God's Transitive Grace

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Christ has come to make every last aspect of your life the object of his eternal, never-ending, always transitive grace.

When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. (John 19:13-15)

There is a paragraph in the Passion where the denouement all of Scripture has been building to inextricably lurches to the cross. The paragraph we have in mind ends with these ominous words: “Then he (Pilate) handed him (Jesus) over to them to be crucified.” With those words, we are at the very precipice of Christ’s tragedy. And, ultimate triumph, too.

However, it is the first sentence in that paragraph that holds the key to everything that is about to unfold! And, like all good insinuations, it is subtle. It is a simple matter of what kind of a verb is the third one in that paragraph.

The verb in question is “sat.” “When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench…” The issue is whether the verb “sat” is transitive or intransitive.

A simple way to distinguish between transitive and intransitive verbs is that transitive verbs transfer their action. Get it? Trans-itive and trans-fer. Transitive verbs need an object to transfer their action onto to be complete. “Bring,” for instance, is a transitive verb. Bring will never be right without an object.

“Would you please bring?”

You hear that? It sounds all wrong, doesn’t it? “Bring” needs an object to transfer its action to. Like this: “Would you please bring me a pillow. Some yahoo is trying to argue the minutia of grammar has something to say about the cross.”

Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, are the exact opposite. They do not need a who or what to act upon. In fact, some intransitive verbs can even be a complete sentence all by themselves! We have two sentences to demonstrate this, and the second sentence will be composed solely of one intransitive verb. “Some yahoo is trying to argue the minutia of grammar has something to say about the cross. Run!”

Grammatically, the issue of transitive and intransitive verbs is a matter of quality, or how the verb is working. For our purposes, though, the matter is of even greater significance. It is a question of who sat on that judge’s bench.

Is the verb transitive? Is sat transferring the action of sitting onto Pilate? Was it Pilate who sat on the judge’s bench? Or is the verb intransitive? Is sitting what was done? Did Pilate sit Jesus on the judge’s bench? Was Jesus brought outside and sat on the judge’s bench?

Catch the distinction?!? It is the same word! But the way the verb works changes who sat on the judge’s bench entirely. Either Pilate himself sat on the bench. Or, Jesus was sat on the bench.

What do you think? Before you answer, let me give you some dynamics. That way, you do not have to answer on grammar alone.

First of all, Pilate sitting on the judge’s bench makes perfect sense. He is giving his ruling on Jesus’ sentencing. In this situation, sitting on the judge’s bench is exactly what you would expect Pilate to do.

However, throughout this Holy Friday Scripture, Pilate will antagonize the crowd by rubbing their nose in the fact that he is the who is one in control. For instance, when he parades Jesus before the crowd as a mock king. He does that to remind everyone that he represents the real king, the emperor. Could Pilate be doing the same thing by sitting Jesus on the judge’s bench? Is he reminding everyone he has the power of jurisdiction?

So then, is the verb transitive? Was Pilate the one who sat on the judge’s bench? Or is the verb intransitive? Was Jesus the one who was sat on the judge’s bench?

Well, the folks who study this sort of thing say it had to be Pilate. As much as Pilate was yanking the crowd around that day, there is no way he would have ever sat Jesus on the judge’s bench. Mockery or not.

But, like someone explaining love does not actually make you weak in the knees, the only response is to concede that while they may be technically correct, they are really all wrong. More than likely, our preacher, John the Evangelist, is aware of the ambiguity of this verb, and he is milking it for all its preaching potential. Yes, John is saying it may look like Pilate is sitting on the judge’s bench. But, as he goes to the cross, it is really Jesus who is doing the presiding.

Scholars call this “Johannine irony.” But normal humans just call this apparent contradiction a “paradox.” And Christians down through the ages have called it “a holy mystery.” Luther, though, preferred to call it “the theology of the cross.” And he said everything stands or falls on this.

Luther said that the discrepancy between the way things appear and what God promises to do is at the heart of all theology. Good and bad.

Luther said a theologian of the cross, like St. Paul, is determined to know nothing other than the cross. A theologian of glory, on the other hand, must have some evidence to go with their theological musings. A theologian of glory demands they see God’s work with their own two eyes.

However, the cross reveals that when it comes to the work of God, you can not trust your eyes. You have to put your eyes in your ears. You can not see God’s work in the cross. You can only hear what Jesus promises he is doing there and in other places like it.

Faith comes by what is heard, as St. Paul said. This is because it is through our ears, and our ears alone, that the Word of God lands, makes promises, and takes action, too. This is why, after the Gospel is announced, we say, “Praise to you, O Christ!” Not “Praise be the Holy Writ!” The promise is that when God’s Word gets spoken aloud where two or more are gathered in his name, Christ himself gets loose. He gets to work!

Only, it will not look that way. Not in the moment, anyway. It will look like nothing more than this. Sitting there, doing nothing. Your only chance at perceiving Christ’s work in your life is to close your eyes and open your ears! Or the ears of your heart, in this case.

John is preaching that, yes, it may look like that old bureaucratic tyrant, Pilate, is sitting on the bench. But in reality, it is really Christ who is presiding! And it is no different for you and the judge’s bench in your life, either!

There is no shortage of voices rendering their judgment on you and your life. Is there? And the truth is, we are often the very ones speaking these judgments against ourselves. But today, here and now, Christ takes the bench. And he does for you what he did for that woman who was caught red-handed. He demands all those other voices that accuse you to be silent. And then he fills that void with these words: “neither do I condemn you!”

On account of Christ, all your sins are forgiven! You are innocent! You are acquitted!

And that is not all! Because Jesus is not a judge like the ones we have. Jesus does not make you prove your innocence, and he will not let you live with the stigma of the trial. No, Christ is a judge who makes things happen. When Christ declares your innocence, everything changes. When Christ pronounces you innocent, he gives you all the privileges, benefits, and zero of the responsibilities that come with being a free and innocent citizen of his kingdom, right there on the spot.

And this, too, is happening right now. Jesus has come to take the bench in your life; the honorable Jesus is now presiding!

Yes, for now, it does not look like it. All too often, it looks like chaos, happenstance, and even misfortune reign in our lives. But Christ, who comes to judge the living and dead, sees what we cannot! He sees what has been accomplished by his death! When Christ suffered all the dregs of life on this side of the grave, he brought them all under his jurisdiction.

Our tough breaks, our fragmented relationships, our fragmented society, our flagging health, our planet’s health, our broken families, our weary war-torn world, our justice deferred, and even our own very deaths have all been bent to Christ’s will. And he wills to ply his resurrection on every last one of these tragedies, and all the rest of them, too. Christ wills to bring each and every last aspect of your life under the triumph of his cross.

This is what St. Paul meant when he said we are being transformed from one degree of glory to another. In our tough breaks, our lives are being shaped into the shape of the cross. And although that is bitter in the moment, it will be sweet in the end. For it is right there, amid life’s rough edges, that the tender mercy of God takes root and gets to work.

Or, to say it another way, Christ has come to make every last aspect of your life the object of his eternal, never-ending, always transitive grace. Hear this loud and clear, God’s grace is a transitive verb, always! It imparts its action; it transfers it. And the object of all that glorious action is you and your life.

And that, dear reader, is why, although life will make a theologian out of you, grammar will instruct you in the high and holy art of it.