“The Potato Eaters” by Vincent Van Gogh
It is Good Friday, a day haunted by the dark shadows of misunderstanding, indifference, betrayal, mockery and the worst sort of treachery humanity can dish out.
We began Holy Week with a wonderful post from Peter on Palm Sunday, exploring the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death. He called into question that which unfortunately is all too often put forth as the only explanation for Jesus’ death in Reformed circles and indeed in much of Western Christianity: i.e. Penal Substitution. Positively, he offered us a picture of Jesus as the Passover Lamb in whom there is life! Since so much of this substitutionary theory of Atonement was shaped by Anselm, I offered a follow up piece on Wednesday pressing deeper into the question that drove Anselm: Cur Deus Homo: Why the God-Man? Why does God come to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ in the first place? We started at the beginning, with the story of this world’s origins in Genesis and continued by exploring how the scriptures of the Old and New Testament address some of our deepest questions: Who are we and why are we here? Why do bad things happen? And in our deepest moments of suffering: God where are you? I posited that while scripture explores various, even if partial, answers to our deepest questions that the overall trajectory of the Old and New Testament witness seems more interested in assuring us that God is somehow still in control. And more importantly the story therein points us to what God is doing to offer a solution to all of this heartache. I would like to pick up there.
God Is In The Details
The great Twentieth Century German-American architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is famous for saying, “God is in the details.” In many ways what is true of architecture is true of the biblical drama. We must look closely at the details of the biblical drama in order to step back and have a better, clearer view of what God is doing in our world to repair all of the relational rifts pointed to in the creation narrative. Taken together, the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures paint a strange and wonderful story. At times it seems peculiar, even offensive as God chooses very particular people and means for the sake of restoring all things God has created to a right relationship of interdependence and mutuality.
In Genesis 12, God chooses one man, Abraham, from all of the people on the face of the earth. God declares that through this one man all of the families of the earth will be blessed. Now the drama really begins to unfold. The rest of the Hebrew scriptures, what Christians refer to as the Old Testament, is the unfolding of the relationship between the God of all creation and Abraham’s descendants: his son Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. God would work through the people who came to bear this patriarch’s name, a name meaning “struggled with God.” It is through their religious, social and political life that God would work for the restoration of all things.
In Exodus 19 God declares that Abraham’s descendants will be a priestly nation. The clear implication of this is that like a Jewish priest is a liaison between God and the people at the temple cult, the nation of Israel was to be a liaison between God and the rest of the nations. After God appointed the people a king, God declared “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” And in times of political strife, even in captivity to other nations, lest the people forget that the promise was for the sake of all the earth, God sent prophets. The prophet Isaiah envisioned a day when:
Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
The particularity and universality of God’s vision for the world is exemplified in the prophet’s vision. Two things are clear: the vision is wide in its scope, includes peace for all the nations. But the God who will establish that peace is not Baal, Rah or any of the gods of other nations. Peace will be established by the God of Jacob, descendant of Abraham.
What’s In A Name?
So how did this first century peasant, Jesus come to bear the title the Christ? Christ is the English term for the Greek Khristós. This is a translation of the Hebrew word transliterated into English as Messiah, meaning “the anointed one.” In Exodus 30 there are elaborate instructions to Moses on how the Israelite priests are to be anointed. Kings and prophets would come to receive a similar anointing. As the tradition unfolded, a belief emerged that God would rise up a leader, a messiah, an anointed one as part of God’s plan to establish peace amongst the nations. The Hebrew prophets, especially Isaiah were pregnant with messianic expectation. In Isaiah 11, we find this vivid messianic description:
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
Jesse was the father of King David. The expectation was that a leader or perhaps leaders of royal descent would rise up and be a catalyst for a time of peace for the nations. But if the basic Christian claims about him are true, Jesus of Nazareth both meets and yet radically reshapes all previous notions of messianic expectation.
According to Jesus’ followers, he was heir to the house of David, whose throne had long been disestablished by the time of Jesus’ arrival on the scene. And indeed he did declare a kingdom was at hand. It was his central message: Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. But from his humble beginnings to his humiliating death, he did anything but meet the notions of what a royal or militant leader should do. Luke tells us in the fourth chapter of his gospel that Jesus did apply the messianic expectation of the prophet Isaiah to himself. According to Luke 4 after Jesus’ baptism and a temptation in the wilderness, Jesus returned to Nazareth and there at the synagogue on the Sabbath day he read from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 
When Jesus was done he told the people “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!” And indeed, if any of the reports are true, Jesus did embark on a ministry of prophetic teaching that included healing and freeing people from oppression. But as he hung on a Roman cross it seemed he had done anything but establish the lasting peace proclaimed by the Prophet Isaiah, the day when all nations would stream to Israel. Finally, Christians claim Jesus’ final act at the crucifixion was a priestly one that fulfilled the sacrificial rights of Israel once and for all. But that certainly did not preserve the temple, Israel’s center for religious life that would be torn down a few short years later by the hands of the same government that tore down Jesus.
