A few years ago Mel Gibson produced a film, the Passion of the Christ. He was heavily criticised for the graphic depiction of the crucifixion, the blood and the gore which were offensive to many in the audience. Reading John’s account of the Passion, one of the notable features is how different it is from Mel Gibson’s telling. John does not describe the physical side of it, except for a few details which help us to understand the significance of what we are reading. John tells the story quickly and succinctly, yet the reality of the physical agony can never be far from our minds as we journey with John from Gethsemane to Golgotha. But we can’t divorce that journey in chapters 18 and 19 from the opening 17 chapters. Every story, every detail, is building towards this moment. The gospel is one story, from incarnation to Ascension and Pentecost, and on to today. The gospel is the story of the Passion of Jesus Christ, it is the story of the love of God, and it is the story of a question, what kind of man is this we see hanging on the tree, and why is he there?
The Passion begins in Gethsemane, the agony in the Garden, the betrayal by Judas and the arrest. Questioned by Annas and Ciaphas, denied by Peter, put on trial by Pilate, voted on by the crowd, carrying his cross to Golgotha, the crucifixion, and darkness covering the whole earth. There is the final mockery, the inscription by Pilate in Latin, Hebrew and Greek, there are the soldiers dicing for his clothes, there are the handful of faithful disciples remaining, there are a few, final, thirsty words, then the cold, hard, dark death.
As we stand with those disciples at the foot of the cross and watch the events unfold, we are challenged to take a good, hard look at the violence and meanness of the world and the bloodiness of the cross, and to look at God hanging on that cross. To describe these events as the Passion of Jesus Christ might seem odd, and yet here, as no where else, we see the heart of God, the love of God, revealed to a broken humanity. We see the heart of God torn open between the folly of human sin and the unquenchable desire of God for his creation.
The cross is the story of sin, individual sin, abandonment and betrayal. It is the story of the Priests, of Pilate, of the soldiers, of the blood-thirsty crowds, of Peter, of Judas…and of you, and of me. It is the story of my sin, my abandonments, my betrayals of Jesus.
But the cross is bigger that even the sum of all our individual stories. It is the story of God’s unending love for God’s broken world, a world full of senseless evil and violence. A world where the good die young and the old grow lonely. A world of wars and cancer, of corruption and pollution. A world where there often seems little reason to hope or to dream.
The Passion of Jesus is the phrase we use to describe his suffering. But Passion also means love. God’s love is patient, kind, passionate. It is live which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all the, endures all things. It is love which never ends. It is love which does not go gently into that good night. On the cross God’s heart is torn between the passion of sin-induced suffering and the passion of grace filled love.
On the cross Jesus refuses to give in to the meanness, the arrogance, the evil which surround and enfold him. In the face of evil and despair, the Passion of his loving remains. To the cries for blood from the crowd he doesn’t respond. Against the clubs and whips that beat him he refuses to fight back. To Peter he utters the command to lay down his sword. To the soldiers who have torn his body to shreds he offers forgiveness. To the thief he whispers the hope of paradise. To the grieving disciples and his broken-hearted mother he offers words of comfort. On the cross the Passion of Jesus’ suffering is surpassed only by the passion of his love. Only the tenacity of God’s love is greater than the tenacity of humanity’s sin. In the heart of God there stands a cross, and on that cross God shows the fire of his love, a fire that the cold darkness of sin and death will never overcome.
Before he bows his head and gives up his spirit, Jesus speaks two final words, “I thirst”. In these words we see the whole gospel suddenly drawn together. Throughout John’s telling of the gospel we are the ones who thirst for Jesus. At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, he turned water into wine. As the well with the Samaritan woman he offered the water of life. He heals the blind man by washing him in the pool at Jerusalem. He offers his own blood to quench the thirst of the disciples at the last supper. He is the living water that will never run dry. And now, in his dying breath, he says “I thirst.” Throughout the gospel the theme both spoken and unspoken is that we – that is to say the crowds, the disciples, the politicians, the tax collectors, the sinners, the outcast, the broken – thirst for him. In his final words Jesus turns the story around, and says that he is thirsty for us. In those two short, simple words, the final gasp of the dying Son of God, we hear the voice of God proclaiming to those at the foot of the cross, to the disciples in their grief and faithlessness, to the soldiers executing the torture of the state, to the chief priests protecting their political interests, to Pilate saving face, to you, to me, to the whole of creation and the entirety of the cosmos, “I thirst for you.” At the beginning of the Gospel Jesus turns water into wine in great abundance, suggesting that he is the good wine that will never run out. Now at the end the soldiers offer him sour wine as an act of mercy, as blood and water mingle down his broken body. He accepts their offering, yet his thirst is not for wine. His thirst is to do the will of the one who sent him, and that will is love. On the cross Jesus is the thirsty, passionate, unquenchable love of God for all of us.
He is the faithful one who lays down his life for his friends, the good shepherd who will never stop searching for his lost sheep, the living water of our baptism, and the one who will carry us through the stormy waters and deliver us to the far banks of the Jordan. Through the sweat and blood, the thorns and nails, the mockery and the humiliation, the burning fire of God’s love in Jesus remains.
After tasting the sour wine he says, “it is finished.” All goes black, as darkness envelopes the whole world. On Good Friday Jesus goes ahead of us, into the darkness of death itself, to conquer that darkness and therein to light a fire, the fire of Easter light.