One of the points of detail that sets St John's gospel apart from Matthew, Mark and Luke, is the question of the timing of Jesus' death. In the time-line of the three so-called Synoptic gospels Jesus dies on the Day of the Passover, the day that Jews remember how God miraculously delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and that means the final meal that Jesus ate with his disciples the evening before was the Passover meal. That makes a certain sense, theologically.
In St John's version of the story, that we read this morning, the timing is a bit different. Jesus is crucified the day before the Passover, still on Friday but the Day of Preparation – so in John's timeline Jesus dies on the cross at about the same time as the priests in the temple would have been slaughtering the lambs in preparation for the Passover meal, and the Passover observance itself would have begun that evening around the same time that Jesus' body is being laid in the garden tomb. St John's timing also makes sense, theologically, because it reminds us that for us Christians the Passover event has become our Lord's Passover from death to life, the long Passover night that begins with the eclipse of the sun when Jesus' spirit departs, and concludes with the dawn of Easter morning.
That most pregnant pause of all, as Jesus' lifeless body lies in the tomb, his shocked disciples in hiding, appalled at the enormity of their own betrayal – the night they thought they'd never see, then the longest day that isn't really a day at all, and another night, turning over in their minds the hard questions – what did it all mean? What was the point?
One of the most hideous methods of execution ever invented, crucifixion was specifically designed by the Romans – who else? - to prolong the victim's death while inflicting the greatest possible amount of pain. Since this was a form of execution reserved for enemies of the state, for resistance fighters and terrorists – for anyone, that is, who opposed the Roman occupation – the idea was to quash the very thought of rebellion by ensuring that anyone unlucky enough even to witness such an event would be appalled and terrified. The Roman philosopher, Seneca, writes that without exception, criminals being nailed to the cross would writhe in agony, scream incoherently and curse in the foulest language. And yet, the Gospels record in Jesus' seven last utterances on the cross the epitome of love and the essence of Jesus' life and teaching.
As Jesus' executioners nail his hands and feet to the cross, he prays. As his body is being torn apart by the first shock of the nails – archaeological evidence confirms the opinion of medical experts that for the weight of the body to be supported the nails would need to be driven not through the fleshy parts of the hands and feet but through the bones of the wrists and ankles – in this moment of incomprehensible pain some part of Jesus' being cannot be distracted from the intimate relation from the one he has always known as Father. The first word that escapes his lips is not a curse – God! - but an echo of the prayer he taught his disciples to pray – Father, forgive them because they don't know what they are doing. In the whole of the Bible, I don't think there is another example of such forgiving love. I wonder who Jesus is including in his prayer? Those crucifying him, those whose own humanity has been so degraded and diminished by their brutalising acts, certainly. And his disciples who fled in terror, who would right now be levelling at themselves such loathing and self-recrimination? Perhaps them, too. And those standing at the foot of the cross, those numb with helpless grief? Maybe them, as well. But, what about us? Do we really know the moral dimensions of our own actions? Aren't we also, all too often, oblivious to the pain we dish out? What ancient memory of turning aside from human suffering or need do you find in yourself, what submerged shame within you echoes at these words of Jesus: Forgive them Father, they don't know what they are doing?
Jesus is crucified between two brigands, the Greek word, lestoi, suggests they might be resistance fighters or terrorists, men who have lived violently and who surely expected to die violently. Like gang members everywhere they are ambivalent in the face of Jesus' totally impractical refusal to hate. Today, you will be with me in paradise. You, with all your burden of compromise, your ideals sold out, the hard realities you have lived and the questionable acts you have committed, the self-serving deals you have made, your hard-bitten refusal to believe in fairytale promises of God's kingdom. You will be with me in paradise, today.
Jesus dies as he has lived, in context, in a tangle of relationships like ours, the ones that define us as sons and daughters, friends, neighbours, competitors, customers, employees, employers. Theologians call it the scandal of particularity, the obstinate fact of Jesus' physical existence at a particular time and a particular place, maybe with red hair and cracked heels, maybe loving Mary Magdalene, maybe with an infectious laugh and just a bit too fond of red wine. Or, maybe not. But, certainly, with a mother, with brothers, with friends. Mother, look – your son. Look, man – your mother. Jesus comes to us in the context of who we are, right in the heart of our own community, and gives us the gift of one another. Who is it for you? Who is it that you will look at today, and see Jesus?
From the first, Jesus has understood that who he is, comes out of his relationship with the one he calls his Father. From the very first, Jesus has known his Father's love as a constant fact of life, surrounding him like the air that he breathes. He has lived his whole life in obedience to the call of this love, and it has led him from the obscurity of a Galilean village through times of popularity, excitement and the unreal expectations of others, into the dangerous waters of intrigue, the political and religious factionalism of Jerusalem, to midnight arrest and torture and agonising death. How do you keep trusting God when everything that was fresh and green and full of life turns into dust? This is a real question for us, isn't it? When the promises evaporate and God himself is absent? Jesus cries out to the God who isn't there, the God who has always been faithful not only in his own life but in the history of God's people, in the words of the psalm, My God – why have you abandoned me? A cry of dereliction to the God in whom Jesus still trusts, still hopes. When has your need for God been so extreme that you can only rage at the God who isn't there? And how has God answered you in the silence that follows?
Jesus is human. We forget that, sometimes, when we emphasise so much Jesus' oneness with God. What you go through, Jesus also goes through. The suffering of men and women and children in the AIDS holocaust of Africa, the fearful shelling of Gaza, the shock of car bomb victims in Kabul or Baghdad, this suffering is God's suffering. I thirst. Human beings who lose a lot of blood go mad with thirst. Survivors of the madness of trench warfare in World War I recalled the most piteous sound was the crying of dying men in no-man's land, calling out for water. In his suffering, Jesus is united with the most basic needs, and the most pitiful condition of human beings anywhere. United with our suffering, and with the suffering of the world. What human suffering do you hold up to God today, what human suffering do you name today as the suffering of our Lord?
The Passover victim has been sacrificed, the impossible conjunction of love and suffering, of divine goodness and human darkness has been accomplished. It is finished. We presume too much if we attempt an explanation of how Jesus' death reconciles us to one another and to God. Today is not a good day for explanations, not a good day for assuring one another tritely that Jesus' death is part of God's plan – but a day for hearing the echoes of these last words of Jesus in our own lives. The Day of Preparation has been completed and the Passover of our Lord has begun. Jesus has announced and inaugurated the kingdom of God. In his dying, as in his living, he has revealed the love and grace of God. What is accomplished on the cross is our salvation. What is begun in us by God's grace, on the other hand, is not yet finished – but by what Jesus has finished on the cross might we ourselves have the hope of living into who we most truly are?
Nothing remains but to commend his life into the care of the one whom he has always known as faithful. We sometimes make the mistake, I think, of focusing too much on the suffering of Jesus and not contemplating sufficiently what it means that the one whom we call the very Word of God, the one without whom – as St John's Gospel puts it – not one thing was made that was made – the one in whom, in other words, we see the ground of all created being – is put to death through human violence. Medieval theologians, meditating on the death of love and life itself, concluded that as Jesus spirit slips away from him the whole of creation pauses. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Jesus relinquishes his life trusting in God's loving purposes. His death is real – not divine let's-pretend – creation unravels, the sun itself is extinguished, and we wait, even though we have read this story before, and we know what happens next. What dies in us, when God's Word falls silent – or what has already died in us, that such a thing is possible? What reconciliation is needed, what Word can undo our own complicity and moral compromise, our lack of forgiveness and trickiness and cynicism, the ways in which we foreclose on the future and deal in death? – what Word can restore us to life?