March 30, 2018
We have come to the middle of our three day observance of the cross and resurrection. Last night we heard the story of the Last Supper when Jesus stripped himself of his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, and bent to wash the feet of his followers.
They were gathered at Passover, when Israel remembers how God saved them in the night that death swept through Egypt and touched every home. The royal throne in Egypt had not only oppressed the people of Israel who had come to their land as refugees, but grew fearful of them and commanded the death of Israel’s male children. The midwives refused the order to kill the infants at birth, reporting that the Israelite women were like animals and gave birth before they could arrive. So the command was given that all male infants be thrown into the Nile – food for the crocodiles.
It was Egypt’s war against the children of Israel – a people that God called “my son” – and their refusal to let them go, that led ultimately to the death of their own sons. There is a price to pay for hardness of heart. But by the blood of a lamb, God protected the Israelites. And in that night of Egypt’s sorrow, they were able to flee.
The week-long festival of Passover celebrates that moment when imperial power was overthrown and God’s people gained their freedom. It is why the Roman imperial forces were so nervous during the celebration of Passover in Jerusalem. Vast crowds came to the city to celebrate this moment of national liberation and Rome feared the spark of rebellion.
When Jesus arrives in the city, and people are crying out “hosanna” as if he were a king, the powers that be sent a mob to grab him in the night and hand him over to the authorities as a rebel threat to the leadership of the nation and the might of Rome.
The punishment for rebels was crucifixion. It was a terrible way to die, but a thoroughly effective way to quash any challenge to the ruling powers. The victim was stripped not only of his clothes but any shred of dignity. It is why we end the service last night with the stripping of the altar.
Jesus is abused, tortured, mocked, scourged with a whip that has sharp bits of metal inserted into the ends of the thongs. He is driven through the streets for people to look on with horror or abuse, and impaled along the public roadway so that all can see the consequences of resisting those in power.
It is compelling to ponder how this Galilean healer and teacher should so incite the fear and hostility of Judah’s leaders that they would hand him over to the Roman authorities to be crucified. Why is Jesus such a threat to the way of the world? And why do we not see him as a threat in our time?
It is interesting to consider that, in his time, Martin Luther King, Jr. was regarded as such a dangerous man, and so widely disliked and hated. But now he is a safe and tame national hero.
We have done something of the same thing to Jesus. We have made him safe and tame. Jesus has become the defender of polite society rather than a challenge to it. What he said about the care of the poor and vulnerable, what he said about those outcasts on the margins of society, what he said about the treatment of those society sees as “sinners”, what he said about the dangers of wealth and greed, what he said about our concern for honor from society rather than honor from God – all that seems safely packaged up and stored on the shelf. But Good Friday reminds us that Jesus was not so safe and domesticated. He wasn’t interested in us being religious; he called for us to do justice and mercy. And it got him killed.
Think how easily protesters of injustice are attacked as troublemakers, whether it’s the Black Lives Matter movement or high school kids protesting the proliferation of military weapons in civil society. The police beat the protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as brutally as they beat the striking coal miners in West Virginia in another era. The powerful family of Caiaphas wasn’t going to hold back against a Galilean peasant who said that debts needed to be forgiven.
The church has helped to domesticate Jesus by making the story of Good Friday a story of personal sin and redemption. We have taken this complicated and powerful story and turned it into a rather simple religious formula: we are sinners, God is righteous, God’s righteousness demands that we be punished, Jesus takes the punishment that we deserve, if we accept his forgiveness we get to go to heaven.
I understand this idea. I understand the truth of it. There is, indeed, truth here. Jesus does take upon himself the judgment that belongs on us. There is redemption and forgiveness in these outstretched arms. But it is much more complicated than such a simple formula.
There is a profound difference between thinking about the suffering of Jesus as part of an abstract equation, and truly seeing the horror of what was done to him. And it doesn’t matter that Jesus was innocent. It’s not like it was a shame about Jesus but those other two guys deserved what they got. No one should be crucified. Something has gone deeply wrong in the human heart that we are capable of such cruelty.
Something has gone deeply wrong in the human heart that we can fail to see the humanity of others. Something has gone deeply wrong when we can write off people in categories like immigrants, criminals, Nazis or Jews. Something is deeply wrong when American citizens get rounded up and put in interment camps because they are of Japanese descent. Something is deeply wrong in the human heart when “homosexuals” and “communists” and “Jews” are rounded up for the gas chamber. Something is deeply wrong when people are classified as “enemies” and “terrorists” allowing them to be tortured or bombed. The crucifixion of Jesus is a mirror of the human heart. And what we see there should make us ashamed.
This is where we can talk about redemption. It’s not that there are some black marks in my record I need Jesus to erase; there is something broken in me. And it is in that moment when I see that something is broken in me – then I am ready to truly hear Jesus say “Father, forgive them.” Then I can understand what redemption truly means.
God has seen the worst face of humanity, and still shows love to us. He has suffered our shame. He has carried our burden. Christ on the cross has shown us the dark secrets of the human heart and the bright love of God.
Jesus has offered us his Spirit. He has given us his word. He has shown us the path. He has promised to take us on this journey of being born anew, born from above, born of the Spirit.
He has promised us life and salvation – that is to say, he has promised us healing and wholeness. He has promised to come and reign in our hearts and in our world – and he is offering to come and reign in us now.
The cross is shame, but glory. It is a terrible reflection of the human soul, but a wondrous reflection of God’s love. It is our new beginning. It is new beginning for the world.
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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooklyn_Museum_-_The_First_Nail_(Le_premier_clou)_-_James_Tissot.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons