The Crucifixion: A Tale of Two Kingdoms (Good Friday Homily, John 18:1-19-42)

The Crucifixion: A Tale of Two Kingdoms (Good Friday Homily, John 18:1-19-42) March 26, 2013
Museo Diocesano de Santiago Apostol
Source: Flickr user 07anycolouryoulike, Creative Commons Copyright 

During Holy Week, we are tossed to and fro with stories of triumph and hosannas, last suppers, grieving prayers, betrayals, denials and crucifixion, all which lead to Easter and alleluias. Holy Week reminds me a little of the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness.”

In many ways, the story of the passion and crucifixion of our Lord in John’s gospel tonight is tale of two cities, two kingdoms really. One, the kingdoms of humankind, which come to power through violence and maintain it through oppression and the sword. The other, the kingdom of God, which comes to power through love and sacrifice and a towel.

John picks up this dynamic interplay between these two kingdoms throughout his story, beginning with Maundy Thursday, when Jesus, dressed in a towel, washes his disciples’ feet, dries them with the same towel and gives them a new command to love one another as he has loved them. He explains this new love further in his discourse, saying that there is no greater love than the one who lays down his life for his friends.

Surely, this love is on Peter’s mind the following evening in the garden when an army of Roman soldiers show up to arrest his Lord. Because tonight, in the garden, instead dressing in a towel as Jesus had, Peter brandishes a sword to demonstrate his love.

It is a bold, if impulsive, move. It wasn’t just a few soldiers and a handful of policemen that Peter confronts. This was an army — 600 Roman soldiers, 600 warriors whose swords and ferocity had built one of the greatest empires in the history of the world, 600 armed soldiers whose primary function as an occupying force was to pacify by violence any hint of rebellion in Judea.In the face of this army, Peter cuts off a servant’s ear with his sword, and drawing first blood, he sets the stage for battle.

No greater love has a man than to lay down his life for his friends.

This is what Peter believes himself to be doing: laying down his life for his friend and Lord Jesus the only way he knows how — with sword and violence.

And who can blame him? He does what any of us might when our closest friends and loved ones are threatened. He stands his ground. He lashes out. He strikes first. He won’t be going down without a fight.

It isn’t hard to imagine what might have happened next. The outraged gasps rippling through the ranks of 600 soldiers, the high-pitched metallic whine of 600 swords being drawn, shields and spears being readied. There is a tense moment before a confrontation like this escalates into an all-out battle. We’ve witnessed this scene a hundred times in movies and in our history, of the shot heard ‘round the world that sets wars and the human tinderbox of violence and retribution aflame.

It is a moment poised on the precipice of humanity’s propensity to answer threats and injustice with violence.

No greater love has a man than he who lays down his life for his friends.

Peter is ready to lay down his life, to take on the 600 swords of the soldiers with the one sword of a fisherman. It strikes me perhaps that Peter didn’t understand the kind of love Jesus embodied when he washed his disciples feet. Perhaps Peter didn’t realize exactly who Jesus considered his friends, exactly who Jesus was laying down his life for.

When Jesus accepts his arrest and eventually lays down his life on the cross, he isn’t just laying down his life for his friends as we would understand it, his disciples who had followed him, forsaking family, livelihoods and futures for him.

For Jesus friendship wasn’t so exclusive.

Rather, Jesus was laying down his life also for the soldiers who had come to arrest him as well. He was laying down his life for Judas, too. For Pilate, for Herod, as well as for Peter, John and the rest of the disciples In the gospel of John, Jesus lays down his life for the whole world — the whole world caught up in the unending cycle of violence. He lays down his life so that friend and foe can become one.

Jesus interrupts the violence Peter initiates. He not only tells his disciple to put away the sword, but in Luke’s gospel, he also heals the violence and bloodshed that Peter has done on his behalf. He restores the servant Malchus’ ear. Rather than joining the violent charge begun by Peter, rather than fighting, rather than striking back, Jesus instead makes his enemy whole.

In the garden, Jesus transforms Peter’s sword into a ploughshare. He shows us that kingdom of God does not come through violence, through bloodshed, but through blessed peacemakers, those that love and heal even their enemies.

This is the God that Jesus incarnates. This is the message of the passion and the crucifixion in John’s gospel. It is a story about how the upside-down kingdom of God comes, the kingdom in which the first is the last and the last first, in which the hungry, the meek and sorrowful are blessed. The kingdom of God comes not through swords and violence and armies as the kingdoms of the world come. It comes not through terror and oppression and miscarriages of justice that keep the wealthy and the powerful secure at the expense of everything else. It comes not through fear.

