The meditation before us is God’s dead body. We are in the paschal season, but we almost never think about the moment between the cross and the resurrection when God was in the grave. This morning I want us to begin contemplating the death of God. Briefly, I want to open our thoughts and our hearts to the Crucified Jesus in the grave, then the Risen Jesus who was in the grave, and then what the death of the Son meant for the Triune God. I want to conclude with some implications for our lives and ministry.
The Crucified Jesus in the Grave
As we think about Jesus suffering a cruel and vicious trial, torture and death, I want us to put ourselves in the place of those bystanders: Mary, Jesus’ mother, John, Peter, Mary Magdalena. How did they feel when the One who loved them was brought irrevocably to His end? What are we now to believe about this Man who has just died a criminal’s death? What did they think when the One who carried their hopes for life and a future was put in the tomb? What weight bore down on their souls as the stone was rolled over and sealed so that they could not reach His body? Here we stand with the disciples: scattered, ashamed, fearful. We do not know what will happen tomorrow. All we know is that everything we had fully hoped for was dashed and brought to its end. Everything stops. We wait in silence.
On the day after his death Jesus is no hero, savior or redeemer. He is dead and gone, convicted as a sinner, a rebel and blasphemer, who has paid the price of tragic failure. He simply died, and his cause died with him, quite falsified and finished.
I have placed before us the icon of “The Dead Body of Jesus in the Grave’, painted by Hans Holbein, because it realistically depicts God in the tomb. His face is swollen, His skin is darkened, and He is in decay. This was Dostoevsky’s center piece for his novel, the Idiot. Dostoevsky himself said that “one could lose his faith from such a painting.” And I think that this must be contemplated because in the malodorous tomb is the stricken, smitten, and now decaying body which has no correlates to the Jesus in whom we have believed. The icon has no vertical dimension because He is cut off from the heavens, from life, from the Father. It has only a horizontal dimension because God is no more humanly than on the cross and in the tomb: Ecce Home, Behold the Man!
We are left to gasp: Was He really who He said He was? There is faith which has forgotten what it is to doubt; a way of hearing which no longer listens to the silence; a certainty that God is close, which dares not look into eyes that are still haunted by divine remoteness; a hope for some glory other than a crown of thorns.
The lonely godforsakenness of his dying and the hellish godlessness of his burial combined to confirm one of two unthinkable conclusions: either that he had never been God’s love and power enfleshed – which left the desperate world still waiting for the coming near of justice and of peace; or, worse still, that this had been God’s last, best effort against the tyrants, and that sin’s hatred and the power of death had proved impregnable against the fragile flower of grace incarnate.
If at this moment a person who lived so close to God is lying in a criminal’s grave, rejected, relation-less, and God-betrayed, what reason has the world to believe that even on the best of days God is with us, comforting the weak, resisting the tyrants, vindicating the innocent, battling the demonic? And if it is only through the eternal Word and Son that we see, know and have access to the Father and Creator, then the silencing of the Word and the terminating of the Son hellishly certify the world as an emptiness wherein no God is visible, knowable, or touchable, or quite possibly even present.
The stone is rolled away. The grave is emptied. Jesus is resurrected. The Spirit vindicates and verifies Jesus, proving that Jesus was and is, in fact, the Son of God. As at first, bringing form out of chaos, calling existence out of nothing, so now the Lord is again self-justified as creative in barrenness, life-giving in the midst of death; and far from being abandoned, we, too, may be persuaded now that nothing in life or death shall finally separate us from God’s love.
The Risen Jesus in the Grave
What does it mean when we reread the story knowing that Jesus is resurrected, knowing that He is God? We now know the full scenario, and we can see with hindsight that the Friday had not been the last day of Jesus after all, but the first day of a new, unfinished, never-ending history.
It is given to Thomas to name Jesus eleven days after Calvaryas Lord and God. We usually condemn Thomas of doubting when we should see rather his passionate conviction, the archetypal Christian confession He sees that Jesus is not just alive in victory and triumph over death but by the fact of His gaping wounds which confirm His earlier death. Thomas didn’t doubt. He believed that the pierced one who was dead, is God!
And if Jesus is God, then how can we fathom the extremity of the story that unites the Lord God with a human corpse – with a man who has in some eyes been murdered by criminals, and in others executed as a criminal? What a grotesque display of inept miscalculation, the boundlessness of human folly, the myopia of hatred! We have to wince, with embarrassment and shame, at the charge of blasphemy, the mock trappings of monarchy, the taunting challenge to prove himself the “Son of God,” when we know that the object of this self-righteousness and scorn – which is our own – will, on the third day, be vindicated and affirmed precisely as the righteous one of God and his anointed, kingly Son.
