by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Revisiting Jesus’ death is different from visits we make to a cemetery bringing flowers, keeping the memory of our beloved dead in focus. We are not at the cross to remember or do homage. We are here to probe the meaning of our daily dying in the company of Jesus’ dying for us.
Eugene Peterson, Tell It Slant, 241
Theologically, Easter is the most important event in the life of the church. Without the resurrection there would not be a church. We certainly wouldn’t celebrate Christmas. The cross is the second most important event in the life of the church. Maybe it’s even as important as Easter. In other words, we don’t necessarily deny that the crucifixion happened. We simply ignore it. Because we tend to skip over the cross during Holy Week, I decided that I want to take at least one Sunday during the year to focus on the cross.
Standing here in the pulpit I can’t really see the screens and when I’m preaching I don’t usually pay attention to them. Kathy Hamsher, who puts the screens together, told me that during the sermon she normally puts up a picture of the cross with the sermon title imposed over it. I asked her to put up a different picture today. This is a picture of the crucifixion. It is a painting by Matthias Grunewald. It was Karl Barth’s favorite picture and hung above his desk. The empty cross is more of an Easter symbol, remembering the resurrection. The crucifix, with the body of Christ on it, focuses more on the actual event of Jesus’ death.
I didn’t read the whole story of the crucifixion from Luke’s gospel. Let me remind you what happened. On Thursday evening Jesus and his disciples gathered in the Upper Room. Jesus washed their feet. He prophesied about Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. They celebrated the Passover and Jesus turned it into the Lord’s Supper.
After that they went out to the Mount of Olives and into the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prayed and then was arrested. First he was put on trial before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin. Then he was taken before Pilate and Herod. Pilate had him whipped thirty nine times, which was considered to be one short of what would kill you. I won’t go into any details describing what it meant to be whipped. Trust me when I tell you that when the guards were finished whipping him, Jesus’ body would have been a mess.
After the trial and the whipping they took Jesus to the place of The Skull and crucified him between two criminals. Again, I won’t give you any gory details. Just know that the Romans knew the best way to inflict the most pain. The cross was an excruciating death. While Jesus was on the cross he spoke seven times. These sayings are usually called “The Seven Last Words of Christ.” Luke records three of them: “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they are doing” (v34). Then, to one of the men being crucified with him he said “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (v43). Finally, right before he died, he cried out “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (v46).
When a person is being crucified and their arms are out it is very hard to breathe. To get a breath they have to push up with their legs or pull up with their arms, with the spikes through them. After a while they don’t have the strength to push or pull up, and they suffocate. As Luke says, “he breathed his last” (v46).
At that point Jesus was dead. His heart stopped beating. He stopped breathing. There was no brain activity. His life was over. He was dead. Joseph of Arimathea took his body down off the cross, wrapped it in linen and laid it in a tomb.
It happened before I got to Beulah, so I don’t know the details or how much is true and how much is exaggeration. The story I heard was that the pastor there preached a sermon about the cross and described the event, including many of the gory details. Supposedly several people walked out and at least one person got sick to his stomach. It is a disturbing story. I hope you are uncomfortable right now hearing what happened, even though I didn’t go into the gory details.
The reason I want you to be uncomfortable is that we need to know what an incredible sacrifice Jesus made to demonstrate how much God loves us. The cross, with all its agony, shows us that God was willing to do anything and everything that needed to be done, to be in a relationship with us. We need to remember the cross so that we remember what God was willing to do for our salvation.
In 1984 there was a fad that hit our country. It was called Trivial Pursuit. How many of you have played it? It is a fun game. It was created by a group of friends who got together to play Scrabble, but couldn’t find the Scrabble board, so they decided to create their own game. They spent about forty-five minutes and planned the basic idea of the game.
It became a cultural phenomenon. In 1984 more than 20 million games were sold. One of the inventors of the game was interviewed on TV. The reporter asked him, “How do you explain the overwhelming response to your game? Why are people buying it?” The answer was profound. “Oh, they are just buying memories. That’s all you can buy with your money – memories.”
Memory is a powerful thing. We remember events in our lives because they give us our identity. What we remember transforms us. Memories help us think about good times from the past and give us the hope that we may experience something like it again in the future. On top of all of that, in the Bible memory is used to make past events contemporary. We remember what happened in the past as if it were happening today. We remember the cross not only to be reminded that Jesus died for the sins of the world. We remember so that you know Jesus died for you. God was willing to let his Son die because he wanted a relationship with you.
There is another message I’d like to share with you about the cross. There was an article in last Tuesday’s newspaper that caught my attention. It started like this: “Orlando. Istanbul. Dallas. Nice. And now, again, Baton Rouge.” It should have also included Minnesota and South Carolina. All of those violent incidents happened in the last six weeks. It seems like the shootings at the Orlando nightclub and the South Carolina church were a long time ago, but it has only been six weeks. On top of that is all the violence in the rest of the world – the attempted coup in Turkey, the civil war in South Sudan, the continued fighting in the Middle East, and all the other wars and tragedies of our world.
Politicians and the media spend a lot of time arguing about whether to call these incidents terrorism or racism. It seems to me we could lump them all under one simple word – evil. It doesn’t matter whether you call it terrorism or racism or any other ism, it’s wrong. It’s sin. It is evil.
In his book, “Wishful Thinking” Frederick Buechner has an article about Evil. He starts with three statements: “God is all-powerful. God is all-good. Terrible things happen.” Then he says “You can reconcile any two of these propositions with each other, but you can’t reconcile all three. The problem of evil is perhaps the greatest single problem for religious faith.” Buechner goes on to talk about how different religions and philosophies try to make sense of evil in our world. Some people deny that God is all-powerful. Some deny that God is all-good. Some deny that God exists. Some religions even deny that evil exists.
Then Buechner makes this incredible statement:
Christianity, on the other hand, ultimately offers no theoretical solution at all. It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene – not even this – but that God can turn it to good. (p24)
Look at our world. Evil is very real. You can’t deny that terrible things happen. The cross is one of the best examples of evil – an innocent man suffered and died for sins that he did not commit. The reality is that as long as this world continues, evil will continue to exist.
However, the message of the cross is that God can take the evil of our world and use it for something good. God transforms the evil into good. God uses the cross to bring us salvation. Through the cross we are forgiven. Through the cross we are reconciled to God. And as Christians we know that Good Friday leads Easter Sunday. The cross of Christ leads to the resurrection and eternal life.
African-American spirituals are powerful songs. They usually have simple tunes that are easy to sing. They were often sung without any accompaniment, which we are going to do on the last verse of our next hymn. The spirituals were used by the slaves to encourage them through difficult times. They were used as a way to teach and remember the Biblical story that gave them hope. Just like the concept of memory in the Bible, the spirituals were intended to make the Biblical stories a present reality.
“Were you there when they crucified my lord?” Yes, you are there. I invite you, as much as you are able, to sing this song with your eyes closed, imagining yourself at the cross. “Were you there when they crucified my lord?”