Instead, the kingdom of God comes through love, a love in which people lay down their lives for others.

It is not a kingdom we understand easily. Before Pilate, Jesus is asked about his kingdom. Jesus explains that his kingdom doesn’t follow the wisdom and logic of the world, because if it did, his followers would be fighting to the death for his release. If his kingdom had been of this world, he would have drawn a sword with Peter. If his kingdom operated according to the way of the world, there would be violence erupting in the Jerusalem in retaliation for his arrest.

But there is no retaliation and no retribution in the kingdom of God.

John’s gospel highlights this dichotomy between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world even further when the people gathered are given a choice to free Jesus or to free Barabbas. Jesus, the Son of the Father, who refuses to fight or Barabbas, whose name literally means Son of the Father and is identified as a bandit — a word that in the Greek means he was a violent revolutionary who wanted to overthrow Rome’s occupation. So here, presented before us in the gospel, are two people, both proclaiming to be the Son of the Father. One represents the way of violence and war, the other the way of love and peace.

The people choose to save from the cross the way of war and violence. They choose to crucify love.

Too often, we make the same choice. Too often, we choose the sword, just like the people gathered who clamored for the release of Barabbas over Jesus. Too often, we believe that the world cannot be transformed by the towel and the washing of feet but only through the sword and violence.

So attached are we to the concept that might makes right, that injustice demands retaliation and retribution, that when faced with an alternative — the way of Jesus — we demand it be killed, crucified rather than face it.

The kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed seemed like such a disappointment! The Savior was not supposed to fold. The Savior was supposed to reign, to overthrow the oppressor, to establish by military might the kingdom of God’s people. That was the wisdom of the day. When the people cheered with palms and hosannas Jesus entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey, they thought they were welcoming the conqueror who would free them from the Roman oppressors, not one who would willingly go to crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.

But in the cross, Jesus proclaims something jarringly radical. In the crucifixion, he shows us that God can be wounded, that God suffers. It tells us that humanity’s propensity toward violence and retribution, revenge and bloodshed wounds even God. Unfortunately, we have tended to reverse this with the crucifixion, imagining instead that it is God who demanded blood and death on the cross. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.

It is we the people who demanded it.

And Jesus hanging on the cross — the death of the Incarnation of God — reveals to us in the harshest of terms exactly what it looks like when we embrace the violent wisdom of the world instead of the kingdom of God. Ultimately, the cross is a rejection of the violence of the world. It undermines it by revealing glaring ugliness of the wisdom of getting even and by telling us that only a suffering and wounded God can save a world as violent and wounded as ours. The crucifixion forces us to confront the upsetting, irrational and hopeful claim that the kingdom of God comes not through swords, war horses, retribution and the politically powerful. It comes instead through towels, donkeys, crucifixion and the least of these.

Now, I would like to stand up here tonight and tell you that crucifixion is a thing of a past. That the brutality and tragedy and violence represented by the crucifixion was exterminated completely by Jesus’s execution on the cross.

But as much as I would like to suggest such a thing, you and I both know I would be lying.

Everything that happened on the cross happens today. The innocent are still convicted and killed by the state — ours and around the world. Torture and terror, in the name of state and security, still occur throughout the world. Brutality happens. We are still a world that spins on the axis of violence and retribution, getting even and settling scores.

Jesus crucifixion doesn’t end the little crucifixions that continue in our world today just as his suffering doesn’t end the suffering we all experience. What Jesus’ crucifixion does however is identify God as standing in solidarity with us in our suffering and with those experiencing their own crucifixions. More to the point, the crucifixion makes it impossible for Christians to follow our Lord without looking at the suffering of the world and seeing the cross — Christ — in the midst of it all. It makes it impossible to turn a blind eye. In this crucifixion, God in Christ becomes one with the least of these and all those that have been beaten, been oppressed, been victimized at the hands of the powerful and the wisdom of violence.

In the end on Good Friday, we are left with choices, a tale of two kingdoms, God’s and the world’s. To which kingdom do we pledge our allegiance?

It is tempting to look at the cross as futile and as the triumph of evil, however temporary, over good, and as a result deny our discipleship as Peter did. It is tempting to deny our Lord as Peter did so we can remain comfortable, standing around the warmth of a charcoal fire. Because if Peter follows Jesus, he too might have been asked to take up a cross.

