At the height of the Nazi regime, while millions of Jews were being killed in the extermination camps, mimeographed pamphlets denouncing Nazi tyranny were being distributed across Germany – leaflets written by a group calling themselves “The White Rose.” These pamphlets were aimed at rousing German citizens from their spiritual and moral slumber. Hitler, the White Rose declared, was a monster who was leading Germany deeper into darkness. In Leaflet #4 the White Rose explicitly framed the struggle against Hitler in spiritual and moral terms.
Every word that proceeds from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war. And when he names the name of the Almighty in a most blasphemous manner, he means the almighty evil one, that fallen angel, Satan…
We will not keep silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!
These words constituted high treason. Whoever the White Rose was, they were flirting with death. Now widely revered as heroes in Germany, the White Rose was a handful of students from the University of Munich, most of them Christian. And among the leaders of the White Rose were siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl.
On February 18, 1943, the Scholl siblings were observed distributing what would become known as Leaflet #6 of the White Rose on the campus of the University of Munich. They were arrested and quickly brought to a trial presided over by one of the most notorious of the Nazi hanging judges. Standing before the Nazi court, both Hans and Sophie remained defiant. Addressing the court, Sophie School refused to back down, saying, “What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”
The Scholls were quickly declared guilty of treason and sentenced to death. The Nazis didn’t waste any time. The execution was scheduled to take place that very day. Sophie Scholl’s cellmate preserved her final words before she left to face the guillotine:
How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause?
On February 22, 1943 at 5:00pm, Hans and Sophie Scholl were beheaded by the Nazis. But the message of the White Rose lived on. The final leaflet of the White Rose, Leaflet #6, was smuggled out of Germany and reached the Allies. Thousands of copies were made and in July 1943, Allied planes dropped the leaflets from the skies over Germany, the defiant words of the White Rose falling like rain.
The White Rose movement will long be remembered as an act of resistance in the face of evil. Its members willfully risked their lives by picking a fight with the forces of darkness, but they were unflinching because of the righteousness of their cause. And today, we gather to remember another act of resistance, one that will be remembered long after the White Rose has faded from memory. Today we look back to the moment of spiritual warfare when Jesus stands up to the evil powers, when he picks a fight with the powers of hell, and defiantly takes their best shot. In the words of the Apostle Paul from Colossians 2, Jesus “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “A king who dies on the Cross must be the king of a rather strange kingdom.” This was certainly the thought process in the ancient world where the cross was an instrument of torture and execution. Over the centuries, the cross has become the dominant icon in Christianity. And yet, this proliferation has had an unfortunate result: the cross has been somewhat tamed today, becoming – at least for some – little more than a piece of jewelry worn on a necklace.
What is the real meaning of the Cross?
As we’ve been saying for weeks, John’s telling of the Gospel story is unique. And to understand John’s message about the cross, we need to go back to the scene of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13.
Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love….Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power… – John 13:1, 3
As his time with the disciples draws to a close, Jesus shows them “the full extent of his love.” How? It is fitting for us to understand the washing of the disciples’ feet as an expression of his love. But the fullness of his love would be demonstrated through the cross. The washing of feet simply anticipates His loving service on the cross.
Note how John stresses that the Father had put all things under the power of Christ. This is a triumphant note to strike, especially as we consider where the story is headed. John wants us to know that ultimate power resides with Jesus throughout this narrative. This is central to our message this morning: Despite everything that will happen to him, Jesus remains in complete control.
This is one of the reasons Jesus speaks of the cross in terms of “glory” in John’s Gospel. As we noted last week, when Jesus speaks of “glory” in John’s Gospel, it is always a reference to the cross. He sees the cross as the moment when heaven’s glory is fully revealed. But in the ancient world and our own, the question is likely the same: What could be glorious about crucifixion on a cross?
The glory lies in the fact that the cross is the willful choice of Jesus. By stressing that the Father has placed all things under his power, John is saying that the cross didn’t just happen to Jesus. Jesus wasn’t a victim. No, he willfully chose the cross. He embraces it as part of what it means to display the love and the glory of God. And Jesus does this because He remains in complete control throughout the narrative.
He remains in complete control when the guards come to arrest him. John 18:1-6:
When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was an olive grove, and he and his disciples went into it. Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns, and weapons.
Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”
“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.
“I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.
