There is an old Yiddish proverb. “If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.” Today we affirm the truth of that proverb by saying, God did live on earth, and people did break his windows. In other words, we cut out the conjunction and accept the fact.
That is a big part of what we are about today. The only “if” spoken in the Passion narratives comes from those who contradict and oppose. If you are the Son of God – come down from the Cross – save yourself and us. An echo of words spoken at the beginning of the Gospel narrative; If you are the Son of God – change these stones to bread, rule the world, leap from the temple. In both cases the purpose of the challenge is to invite us to cynicism. If Jesus was really God, then why didn’t he use his powers to meet our physical needs and improve our lives – eliminate war, sickness, injustice and oppression?
But, such a challenge demands we only focus on ourselves and our lives in this world. In fact, God did use his powers to meet our spiritual needs and improve our eternal lives by winning the war between good and evil, bringing us perfect healing, establishing perfect justice, and freeing us from the oppression of sin and death. And, he did not so not by waving his hands in a gesture of supreme power, but by extending his arms in a gesture of supreme love.
Some five hundred years before the events we remember today, the Ancient World witnessed the unveiling of a work of art so grand that those who first saw it may have been forgiven for thinking that a god had suddenly appeared on earth. It was the statue of Zeus in the temple at Olympia. At just over forty feet high, it was not the largest statue that had ever been made, but it was arguably the most beautiful which is why the Greeks, who measured a thing’s worth by its beauty, the way Americans judge by a thing’s cost or the Russians judge by a thing’s size, considered it to be one of the world’s great Wonders.
The flesh of the statue was rendered in ivory, the ornaments in gold, the robes in coloured glass, gems to make the eyes sparkle, but the most amazing part of it was that the figure was represented seated and disproportionate to its surroundings. It filled the space and with the ceiling only a couple of feet above his head gave the impression that the building was too small for the god and were he to stand the roof would shatter. The effect was to make the visitor feel very small, indeed. It was all about proportion.
When the first humans wanted to be like God, they did not just try to make themselves bigger; they tried to make themselves grow disproportionately. The phrase “knowledge of good and evil”, the goal sought by Adam and Eve, was not about acquiring information, it was about becoming the Informer. It was about who would get to make the rules. But, far from enabling them to stand tall and shatter the ceiling limiting their ambitions, their sudden self-awareness led them to cower in the bushes.
Voltaire once remarked that God made Man in His image, but Man returned the compliment. Zeus is the kind of god we make when Man crafts gods. His mighty biceps exude larger than life power. His huge fingers curl around a massive golden sceptre. And, yet, for all his grandeur, Zeus has nothing to say. At least, nothing to guide or improve the human condition. Rather, the ancient stories about him glorify his proclivities and vices – parricide, anger, adultery, envy, paedophilia. He is a god who terrifies because he embodies all that is terrifying in Man.
How different to the God on Calvary. When He incarnated, he did not appear gigantic. A silent night greeted his Nativity. He passed three decades in total obscurity. During his ministry he shunned the spotlight. Even the Resurrection was so quiet that the guards slept through it. No human imagination could have conceived this for the story of a god on Earth because the human imagination demands spectacle and grandeur.
That is why Zeus was made larger than life. Jesus, on the other hand, was deeper than life. When Phillip asked, “Lord, show us the Father.” Jesus replied, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
Idols have height. Christ has stature. He looms over the ages as the frozen decorum of an idol does not. Instead of smooth ivory flesh, his is torn and red; his crown is of thorns, not gold; his eyes bloodshot, not sparkling. He is nailed upright to his throne, not seated comfortably.
Indeed, idols are always enthroned. They are never crucified for that would break them and expose them to be as helpless as the Psalmist said they were, “They have eyes, but they see not. Ears, but they hear not. Mouths, but they speak not.”
On the Cross, Christ was, to all appearances, broken and exposed, but he saw and heard and spoke and, far from being made helpless, his words command Heaven itself. Even his first words, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”
Father, forgive them. Actually, this may come as a surprise to us, as Christians, but in the entire Old Testament, the term “father” is only used for God a half-dozen times, or so. This is not how the Jews thought about God. To them, God was a king, a creator, a judge, a warrior, etc. etc., but “father” was a concept which never really crossed their minds. On the other hand, Jesus used it constantly and to the point that it upset the priests and Pharisees and still upsets those who want to keep God at a safe remote distance from their lives.
But, it is no metaphor. Indeed, Christ never spoke of his heavenly Father as though he were using a figure of speech. Yes, he used a kaleidoscope of images – shepherds, kings, pearls, weddings - to speak about God and the kingdom, but when he spoke to God directly he always said “Father” or used the intimate “Abba” – “Daddy.” When the disciples asked him, “teach us to pray”, he told them that the first thing they were to say, the first relationship with God they were to acknowledge, was to be expressed in the words, “Our Father.” And, what does he say to Mary Magdalen on Easter morning? “Go to my brethren and tell them - I ascend to my Father and your Father.”
From then on, if you want to ignore the Fatherhood of God, you also have to ignore the Resurrection itself, and all that the risen Christ did and said.
The crucifiers do not know what they do because they do not know who they are. They certainly do not know that they are brothers and sisters of the same man on the Cross who is also the Son of God and their true God himself.
Two incidents in the Book of Acts illustrate how the recognition of this relationship impacted the lives of the Apostles. In Lystra, having seen a lame man healed, the pagan populace hailed Barnabas and Paul as gods on earth and led out oxen to sacrifice to them. And, just as the Jewish priests had torn their robes in horror at what they considered Christ’s blasphemy in calling himself Son of God, Barnabas and Paul tore theirs because they, and not Christ, were being accorded divinity. “We also are men”, they cry, “the same as you.”
In like manner, when the Roman centurion Cornelius fell at Peter’s feet in Caesarea to worship him, Peter cries out “Stand up; I too am a man.” In both cases, these words are absurd if you think Christ made no difference and annoying if you wish he had made none.
Thrice, under pressure, Peter had once wailed, “I do not know the man.” Scripture records that when he realized what he had done in denying Christ he wept, literally in the Greek, from his guts, from his inmost being. Now, he knows not only the man, but the God. This is the result of how the gift of grace works on the soul and as man is not born with this grace he must be reborn to receive it.
Modern psychology cannot explain the change that happened to Christ’s followers. Science can acknowledge the existence of saints as facts, but it cannot account for their sanctity. The changed lives of saints have changed history more than any other phenomenon, but you will rarely find them mentioned in any university textbook. This avoidance is a form of cultural pathology and a modern repetition of the way the Sanhedrin covered their ears when the Redeemer spoke.
Idols cannot disturb the human conscience in that way. If you bow before an idol, it will not say, “Stand up.” for that is the very thing an idolater will not tolerate. He has made his gods and he will have them behave as he has made them to be. A god in the image of a man is the image of a man’s imagination and when an idol is destroyed, as the Zeus of Olympia was eventually destroyed when its temple caught fire, the imagination moves on and makes new gods.
Should the Zeus of Olympia have ever moved his painted ivory lips, he might have dispensed anodyne bromides or wrathful comminations, but one sentence he would have never spoken is the one that has from the time it was first spoken changed men and women of ill disposition and weak will into fully human humans, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”