It is tempting to betray our Lord as Judas did, for sometimes the crucifixion seems like such weakness, like such foolishness. It is tempting when we confronted with the scandal of a crucified Lord to then fashion the crucifixion in our own violent image, as an act that prevents a bloodthirsty God from punishing his beloved people and sending them into darkness and torment. It is much harder to look at the cross as the path we must follow — the path that rejects violence, retaliation and “getting even” of any kind as an answer.

It is less tempting perhaps to go to the cross and face the crucifixion as the beloved disciple does. And at the cross, through Jesus, we find ourselves among a new family — our new brothers, new  sisters, our new mothers and new fathers amid the suffering and the oppressed. We can look upon the crucified Lord together and hear him say, “Behold, your mother, grieving and sorrowful. Behold, your son, the incarcerated teenager on death row. Behold, your brother in the man tortured in the name of a nation. Behold, your sister in the hungry and disenfranchised.”

Behold the family of God at the foot of the cross.

Behold the kingdom of God is at hand.

Behold the cross.

(Veneration of the cross follows immediately)

Other Holy Week essays :

the Rev. Andrew Downs: What I Buy About the Cross

Sarah Moon: Crucifixion and Liberation 

Opening to the Complexity: Holy Week Meditations (Five-part series beginning with Maundy Thursday)

Unforgiving Jesus on the Cross

Protesting Holy Week

The Death of God: (Three Part Series)


James Cone: The Cross and the Lynching Tree

James Alison: Undergoing God

Working Preacher: Sermon Brainwave 

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  • Y. A. Warren

    This is the most beautiful explanation of the meaning of holy week I’ve ever read. It also makes me wonder why “Cristians” continue to follow Peter’s warring ways.

  • johnoliverclark

    The main thrust of this article falls into what I describe as the feminizing of Christianity (ie, God). The church is emasculating itself with such concepts that shuns proper biblical context. The author is rather sloppy in treating God’s Word and I’ll try to communicate what I mean.

    First, it was Jesus that told Peter to carry the sword (Luke 22:36+38, “if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one”), so to say that what Peter did was totally out of God’s good will is very misleading and biblically unsound.

    Second, the author seems to forget that Jesus is coming again and how He is going to act – with violence. Keeping that in mind and reading from the article, “He shows us that kingdom of God does not come through violence, through bloodshed…” would make anyone trying to reconcile the article with the Word rather uncomfortable.

    Third, the Word of God calls itself a sword and is the only offensive (as opposed to defensive) part of the armor of God. In connection with the second point above, when Jesus comes He will use the Word as the weapon – at least that is how the Word describes it. This also contradicts the aggressive and violent behavior the author is attacking, pun intended.

    Fourth, the author makes his point by focusing on Peter, but is the passage about Him? Is the passage about how wrong Peter is? The quoted parts of Luke 22 in the article is cut off from the context of the actual story. As with first noted, this article edits out what happened after Peter used the weapon. “52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? 53 Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.” These verses support the author’s point, yet they are overlooked, because he appears to want to focus elsewhere. Seems like he is more concerned about the social gospel by way of Peter than anything else. The author focuses on Jesus stopping Peter, when it seems to me that Jesus turning and immediately rebuking the Pharisees with their crowd is the emphasis.

    Fifth point is that he maligns retaliation and retribution. “So attached are we to the concept that might makes right, that injustice demands retaliation and retribution, that when faced with an alternative — the way of Jesus — we demand it be killed, crucified rather than face it.” The final judgment is coming, and God will be just and retaliate against sin by eternally damning it. Romans also describes a good government by bringing fear to evil doers, which is retaliation.

    Sixth. “Unfortunately, we have tended to reverse this with the crucifixion, imagining instead that it is God who demanded blood and death on the cross. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. It is we the people who demanded it.” As far as finding the responsible party, I think the Bible shows clearly that it is a both/and, not an either/or as the author plainly describes it. The very passage he’s working from points out in Jesus’ prayer that the Father gave Him this cup and Jesus is fulfilling it. To say that we alone demanded Him to be on the cross is inaccurate and indicative of having a human-focused theology. From a human perspective, yes, he, along with the crowd there that day, sent Him to the cross, but the Word also says that this was the mission the Father gave Him. From Jesus’ perspective, it appears to have originated from the Father that sent Him to the cross. Luke 19:10 says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost,” and this is accomplished, made possibly, by the cross, the cup given to Him by the Father.