However, none of this is what is most shocking about Jesus, the Christ. The community that bears his name has been wrestling for 2,000 years now with the mystery revealed in him. Much the same way Israel wrestled with God. And as we have wrestled with the words he said, the things he did, the way he died and the reports that he rose again from the grave, we as a people have time and time again come to this conclusion: this man, this Jesus, who fulfilled and reshaped the notion of the Messiah, this man is also God. This is why we confess, when we recite or memorize the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father; through him all things were made.” Though Jesus died he lives: “He rose again.” The God who spoke into the darkness to matter which was once formless and void differentiating the waters from the dry land is in some very real sense also this man who walks on water, commanding the forces of nature like God did in Genesis. And so we venerate him. When we pray we say his name. And when bad things happen in our world, it is now his name that we call out. We wrestle with him because we have been gripped by the belief that he is God. And this not only reshapes messianic expectation and longing, is shatters all previous paradigms.
Returning To Anselm’s Question
But the question remains: Why Jesus? Why the God man? There are at least two ways to answer this question. The answer I grew up with was that Jesus has come to free us from a world that has become tragically broken. There will one day be no more dandelions to weed from the garden. There will be no more gardens to till. There will be no more ocean waves to rise to a colossal crescendo in the tsunami because the waters that were separated, like the dry land will come to an end. And there will be no more human beings for nature to crush because Jesus has rescued us from ourselves by rescuing us from our bodies. So because of this we will no longer be at war with each other, our world or ourselves.
One variation, traditionally called the Christ as victor model contends that as a new kind of king, Jesus has overthrown the powers of sin, suffering and death that have held us and our world captive. Another view is that as prophet and as example of humanity par excellence, Jesus shows us a way to emancipate ourselves from sin, suffering and death. And then there is the view that Anselm of Canterbury and much of subsequent Western Christianity. For Anselm, and many, many others Jesus’ final priestly act serves as a bridge of sorts between humanity and a righteous God who can have nothing to do with sin.
All three of these approaches are essentially variations of the same answer to the Jesus question. Whether, by might, example, or sacrifice the understanding is that Jesus sets us free the powers of sin, suffering and death. Jesus comes on to the scene as a king, a leader or a priestly bridge. He comes to escort us away from the dust from which we came. He ransoms us from the sinister forces behind the cruelties of nature. He shows us how to escape our own vices. Or he helps us escape our own flesh and blood by taking on flesh and blood himself and allowing it to be destroyed. He takes us back to the light and airy world of the Thomas Kinkade-like garden. And then he takes us beyond. He takes us through that cottage door to true spiritual paradise.
There is a very important sense in which all of the above variations are partially correct; Jesus comes to us. The Nicene Creed continues: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: was incarnate.” Indeed in the person of work of Jesus Christ God the Son becomes incarnate, that is he steps into our world not as a stranger but as one of us. He “became truly human” for our sake. And this man Jesus is indeed our ultimate example of what true humanity is. This man Jesus is the definitive prophet, revealing God in a way unparalleled by any of God’s other prophets before or since. He of course also does a mighty work in his act as priest and sacrifice on our behalf: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.”
But the three classic variations – at least in the the way they get passed around on a popular level – share in at least one serious shortcoming. In their shared understanding of Jesus’ saving work, the powers of sin, suffering and death have become closely affiliated with the physicality of this world. But in the Hebrew creation story God declares each created thing is good. After God creates human beings, the declaration is that God’s creation is very good. If we look anew, we are reminded that we are intimately connected not just to God but also to the dust of the ground and the other inhabitants of the earth. God’s intention has never been to bring us to whatever is on the other side of that proverbial door that separates heaven and earth. God’s intention has always been to cross through the door to dwell with creation. In the Hebrew creation story God dwells with the man and woman in the cool of the day. In Israel’s history, God shows up calling the patriarchs. God allows his anointing to come to rest on prophets, priests and kings. And then God does the unthinkable. God the Son comes in the person of Jesus. God dwells in the particular, in the details! God does that which is strange and even offensive for our sake and the sake of our world.
What Is So Good About Good Friday?
But the Son of God does not come to free us from the physicality of this world, broken as it may be. Instead he steps through the door between Heaven and earth and remains permanently bound up with the stuff of creation for the sake of its transformation and ours. The picture does not look like a Thomas Kinkade, but more like Vincent van Gogh’s early work, “The Potato Eaters.” Rather than something picturesque, bright and serene, “The Potato Eaters” gather around a table for dinner by light of a single burning lamp. Van Gogh depicted the Dutch peasants as they were: dirty, tired and hungry from a day plowing the field and working for their food. The colors are dark, the peasants’ faces are coarse and their hands are dark and rough. But we should make no mistake; it is a picture of humanity doing what it was created to do.
In the Hebrew creation story, before God said this ground is cursed, God instructed Adam to till the ground. Before God made a pronouncement about the tensions that exist between men and women, God said it is not good for a man to be alone. And before God said humans will labor by the sweat of their brow for their livelihood, God said the seed bearing plants and herbs were here for consumption. It is into this world of dirt and sweat, bodies and food that Jesus comes. He lives our life and he dies our death. And at the cross on this shadowy day, he takes on the deepest questions of our broken hearts as he quotes the Psalmist, and cries out, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” He does not come to take us away from the table at which the tired “Potato Eaters” gather. Rather, he is poured out, not to become the bridge to another world but to be the food and drink that sustains and transforms life as we know it in this world. Or to paraphrase Athanasius, God assumed humanity that we might in a very real way come to participate in the divine life. So until that day when many people come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob,’ we gather at his table. As Peter said in earlier in the week, Jesus offers us as sustenance his flesh and his blood. And we continue to proclaim a coming day when swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks, a day when sin suffering and death no longer impede upon or threaten life in this world. Until that day we cry, Come Lord Jesus! Come!