfolding Jesus in order to tease him. He moves swiftly on to the main action, pausing only to explain the true significance of what is happening through a series of set pieces.

There is what we would call a typographical error, of course, in verse 19, where John forgets that Annas is not actually the High Priest, but just a former High Priest and the father-in-law of the present High priest, Caiaphas.

It's important to John to emphasise that Jesus dies on the Passover, and so becomes the eternal Passover Lamb for the new nation of Israel which his death is inaugurating. For this reason the Jewish leaders stay outside Pilate's headquarters while the drama is played out inside.

It isn't true that the Jewish leaders were not allowed to put people to death. Within a few short years the High priest would order the beheading of Jesus' own brother, James, because he was proclaiming the resurrection and messianic status of Jesus. But all of the Gospel writers say that Pilate had a hand in Jesus' death, even though this was very inconvenient and made Jesus seem like an enemy of the state.

Although Pilate sentences Jesus to death because he claimed to be King of the Jews, and has the sentence fixed to the Cross as a warning, as usual Jesus is enigmatic about his status. He doesn't want to be seen as a king in human terms because he is offering a new kind of leadership based on suffering and service. To copy his example, as the writer of Hebrews said, kings - and everyone of us must practise love and active goodness, not power and might. This is the truth to which Pilate chooses to be deaf, preferring to treat Jesus' answer as a philosophical teaser.

In their final encounter, Jesus reminds Pilate once more who is really in control of events. 'You would have no authority at all over me,' he says, 'If it had not been granted to you from above.'

In John's version of events no one helps Jesus to carry his Cross. Master of his own destiny to the last, he carries it himself. And, when he dies, he says simply, 'It is accomplished.' The water and the blood which flow from his wounded body remind us that we can share in the new beginning that his death offers if we are baptised and partake of his promise to be with us when we break bread and bless the cup of wine, as he did on the night before he died.

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