    Anyway, I agree with much of the article, but thought I’d share a few concerns with its material.

    • RG Wilson-Lyons

      If feminization means rejecting violence, then sign me up ;). To respond to your critiques. 1) Jesus did tell Peter to carry a sword. Jesus was tempted to use violence just like everyone else …”could I not call 12 legions of angels”, but decided that violence would be a denial of who he was 2) in Revelation 5, the writer weeps because no one is found who can open the scroll, but then one tells John that the lion has conquered and is worthy to open the scroll, but it is not actually the lion who opens the scroll…it’s the lamb who was slain… Christ has indeed won the victory, but he won it by love. The lamb has already won; he doesn’t need to be a lion in order to usher in God’s kingdom. The cross is kingdom come. 3)the only weapon Christians are allowed is the weapon of the Word — the same as Christ — it’s the same weapon MLK used say in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” — words that speak justice and love are our weapons. 4) no question Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, but he also rebuked Peter’s use of violence — there’s is no way to read Matthew’s account of the garden without seeing Jesus unequivocally reject violence unless you are simply trying to use Scripture to justify what you already believe. 5) this completely contradicts the teaching of grace and Jesus’ own teaching to love enemies, turn the other cheek, and forgiving his executioners. It may fly well in the Left Behind Series but has nothing to do with the gospel. And I doubt Paul, who spent much of his life behind bars, and was eventually executed by the state had too high of opinion of the state being able to justly mete out retribution. 6) “Let the cup pass from me” is not Jesus asking God to find another way for our sins to be forgiven. After Jesus had torn down barriers between clean/unclean, entered Jerusalem as a king, and overturned tables in the temple, the army was coming for him — it was inevitable. Asking the cup to be taken from him simply means Jesus was tempted to fight, to lead a peasant army, to call his legion of angels rather than to go the way of suffering love and to continue loving his enemies. It was not God’s will for Jesus to die. It was God’s will for Jesus to love even if his love meant that he would be killed for it. We killed Jesus because he loved too radically — that is the will of the Father.

    • Sad

      Well, bad theology like this explains a lot about Steubenville.

      • johnoliverclark

        Could you be a little more descriptive?

    • BaronSabato

      You talk about feminizing something like it’s a bad thing. Last I checked, the image of God is both male and female…

      • johnoliverclark

        I should have used the word emasculate instead of feminizing; there is a big difference between noticing His gender characteristics as we define them and taking away or diminishing His masculine ones.

      • You did use the word emasculate, actually, and you linked it with feminizing. You implied that the Gospel is male and that this sermon castrates the maleness of the gospel. It is a misogynistic assertion that goes against Christ’s radically inclusive teachings and his practice of including women as disciples.

        I will warn you as I do all commenters: Sexist, anti-woman and misogynistic comments here are not tolerated. I hope that you can make your argument without resorting to such gendered, offensive and derogatory statements.

        I will second the Rev. R.G. Wilson-Lyons’ comments above.

  • Amazing. Thank you. I needed to read that.

  • Politics, Religion and the Meaning of Easter

    The deaths and ailments of our recent days
    Decode to “that one died, not me, not me”—

    The same holds true—that Jesus died in ways
    Long gone and out of sight, upon a tree—

    And that was then, and this is now. I miss
    My father and his pipe, Kirk Neace is gone
    And others down the path of death I kiss
    Goodbye, so Jesus seems remote—a dawn

    That was—and now it’s day. Belief, though, sees
    That Jesus is alive in her remark of grace,
    In his forgiving word—that both of these
    Roll rocks away, reveal His living Face—

    Where we find love, find love between each two—
    Contrasting stands dissolve—in Jesus’ view.

  • Bill_Britton

    I also thought of Martin Luther King, especially since I’ve just been listening to his speech on “Beyond Vietnam.” Thanks for a thoughtful piece. I would only say that our desire to get even, and our reflex to turn to violence, and even our attitude that peace-making is foolishness are all very real problems, but that at the same time it’s true that God’s son bore his wrath for our sins – as 2000 years of theology tells us – and even if we have a hard time swallowing or explaining that. I’m not saying that you said otherwise, but I wasn’t sure at a couple places. Anyway, again, provocative article addressing what really matters and is counterintuitive to us in many ways.