The Crucified God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

God is love. God is good. God is dead.

This post comes to us from Jason Micheli:

In his memoir Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Richard Selzer tells of a young woman, a new wife, from whose face he removed a tumor, cutting a nerve in her cheek in the process and leaving her face smiling in a twisted palsy.

Her young husband stands by the bed as she awoke and appraised her new self. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. The surgeon nods, and her husband smiles. “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.”

Selzer goes one to testify to the epiphany he witnesses: “Unmindful, he bends down to kiss her crooked mouth, and I’m so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works. And all at once, I know who he is. I understand, and I fall back. I lower my gaze and back away slowly. One is not bold in an encounter with God.”

Two or three hours after Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, Judas leads a torch-carrying mob of religious officials to the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives where Jesus is praying. The chief priests and the Pharisees have been hunting Jesus for over a week. They first plotted to kill him after Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave, when Jesus had declared to the astonished onlookers, “I AM Resurrection and Life.” At the Fall, in the garden, God went searching for Adam, whose sin had caused him to hide in shame. “Adam, where are you?” the Lord had asked. On the eve of redemption, sinful Adam comes searching for God who is hiding in plain sight, naked and unashamed, in a homeless carpenter. “We’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth,” we say.

After he walked on water, when Jesus taught in the Temple and upset more than tables and cash registers, John reports, “No one was able to lay a hand on Jesus because his hour had not yet come.” But when his hour does come, when the betrayal of Judas leads these begrudgers through the darkness of night to the light of the world, Jesus voluntarily and deliberately gives himself up. The one who has preached peace does not resort to violence in order to resist them.

He identifies himself. No — he reveals himself.

“We’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus responds with his final I AM saying. And this last self-attestation is as stripped down and bare as he soon will be upon the cross. “I AM” announces. And immediately, John writes, Judas and the lynch mob “withdrew back and fell to the ground.” They understand. One is not bold in an encounter with God.

“I AM” — Ego eimi. I AM = Yahweh.

As Fleming Rutledge says, “This is the climax of the I AM sayings, and, really, it cannot be construed as anything other than a deliberate appropriation by Jesus of the name given by God to Moses from the burning bush. Therefore, precisely at the moment when his passion begins, Jesus unequivocally identifies himself as nothing less than the living presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the creator of the universe, the Lord who is and who was and who is to come.”

“We’ve been sent for Jesus of Nazareth,” we say. “I AM,” says God.

Martin Luther compressed the mystery of this culminating I AM saying with the Latin phrase Finitum capax infiniti, “The finite is capable of containing the infinite.” This messiah contains more than multitudes. In the end, what holds the Bible together are neither propositions nor pictures but a person. Scripture’s constellation of recurring images (garden, tree, water, and blood,) all terminate in a single, singular icon — the cross of Jesus Christ. As his passion begins, there is no longer any predicate to his I AM declaration. There’s no I AM the way or I AM the truth. There’s just him. There are no more of these fingerprints of grace. There is just the God who left those fingerprints. The glory of God is camouflaged by humility and suffering, Luther says, for our God likes to hide himself beneath his opposite. And with his last I AM attestation, God gives no handhold for those of us addicted to the glory story. There’s no religious sounding image like a vine or a door. There’s just the soon-to-be-naked, spat-upon, tortured Jesus nailed to a tree — an end the Law marks out as a godforsaken death.

Just the other day I typed into Google’s search engine the incomplete sentence, “God is …” I realize Google will autofill based on my own search history so perhaps this says as much about me as anything, but even before I was done typing, Google autofilled the most common choices.

God is love. God is good. God is dead. And then the next three: God is in control. God is just. God is gracious.

Good Friday is the only moment in time where all of those sentences are true statements. But when I scrolled even further down the list of the most popular searches for the definition and identity of God, not one of them said, “God is a crucified Jew who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly.” Our search history proves what scripture already tells us about ourselves. We don’t want a crucified God anymore than we wanted Jesus. As the Apostle Paul notes at the opening of his letter to the Romans, fallen humanity is fallen precisely in that we don’t want to know about the real God and his will. But today we are without excuse. We know the real God, and he has told us more about his will for our lives than any of us are willing to obey, for the one who bears our sins in his body on the tree began his journey there by saying, “I AM.”

