The Scandal of Good Friday

04/03/2015 10:10 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

Standing on this side of Chalcedon, we Christians take it for granted that Jesus is "truly God and truly man." But in the earliest days of the Church, there was a lot of debate about who it was that walked across the Sea of Galilee and hung from the cross on Good Friday.

Some factions of the Church questioned Jesus' divinity, while others argued that he only appeared to be human. Regardless of what side you were on, as Paul so famously reminds us in his letter to the church in Corinth, the nature of Jesus was quite the scandal in the early Church, particularly in light of his death on the cross. Eventually, the Council of Chalcedon put an end to the debate when it declared that Jesus is truly God and truly man... but 1500 years later the scandal still remains.

Though admittedly in a different form.

While officially the theological matter may have been put to rest in 451 AD and though most of us in the Church today are pretty comfortable affirming both the humanity and the divinity of Jesus, the way we talk and think about Jesus reveals that the controversy is far from over.

Particularly when it comes to the crucifixion.

For while we celebrate the divinity of the living Jesus, we're decidedly less enthusiastic about the divinity of the dying Jesus.

That is to say, while we'll zealously defend the idea that the living, breathing Jesus who walked on water and healed the sick was absolutely, unequivocally God incarnate, when it comes to the identity of the person hanging on the cross, the idea that it could actually, literally be God who died on Calvary is too unsettling for most of us to fully accept, especially when we're presented with the incredible implications of such a claim.

But as the great theologian Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, it was absolutely and unequivocally God who was nailed to the cross.

When the crucified Jesus is called the "image of the invisible God," the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in his humanity. The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about 'God' is to be found in this Christ event. - The Crucified God, 205

In other words, it's not just a poor, humble carpenter from Nazareth who hung on that tree. It was the Lord of all creation. The One who said "Let there be light" was abandoned in the darkness. He who breathed life into dirt took his last breath on that cross.

No less than God Almighty who was crucified on that hill so long ago.

But a crucified God makes both incredible claims about God and tremendous demands on the lives of those of us who would take up our own cross and follow Jesus; demands many, if not most of us struggle to accept.

Which is why 2000 years later, the crucified God of Good Friday remains a scandal in at least three important ways.

It's a scandal of disappointment and embarrassment.

A crucified God is a total and complete rejection of the John Wayne Jesus we crave in American Christianity. The kind of super manly, guns a-blazing action hero we fetishize in so many corners of the American church is nowhere to be found on the cross. What we find instead is a humble carpenter who rides into town on a donkey, only to be arrested, beaten, and stripped of both clothes and dignity before ultimately being put to death in the most humiliating way possible.

For a Church that is increasingly insecure about its eroding power and influence in the world and desperately wants to portray Jesus as an über-manly hero who stands ready to lead the charge as we vanquish our enemies and wrestle control of the world from their cold dead heads, it's disappointing, uncomfortable, and embarrassing to be confronted with the truth that we worship a crucified God who said "no" to conquest, choosing instead to die naked and alone for the enemies we seek to vanquish.

It's a scandal of unwanted inclusion.

We may hang crosses prominently in the front of our churches, but the cross has become a sanitized symbol that makes few, if any demands on our lives. Though we may revere it as an important symbol, we have forgotten that,

The symbol of the cross in the church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city...It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God. - The Crucified God, 40

While we sanctify discrimination in the name of religious freedom, the crucified God declares that God stands with the outcast and abandoned people we want nothing to do with, even and especially when they have been cast out and abandoned in the name of God.

It's a scandal of radical self-denial.

The crucifixion of God is a visceral reminder that the cross is the way of Jesus. There is no Christianity without a crucified Christ and therefore there is no discipleship without picking up our own cross and all the suffering and loss that comes with it.

But radical self-denial and painful self-sacrifice has no place in a me-centric society or in a Church who's realized that biblical weight loss strategies, financial peace, and beating the drums of theological war (and actual war) are all far more effective strategies for filling up the pews than calling the people of God to live a cruciform life.

And so, the identity of the one hanging on the cross remains a scandal today.

Not so much because we can't agree on the theological nuances of hypostatic union, but because we still can't accept a crucified God whose power is made perfect in weakness.

Because we don't want to embrace unwanted neighbors, let alone serve them in any way.

And because as much as we may preach self-denial, actually living a self-sacrificing life that puts others' needs before our own is simply too much to ask.