March 25, 2016
Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25, or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9, John 18:1-19:42
As I said on Sunday we are long accustomed to seeing crosses as works of art and as personal ornamentation. There is no shame or sorrow or surprise associated with them. As Americans, this suits us because we are both blessed and blinded by a naive optimism that assumes we can conquer anything on our own through the secular trinity of a can-do attitude, consumer capitalism, and military power. We love bunnies, flowers, and good music, but an execution, not so much.
Out of the blue yesterday I received a call from a guy I haven’t seen since I graduated from college. We had both been involved at the Episcopal Center on campus but hadn’t been close friends. Yet he called to tell me about his journey into a form of Christianity in which the Biblical God was not real, Jesus was just a man and only a man, and therefore our job as human beings was to live out Jesus’ moral teachings like he gave in the Sermon on the Mount.
Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr captured this view perfectly years ago when he wrote: that the gospel many Americans love proclaims, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Ibid 65
I suppose if Jesus had been executed in the electric chair, we would be wearing tiny golden electric chairs around our necks and bowing before giant electric chairs in our churches.
Or how about a noose, or the guillotine?
Humankind has devised so many ways to execute its enemies that the list of devices is almost endless. But the cross, as opposed to the hangman’s noose or the guillotine, takes a long time to do its work—or rather, its work is not just to kill, but to utterly shame and torture a person over the course of many hours. The Bible is right to say that anyone who is crucified is cursed.
There is nothing religious about crucifixion—it was a technology perfected by the Roman Empire that was reserved for slaves and rebels who were not Roman citizens.
Yet, here we are today celebrating Jesus’ crucifixion and as Fleming Rutledge says, in this worship we are making “the absurdly irreligious claim that a degrading, state-sponsored execution had secured the salvation of the entire cosmos.” Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, page 69
The church throughout history has always resisted giving a definitive, one size fits all, answer as to how this could be so: some focus on the idea that Jesus is taking the death sin demands we deserve for our rebellion against God and neighbor, and giving us his covenant faithfulness which we haven’t earned and can never earn.
Others focus on the moral example of this good man who shows us how to live in service to God and humanity in peace and non-violence.
Others, still, focus on the cosmic battle between God and the Powers of this Present Darkness who thought if they could kill Jesus they could continue to enslave the world, but who were defeated by Christ on the cross.
In addition to these pictures of salvation what we don’t want to miss is what is the most obvious: Jesus is betrayed into the hand of sinners who will mock, scourge, spit on him, and finally crucify him. Jesus dies at the hands of ruthless sinners who are representatives of both religion and empire, so that he can enter into the place of utter darkness where there is no hope.
We see on our TVs today terrorists living out of that very place of utter darkness and despair.
As Baxter Krueger puts it: “Jesus establishes his relationship with us in the darkest pit of our sorrow—and he brought His Father, and the Holy Spirit with him.” Good Friday email 2016
Jesus enters the depths of our lostness in order to adopt us into God’s family.
In our liturgy today we are not trying to explain how an instrument of shameful death becomes the salvation of the world, but to thank God that it is so!
In a few minutes we will pray: “We adore you O Christ and we bless you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
Today we pay attention to the cross and the young Jew hanging on it and we notice his last words are “It is finished!”
Jesus’ last words are: It is finished!
He has embraced us in our deepest and darkest unloveliness and made us children of God. Now free to be in Christ: To say as Paul does: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me and the life I live in the body I live through the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20
When people would come to Martin Luther to confess that they were sometimes overcome in the middle of the night with a great weight of shame and guilt about their lives, he would tell them to bring to mind the cross of Christ and know that they, now and forever, belonged to God, Father , Son, and Holy Spirit.
Trust that he would say and then go back to sleep and in the morning live in the confidence of Christ Crucified and Risen—for you.