“We’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth.” “I AM,” he replies.

True God from true God,
Begotten not made,
Of one being with the Father.

Many of the accounts of something Jesus says or does in John’s Gospel end with someone believing in Jesus. Believing not in the signs he performed or in the truths he spoke but purely and simply in him. When Jesus transforms water into almost two hundred gallons of top-shelf wine, the wedding at Cana doesn’t end with the partygoers exclaiming “Wow!” or looking forward to free Chardonnay forever. No, John says the disciples saw and believed in Jesus himself who is “the best wine kept until now.” When the man born blind sees Jesus for the first time, he says, “I believe.” Indeed John’s Gospel ends with Thomas testifying, “My Lord and my God.”

“You will die in your sins,” Jesus says to those who conspire against him, “unless you believe that I AM … When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM” (Jn 8:24, 28).

Unless you believe … Unless you believe the love that is God is crucified love.

Love that is patient and kind. Love that does not insist on its way. Love that bears all things and endures all things. “Faith, hope and love abide,” Paul writes, “but love never ends.” Love never ends because the love that is God is Jesus, who was before creation and who will be raised from the dead. Jesus is the love that is without beginning or end.

The only instance where Jesus says or does something in John’s Gospel that does not end with someone believing in Jesus is this final I AM saying. After stumbling backwards and falling to the ground, Judas runs away. He returns the thirty pieces of silver to the ones who bought him. And then he enters a passion of his own in a place the priests later named Akeldama, Field of Blood [Money]. Where Jesus gives up his life upon a tree, Judas takes his life upon a tree. Where Jesus surrenders his life believing the Father will vindicate him, Judas forsakes his life upon a tree believing there was no longer any hope for him.

Nevertheless, Karl Barth writes, Judas, though he may not fathom it, “is still an elect and called apostle of Jesus the Christ.” If Jesus comes to save the lost — and there is no one in the Gospel stories who is more lost than the one who betrays God for the modern day equivalent of $216 — then surely the saving grace of God would include even Judas! If the shepherd goes to any length to save the single lost sheep, if the widow lights a lamp in the middle of the night to find a lost coin, and if a father joyfully celebrates the return of the prodigal, then surely, Barth insists, Judas is not out of reach for the One who has come to save us all.

In fact, Judas on his tree in Akeldama, utterly lost and without merit of any kind, becomes an icon of the merciful depths of the crucified love on Calvary’s tree. The love that is God is crucified love even — especially — for him.

And if for him, for you.

Jesus dies, Luther says, in order to transform his promises into a testament, and the distinguishing feature of a last will and testament is that it becomes irrevocable upon the promise-maker’s death. What comes with the word of Christ is the promise of forgiveness. What Christ’s death does is to remove the promise from any possibility of retraction or qualification. And when he’s raised on the third day, Christ executes that testament for you. That is our salvation. The infinite still contained in and conveyed through the finite. In the finite creatures of word and water and wine and bread, as Robert Capon says, we continue to “live in the grace that takes the world between noon and three — at that still point of the turning world, where the Word who is our end and our beginning speaks to us reconciled in the Land of the Trinity.”

“We’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth.” “I AM,” Jesus replies.

“So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him,” John concludes, “and they took him to Caiaphas, the high priest that year, who was the one that had advised the Jews that it was better to have one man die than for all to die.” Only Easter can reveal the irony: Caiaphas is correct. “Because the one man died for all,” Paul writes long before John writes his Gospel, “all have died.” Like Caiaphas, Google is more right than we know. God is love. God is good. And for a little while, for the life of the world, God is dead.


3 responses to “The Crucified God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”

  1. Bex says:

    See Christoph Wrembeck’s new book, “Hope in Judas: God’s Boundless Mercy for Us All.”

  2. Encapsulates so much of what Easter is… wonderful. Shared on my Blog.

  3. Ginny says:

    Wow, this is beautiful! It is the Good Friday message I needed. Thank you!

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