What does it mean for us when we learn that it was in fact God that we crucified and buried? How can we contemplate a dead God? The answer is that we cannot. Even for Christians, the history of the church has shown our inability to fathom God on the cross and God in the tomb. The explanations came: Jesus became the Son through His resurrection (adoptionism); God suspended His incarnation at the point of suffering and death; or, simply, Jesus was not God.
These heretical, yet sometimes accepted, ideas were imports from Platonism and Gnosticism, which presupposed the immutability and impassibility of God, eternity as opposed to God’s future, and the immortality of the soul. Even today it is scandalous to propose that God is movable, feeling, open to His future for the world and not simply immortal but resurrected. How could anyone fathom God in the grave? God is brought to His end in the silent tomb. God dies.
Either we decide that the place of human death is so demonic and destructive that not even God would have the power to survive and overcome it; or it seems a place too despicable and lowly for the God of power and glory to be found there. But we must pay heed to the story and let it critique our philosophies and presuppositions.
Crucifixion of the Trinity
The Trinity is a community, a family. Each person of the Trinity: the Father, Son and Spirit are equal interrelated and self-differentiated. The openness and space between the persons within the Godhead is room held open for others outside the family. So the Father sends the Son into the midst of our humanness, our captivity to pain and suffering, and our distance from our Maker. The Son is the messianic One, whose life, death and resurrection promise the world its liberation and us our intimate place within the fellowship of the Trinity. And God sends the Spirit also, in whose power these hopes for the world’s transformation and our own are already being realized, as we look toward the end when, the Son delivers the kingdom to the Father.
What then does it mean for the Trinity to experience the death?
Death in God.
This is the Son, very God of very God, dead in the grave. This is the crucified and buried God.
This means that we can no longer casually say that God is immortal as if it’s a given attribute because He has experienced mortality. He drank the dregs of humanity and died like all men and women. He conquered death by dying. He became immortal through mortality. God has taken death into Himself. The death of Jesus meant death in God.
This is not the death of God because the Father and the Spirit do not die. But this is death in God, since through the cross death and its division does pierce the life and heart of the triune family.
We do not perceive this as God against God (i.e. the Son saving us from the Father) because not only does the Father so love the world that He gives His only Son (John 3:16) but the Son also loves us and gives Himself up for us (Rom. 8:32 and Gal 2:20). This is the unity of the Godhead forged in the surrender of the Father and the submission of the Son for the sake of their love for one another and their love for us.
Death of God.
We know that the victory is proclaimed in the resurrection. But the empty tomb does not cancel out the cross or the occupied tomb, but rather confirms beyond all earlier doubt that God was there, upon that cross and in that tomb. That One who was dead and repulsive, executed, scandalously murdered, and perished. He is God. (Mark15:39)
If this man Jesus is the humanity of God, then God’s humanness has given in to inhumanity and dehumanization. The one who made us has, when human destiny lay in the balance, yielded to those who would unmake us, to the perverters of justice, the corrupters of truth, the annihilators of life. In a world of oppression, poverty and victimization, we affirm our seeming godlessness. In fact, we acknowledge a world in which it is possible to live without God and thus be godless. In fact, in the words of Bonhoeffer, God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross and Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
In the silence we hear the voice of atheism, not as the denial of God, but as no God: godlessness. As Dostoyevsky said, “This would cause anyone to lose his faith.” We must listen to this voice because it iconoclastically crushes our idolatrous concepts about God. We must also let the voice articulate our own words when we feel abandoned by God or left alone in a world seemingly abandoned by God.
Not just death in God but the death of God allows us to speak about God in the grave that contradicts all false theisms. (His death annihilates; negates the negative.) We need to sit from within the grave and point out the false gods that need to be deposed in our world today.
God’s willingness to die in solidarity with our death is just what prevents humanity from becoming divine – the ultimate idolatry (Gen 3:5). Rather, the cross releases us from the original sin of wishing to be Gods and liberates us at last to be truly human. The being of the dead man defines God’s own being. God no longer wishes to be the living God without this dead man. Through His death, God points to a “becoming” through perishability.
In His death, the Triune God reveals love’s power as its weakness; frail, selfless, surrender to the other is the way it flourishes and survives. Love carries death within itself. The one who dies to self in love is all the more fully alive.
How else could we contemplate the deaths of our loved ones, the deaths of our friends living on the streets, and our deaths without God? We could not. For as the patristic axiom rightly reads: What is not assumed cannot be healed. God assumed all of what it means to be human, thus healing humanity.
The suffering of the Father.
If Jesus is given over to death, what does the Father experience? Is then the absence of God in the death of Jesus the failure of divine love, which subjects the Son to unmerited judgment and an outrageous fate? Or is it the failure of divine power, which deserts the Son to helplessness before the onslaught of overwhelming evil?
For if God is his Father, and if he is truly forsaken in his death then we are dealing with a real and not just a felt abandonment.
What kind of God does this? Here God is forsaken by God. This is even the breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity: the Son does not merely lose His Sonship; the Father also loses His fatherhood.
In the death of Jesus, the deity of his God and Father is at stake. Divine presence in the diabolic grave simply implicates God as colluding in divine absence.
The Father also suffers the death of His Son, not by dying but by the absence of the Son. Hear the words of a father who lost his son to a premature death: “Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps sorrow is splendor. God, instead of explaining our suffering, shares it.” This is the suffering love of the Father separated from the Son because the Son died.
But God’s raising of Jesus on the third day announces loudly to the world which killed him that every word spoken by this despised, rejected, and afflicted one was true. Who but God, the Maker of all, can bring the dead to life? Thus does the resurrection not only authenticate God’s powerful deity and loving fatherhood; it also confirms and vindicates the divine Sonship of the risen one, which was so in doubt while his body lay interred throughout the second day.
Here is divinity, ultimate reality, not self-sufficient but existing for the sake of others; not self-preserving but fulfilled through self-expenditure; not invulnerable but exposed to opposition and resistance; not static and immobile but subject to novelty and change!
Learning to Die
God in the grave on the Sabbath between Good Friday and Easter Morning demands us to follow Him. He says, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” This we do but only because God has gone before us, taking it all up on Himself, suffering, dying, waiting and rising.
We are the Body of Christ. And we are only the Body as we are sent. But we should not quickly spiritualize the Body but rather look at the actual Body of Christ: broken, swollen, bruised, dead. God is the one who knows how to die and knows that in accepting death there is life, and life only through accepting death. We are the Corpse of Christ sent into the world, not without the wounds, but bearing them as healing for the nations.
We are the Body of Christ sent into a world that is re-crucifying God (Heb. 6:6). They crucify God by denying His existence and by pushing Him out of the world and out of history. The also crucify Him by crucifying those created in His image, namely, the poor and oppressed.
The guilty despair and cold forsakenness of the second day give way on the third to joy, relief, deliverance. Today the mood is similar to that of guilty prisoners, sentenced to die, hearing the word “no condemnation”, which means reprieve and pardon; of the terminally ill miraculously restored to health and vigor…
Likewise the victims of the world’s godlessness, those bruised and crushed beneath the heel of the powerful, have cause, on hearing Easter’s story, to raise their heads in dignity and hope. By raising Christ, the weak and helpless victim of unjust cruelty, the Father not only vindicates the Son but verifies the faith for which the Son died – the self-promoters who destroy others cannot prove victorious in the end; for the way of life leads only down the path of risky, loving self-expenditure and humble servitude.
We also live the experience of God in the grave in our praying. For prayer is power in utter powerlessness.
Prayer in powerlessness is prayer from the tomb where Jesus’ dead body lies. This is not prayer as the last resort but prayer as entrusting ourselves totally to God who works powerfully through the powerlessness of the grave. In prayer we are postured to denounce any idolatry of self-reliance and glorify the name and character of God as the world’s sole maker and redeemer, before whom we are powerless, empty and guilty, but in whom we find grace, our needs met, our sins forgiven, our fears quelled, our foes conquered, and our hopes fulfilled. But how do we pray to a crucified and buried God?
We pray through self-surrender. For if the surrender of power is the form, and the only form, that God’s power takes, and if vulnerable self-abandonment is itself the creative energy which is bringing history powerfully to its fulfillment, we discover that prayer which leads to obedient action is our only response. To pray to the crucified God is, therefore, to affirm and practice radical dependence and surrender to the point of death itself – which may be why so few of us truly know how to pray or even wish to do so.
But how can God, who’s sovereignty and power are realized through suffering and contradiction, answer our prayers in power? Here, the God before whom in prayer we bow, mysteriously bows to us – finite creatures and sometimes destructive enemies – resolving not to be God without us but with us, exercising lordship only through us.
When we renounce our claims to power, independence, do-it-yourself, prestige and authority, which are all claims to be God, we open ourselves up for the power of God to work through us.
Our prayerfully acknowledged dependence on God, in short, frees the God who depends on us to direct the surpassing power of dependent, self-negating love against our self-sufficiency. Here we affirm our dependence, which our culture abhors, on God to give us our daily bread and to deliver us from evil. This prayer iconoclastically destroys our pretensions to be God-like.
We cry out with the psalmist:
O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep. (Psalm 88:1-6)
While we thought that darkness, loneliness, godforsakenness, and death were our experience, we turn to see that they are also God’s. This is the reality of Jesus’ experience. This is God in the grave.
Couched within the agony and lament, the psalmist asks:
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you? Selah
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave…?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
Although the queries echo pain and unbelief, the very articulation of the questions indicates a deep faith, the faith that Someone is there to answer. And the answer comes: “Yes.” Yes, God works wonders among the dead and brings forth praise from the grave, but only because God dwelled in the darkness, experienced it and absorbed its wrath. God’s wonders are known in the darkness.