Judas and this detachment of soldiers come ready to arrest Jesus. Jesus asks, “Who are you looking for?” and they say, “Jesus of Nazareth.” And His reply is powerful: “I am he.” Or, in its shorter version, “I AM.”
When Jesus says this, the soldiers retreat and fall to the ground. This is yet another detail unique to John’s Gospel. Maybe John wants us to connect this with another episode when meeting the “I AM” makes someone hit the dirt. Centuries earlier, a voice said, “I AM” and Moses bowed before the Lord in the burning bush, as he stood on holy ground. There is an irony to the scene. The power brokers in the Temple never bowed before Jesus, but their lynch mob does.
Notice that Jesus is in complete control here. As God-in-the-flesh, his slightest command could bring down this mob with their swords and spears. But he allows them to take him into custody. It’s not in the text, but I can imagine Jesus thinking, “Come on, get up. I can’t arrest myself. We have work to do here.” John makes it clear that no one is taking Jesus against his will. He remains in complete control during His arrest.
He also remains in complete control as He stands before Pilate. As the crowd chants, “Crucify him!” Pilate is unmoved, saying, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” But the Jews are insistent, saying, “He claims to be the Son of God and he must die.”
When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” – John 19:8-11
Pilate says to Jesus, “Don’t you realize I have the power to either kill you or set you free?” Do you hear a bit of pride in Pilate’s statement? “This is where you beg for your life, because I hold all the power here.”
But Jesus doesn’t even flinch. Again, he is in total control and totally fearless. Jesus says, “Power? The only power you have is the power given to you from on high. Your power comes from above where I come from.” Let that sink in. John makes it clear that they can’t arrest Jesus, convict Jesus, or crucify Jesus without Jesus allowing it.
All things are under His power even as He hangs on the cross:
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. – John 19:25-27
Even as his life is ebbing away, Jesus remains in control. He arranges for his mother to be cared for because Jesus remains in control of his household to the very end.
Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. – John 19:28-30
No one kills Jesus. No, Jesus decided to die. He is the one to decide when it is finished. And Jesus decided it wasn’t finished until He fulfilled every Scripture that anticipated this moment. John articulates it quite carefully: Jesus is the one to give up his spirit. Nobody kills Jesus…nobody arrests Jesus…nobody puts him on trial…nobody beats Him without His permission. Jesus willfully chooses the shameful death of the cross because He remains in complete control.
With all things under His power, the cross becomes His moment of glory. And because the cross is His moment of glory, we no longer see it as an instrument of torture and death. We see the cross as a throne, His throne of self-emptying love. The cross is His showdown with the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. At the cross, Jesus engages in spiritual warfare in the most unexpected of ways. He overthrows the oppressive powers of darkness by giving his own life as a ransom for many. And the empty tomb declares the scope of His victory. He willfully chooses the cross, remaining in complete control to the very end. And if He was in complete control when they nailed Him to the cross, He surely remains in complete control even today.
Our world is harsh and cruel, full of nightmares. We worry about Russia and Syria and North Korea and Afghanistan….and for good reason. Some weeks, the news out of Washington is the source of our anxiety; this week, it’s news out of Montgomery. A news report this week claims that we’re overdue for a global pandemic while someone dies every minute because they don’t have access to clean drinking water. ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks on two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt last Sunday that killed more than 40 people and injured more than 100 others. And all the while, things like cancer and estrangement and depression and sex trafficking and grief and shame continue to take their toll on us. And all of this conspires to make us ask: Is anyone in control? That’s the question of Good Friday, the question that was asked in 1943, and the question of our day. We need not look very far to find evil, oppressive forces at work in our world, forces that always seek to enslave us.
But the cross and empty tomb tell a different story – a story of hope and redemption and the victory of self-giving and self-emptying love. The cross was the willful choice of Jesus. And the empty tomb is the ultimate declaration that God is indeed in control from start to finish, in control to the very end. It’s about more than simply the events of one weekend 2,000 years ago. It’s about the reign of God today.
That is the power and the glory of the cross.
At the cross, Jesus exercises daring faith and He calls us to daring faith as well. Faith as trusting obedience. Jesus was obedient in willingly giving his life. And we are called to that same kind of obedience. Obedience is being like Jesus. This obedient faith led Jesus to a cross. This obedient faith also leads us to a cross-shaped life.
We do not avoid the cross. We embrace the cross, the way of glory through suffering and self-emptying love.