So much has happened in the few hours since we gathered here to sit with Jesus around a dinner table and to break bread and share wine. Did you pray with Jesus in the garden last night? Could you stay awake? Why do you think Judas came into that garden to betray Jesus to the Romans? Imagine using a kiss to turn in your best friend to the authorities! What a night it was too with Jesus in custody then early this morning he was taken to our religious leaders, then to Pilate, then to Herod, then back to Pilate. Now here he is…nailed to a cross along with two other criminals. His charge you ask? They were all political, trumped up but political: perverting our nation, forbidding payment of taxes to the emperor, and claiming to be a king. You know he didn’t say those things, right? Then Pilate, ever a clever politician, turned the final decision over to the people, just like this was a reality television show where we each get a vote, and everyone, everyone, voted to release Barabbas and oh my, that meant that we, we voted to crucify Jesus.
When they took him away to the place we call the Skull they crucified him. I did not expect that to happen so quickly. I thought maybe there would be an appeal of the decision, that someone, anyone might step in to say let’s just take another look at these charges. There was no one and there he is crucified along with two others charged with various acts of criminality. We all just stood there, unsure what to say, what to do, and uncertain if we should even be seen standing at the foot of the cross. Our leaders have more power than we do so they did not hesitate to make fun of him. Good point though–if he saved others let him save himself. Even the Romans could not resist turning his punishment into a mock coronation. Imagine, the Roman guards calling him King of the Jews! Even the two criminals crucified with him had something to say: one demanded that Jesus save him from execution while the other asked that Jesus might welcome him into Jesus kingdom, that Jesus might forgive him.
Those were Jesus words too, as plain as anything “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He was consistent right up until the end—he did not condemn any of us, he forgave us for all of the ways we knowingly and unknowingly break the bonds of friendship with this man, fail to follow his Way, and look for ways that we might be spared while neglecting the plight of others. This is not a good day. Yet that centurion seemed to be converted by the whole thing as he was led to praise God, praise God, and then say: “Certainly this man was innocent.”
Then, as he hung there on that cross, so close to death, he started to speak. You could have felt the shivers run up and down my backbone as he began to quote Scripture. He did not curse at those who betrayed them, or those who mocked him. He quoted from one of my favourite psalms, Psalm 31 where the words offer such deep assurance: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.
Having said this he breathed his last. Just like that, in the space of a few hours, Jesus had gone from dinner host to dead on a cross. Make no mistake about it, he was dead. Before this day was over a man named Joseph would wrap him in funeral clothes, just as another Joseph had helped Mary wrap him in swaddling clothes. Today though he was not laid in a manger but in a tomb, a tomb this Joseph had been saving for his own use. What a day! What a death!
Jesus was a great teacher. I loved his parables as they never gave easy answers. His last lesson then is “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Death is OK, it is part of life. In a poem Walter Brueggemann writes:
Death will be all right for us when it comes.
But dying is another matter—
Death will be a quick turn,
the winking of an eye
but dying turns and twists and waits and teases.
We have not died, but we know about dying:
We watch the inching pain of cancer,
the oozing ache of alienation,
the tears of stored up hurt.
It is not difficult for us to imagine all of the very human thoughts, feelings, despair and hope that Jesus faced while on that cross. We face them in our lives as well, sometimes every day. So Jesus death was just like ours however unlikely it is that we will face the cruelty, humiliation, and pain that he endured. Thank God his death came quickly albeit publically for all to see. Perhaps that was the point after all—that his death would be as public as his ministry had been public. That there could be no doubt in anyone’s mind that this man who had fed, healed, comforted and befriended so many was now truly dead. This was not a good day, at least not yet. As we say, in so many words, at every funeral:
We commend to almighty God our brother Jesus,
and we commit his body to its resting place:
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The Lord bless him and keep him.
The Lord’s face shine on him with grace and mercy.
The Lord look upon him with favor and give him peace.
Yet why do we have to attend the death and funeral of Jesus? What went so terribly wrong? Quite simply, those in power feared Jesus power. I am convinced Jesus power was not seen in the miracles He performed but in the lives He changed. Prof. Michal Beth Dinkler reminds us that: “The Roman prefect Pilate and the Jewish king Herod had declared Jesus innocent three times. Professions of Jesus’ innocence were also offered by a criminal crucified with Jesus who declared him undeserving of death, a Roman centurion declared him innocent (literally, “righteous,”), observers beat their breasts in remorse, and the Temple curtain is torn in two, a symbol of mourning (not, as some suggest, to indicate new access to God).
Despite recognizing that Jesus is innocent, Pilate nevertheless delivers the deadly verdict: this man is (one who will turn over the powerful and is one) whose power threatens Rome. The threat of rebellion must be extinguished.” Jesus ability to persuade, to comfort, to empathize with, and to restore to wholeness and life itself represents more power than any imperial army might call forward. Jesus power is with the people He meets and how He engages with those people in their lives. That is nothing short of a miracle and that is also the source of power that is not easily diminished. Only death itself will snuff out such a life. So Jesus must die, not to fulfill God’s purpose, but to prove that a servant ministry that sought out and was open to all God’s people, all of God’s people, was simply too much for the authorities to accept as it threatened their power which was founded on their ability to repress and beat down.
Dinkler also notes in writing of the Roman sense of justice: “This is not God’s definition of justice. God’s justice does not seek punishment or ensure “peace” through violence and abuse of power. This is the lesson of the crucifixion. The cross is the ultimate paradox: divine power displayed through weakness, justice achieved through an innocent victim’s willingness to suffer, so that through death, new life could illuminate a dark world.”
Dinkler adds: “The irony of the cross is that there is a quiet but much more profound power to be found in holding justice and mercy together. In his powerful little book, The Promise of Paradox, Parker Palmer writes:
“The cross says, ‘the pain stops here.’ The way of the cross is a way of absorbing pain, not passing it on, a way that transforms pain from destructive impulse into creative power. When Jesus accepted the cross, his death opened up the channel for the redeeming power of love.”
Because they feared His power they executed Jesus. Because they executed Jesus His power lasts forever. Amen.