John, the Gospel Writer (John 18-19)
Rev. Peter Heckert
+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.
Blood. In the Scriptures, blood is life. It’s a major theme in John’s gospel. Early on, the evangelist records the words of John the Baptist, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The Lamb can only do this by shedding His blood. Later, John records some rather controversial words from Jesus, when He says, “Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life.” Whenever you see blood in John’s gospel, it serves one purpose: washing away sin.
If there’s one thing we know about, it’s sin. Sin always stands at the door of our lives, eager and willing to barge in with reckless abandon. The problem is, in light of the utter perfection of God’s precepts and demands, we see that we can never even hope to measure up. We all fall short of the glory of God … and what’s worse, we can’t stop ourselves from doing it. The good that we want to do, we don’t; and the evil we know we should abstain from, this we keep on doing. Far from stopping ourselves from sinning, we sometimes whip that door wide open and welcome sin in with open arms. The problem is, our consciences exist, so we spend the rest of our lives trying to sidestep, bypass, and otherwise avoid the guilt, the shame, and the other consequences of our iniquity.
Projection. That’s one way we try to do it. Project our sin, my sin onto someone else. Blame someone, anyone. Your husband or wife. Your parents, your teachers. And while you’re at it, blame the government and the system. Anyone will do … so long as it’s not me. Rationalization is another way we try to conquer sin. “What I did is no big deal!” “It didn’t really hurt anybody.” “It’s just this once. Besides, no one will ever know.”
When projection and rationalization don’t work, we try comparison. “If you think I’m bad, you should see my boss!” “At least I’m not as bad as my sister!” “Well, remember what he did?” “Ha! I’m a saint compared to that guy!” If that doesn’t work, we try repression. Ignore it. Stuff it way down. Live in denial. Don’t talk about it, don’t think about it. “I know it was wrong, but I’m just not going to think about it!”
If you can’t ignore it, try distracting yourself. Rush around from one event to the next so that at night you collapse. Run yourself ragged so that when you hit the pillow, sin doesn’t haunt your heart and muddle your mind. You can’t be bothered with sin if you’re simply too busy! If none of these work, there’s always evasion. Pop a pill, have a drink, smoke a joint. Get addicted to TV, sports, porn, money—you name it. Anything to evade the all-consuming consequences of sin!
See the problem here? It doesn’t work! None of this works! Try as you might, you’ll wake up the next day, and sin is still there. No matter our efforts, nothing we do can get that monkey of sin off our backs. The only thing that can do anything … is blood. The shedding of blood. Enter the horror and beauty of what we observe this day, Good Friday. Make no mistake: how Jesus was treated on Good Friday was barbaric and brutal … and for our sakes, necessary.
Without going into the gory details of crucifixion, the physiological aspects of what happened to our Lord on the cross, it’s worth mentioning that what happened to Jesus has been the object of much artistry throughout the centuries. Peter Paul Rubens from the seventeenth century, for example, painted a masterpiece which portrayed the tail-end of our Lord’s Passion. He called it, “The Descent from the Cross.”
It’s the center panel of a triptych from a church in Antwerp, Belgium, so unless you’re able to travel to Belgium to see the original, I’ll encourage you to seek out a picture to see it for yourself. In the background of the painting, billows of black clouds linger after the three hours of darkness. In the foreground is Jesus. Rubens paints a sweeping diagonal line made by Christ’s shining white shroud. Our Lord’s head dangles to one side, and His body hangs limp. Sections of His skin bear the sickly greenish-yellow color of death.
On the left of the painting, clothed in her signature blue garb, is Mary, Jesus’ mother. She is reaching up to her son, her grieving face lit by the light still emanating from the Light of the World. Her skin matches the ashen pastiness of Christ’s, and we remember Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart also. None can imagine the mother of God’s profound sense of loss and grief.
Another woman supports Christ’s foot as it rests on her shoulder, an important clue to her identity. This is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. As a disciple, she once sat at Christ’s feet. And, shortly before His death, she took expensive perfume and anointed Christ’s feet.
Next to her is another woman, whose tears help us identify her. It’s Mary Magdalene, and her tears and bewilderment show us how utterly crushed she is. The One who redeemed her from possession by seven demons … was dead, and her grief is clear.
We know that the man standing on the ladder to the left, dressed in rich clothing, is Joseph of Arimathea. This comports with the fact that he had enough money to buy burial spices, and he had a new tomb—all for Jesus. Joseph is looking at a man on the right, dressed in black. It’s Nicodemus; you may recall Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. We’ll learn more about him tomorrow night at the Easter Vigil. Of special note is the person under Nicodemus, who is of special import today. It’s John, the gospel writer, the beloved disciple, the son of Zebedee and the brother of James. And he is dressed in red.
But, why red? That’s what Peter Paul Rubens wants us to ask. Why is John dressed in red? It’s a product of his environment. His best friend’s blood still drips from His head, hands, feet, and side. Some of that blood trickles downward until it pours directly onto the disciple. He’s dressed in red because he is covered in blood, stained, saturated with it. Rubens’ choice here is clear and profound: John is washed in Christ’s blood! And John says that same blood is for you! This is his testimony, and his testimony is true!
Peter Paul Rubens invites us to stand at the cross, like John, to hold on to our Savior, and allow His blood to drip down upon us. Christ’s blood is the only solution for all of our sin. We were doused with it in the waters of baptism, where we were made partakers of His death and resurrection. We partake of it every week in, under, and with the wine of the Supper. His blood … washes us clean of our sin, and leaves our sin-stained garments white as snow. It’s not macabre, vampiric, or ghoulish. The blood of Christ, shed on Calvary’s tree, is the way by which we inherit eternal life. Stand at the foot of the cross with John. Behold the terrible beauty, the true nature of what sin’s payment looks like, and trust that that debt of yours is now paid in full. Let the blood of Christ wash over you, feel as it washes you clean and makes you new.
+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.