The first Christians confessed that Jesus is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God." Jesus is, they finally confessed after centuries of dispute, who the Gospels and the apostles plainly tell us: God without qualification. Bethlehem's baby boy grew to be the man from Nazareth, who is also from before time and forever the only begotten Son.
Jesus tells Philip that he and the Father are one; that if Philip has seen Jesus, then Philip has seen the Father. Paul tells the Colossians that Christ is the visible image of the unseen God. The Hebrews are taught by their apostle that Jesus bears the very stamp of God's nature.
If anything we think we knew about God before Jesus arrives in Mary's womb contradicts what we see and hear of Jesus in the Gospels, then we are the ones who are mistaken, the ones who weren't paying close enough attention before he came (yes, Jesus reveals the same relationship-initiating God of holy love we encounter in the pages of the Hebrew Bible); we are the ones who have, since his decades of extravagant humility among us as one of us, forgotten the Christ.
Somehow, some still believe that an omnipotent (all-powerful) God cannot look upon sinners, cannot come into contact with sinners, or inhabit the same space as sinners, which would mean, of course, that Jesus wasn't quite God.
Yet Jesus not only looks upon sinners, he touches sinners, and he lets sinners touch him. He invades and shares space with notorious sinners, real-deal sinners, those judged by fellow sinners as untouchables, not worthy of God's relentless pursuit: the Samaritan woman at the well, Zacchaeus, Mary Magdalene, the Gadarene Demoniac, Bartimaeus, lepers, the thieves crucified to either side of him, the woman found in adultery, the ritually unclean woman who couldn't stop bleeding, and so on.
One thinks also of Judas. As Frederick Buechner asks: Is his betrayal of God's friendship really different than any one of our betrayals of Jesus on the final scorecard?
In Jesus, God became vulnerable to us. God drew near to us — drew close enough to feel the kiss of Judas, to hear Peter's denial, to bear our mocking, rejecting "crucify him!," to endure Pilate's horrific death sentence. Instead of "sinners in the hands of an angry God," I like what William Paul Young says about the cross — we find that it's actually "God in the hands of angry sinners."
When Jesus prays to the Father from the cross in great agony, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing," he prays from the heart he SHARES with the Father, the same Father who sent the Son precisely to pray THAT PRAYER from the cross so that THAT PRAYER might disclose God's heart toward us — even as these words of Christ forever bless humankind with forgiveness, ironically answering our cry before Pilate that "his blood be upon us and upon our children." For Jesus is nothing less then God himself and his words never fail.
Jesus is not a different God than the Creator (as some early dualisms claimed) but the SAME God. These two divine persons do not have opposed wills when it comes to humankind but the SAME divine will.
Jesus never prays anything except the divine will he shares with the Father, even here, at the desperate margins of his tortured humanity, as life slips away from him.
There is yet another beautiful mystery here: that Jesus, as the one sinless human, prays that prayer also AS ONE OF US, FOR US, the only one of us worthy to pray these words on our behalf; that with his human will he prayers FOR his brothers and sisters with whom he shares the human condition without sin: "Yes, Father, after all I've experienced of this race we made, living as one of them, let's bless them with our pardon, make them worthy of forgiveness, through my human prayer." His divine will and his human will affirm the Father's desire to embrace all prodigals. "Let's do this," Jesus says, for God is willing.
That will is that NO ONE perish; that everyone come to have eternal life by the entire movement of Christ's humility from cradle to cross. All of Christ's life among us, including the healing, restoring, death-conquering cross, reveals one thing: how DEEP the Father's love is for us.
All we must do is allow Christ in us to finish the work he has begun so well. We having nothing left to pay. The only obligation of love is that we pray "not only with our lips but in our lives;" that we enter gratefully this unfettered relationship, this life without end, won for us by Jesus' triumph over God's final enemy, death.
"Jesus of the Scars" sings out this tremendous mystery of incarnate love that is our only redemption, a faith that stands at the cross and with the centurion dares to say it: "to our wounds only God's wounds can speak/And not a God has wounds, but thou alone."
The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Mich.
Photo: Image of the crucifixion, Daniela Sachsenheimer  / Shutterstock.com
*An earlier version of this piece had a slight misquote from the prayer book. The correct version reads "not only with our lips but in our lives."