A Sermon for Good Friday
By the Rev. Joye Cantrell
Posted April 2, 2013
Crosses, crosses, crosses.
Crosses are everywhere.
Here on the altar, high above us. On the steeple. Around people’s necks, pinned on lapels, tattooed on arms. The list is endless. Crosses are everywhere.
Now if we could time travel back to Palestine in around 30 AD. We would not see crosses used as decorations.
They were a symbol all right, a symbol of the power of Rome.
Make no mistake. Don’t let the fact that you have seen crucifixes all your life numb you to what a crucifixion was and what it meant.
The Romans used many forms of capital punishment. They stoned people, they beheaded people, and they let lions and tigers tear people apart. But they reserved crucifixion for those that took on the power of Rome. Crucifixion was the worst death. Not only was the pain excruciating, but sometimes it took days to die. The Romans wanted everyone to see the crosses, to see the suffering and agony. It was a warning. Take on Rome and this will happen to you. You will be stripped of all dignity; you will be put naked on a cross, on the busiest road possible so that you will die in the worst possible way.
Around 73 BC there was a rebellion led by Spartacus against Rome. When Rome prevailed, which of course they did, they crucified 6,000 men, stringing the crosses along the Via Appia for 120 miles from Rome to Caps. When Jerusalem fell in 70 AD they crucified so many people that they literally ran out of wood to use for crosses.
On this day, we remember one crucifixion. The crucifixion, the one that made the cross not a symbol of death but a symbol of life. The one that was the dividing line of history.
We know from our New Testament writing, from the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus that sometime during the Feast of Passover, in Jerusalem under the authority of Pontius Pilate, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. There is no doubt that it happened.
The question is: why did Jesus get crucified? What were the forces that brought it about? Why was his incarnation not enough for the world?
First, there was Rome. The Romans wanted to have peace and to collect their taxes. If you were seen to be a problem to the state there was only so much that they would allow. Jerusalem at Passover time went from being a city of 35,000 to 10 or 12 times that many people. It was always an occasion that made the Romans nervous. Pilate much preferred to be at his palace that he had designed and built at Caesarea, 75 miles northwest of Jerusalem. But he knew the possibility of problems during Passover so he came to Jerusalem. During the rest of the year, Jerusalem was ruled by Caiaphas whom Pilate had appointed as high priest of the Jewish Temple.
So it was Passover, and Pilate came, bringing a few thousand Roman soldiers from Syria along with him. It was better to be prepared for trouble, because after all, the festival of Passover commemorated freedom from Pharaoh and some might see that commemoration as an occasion to try to get freedom from Caesar.
Do not let the gospel accounts lead you to believe that Pilate was a soft hearted man who really didn’t want to crucify Jesus. He was a cruel, vicious and determined to keep the peace. One more Jewish death was of absolutely no concern to Pilate. He was just hedging his bets; this Jesus had followers who had greeted him with hosannas just a few days ago. So Pilate played a game with the crowd. The gospel of Mark tells us that he did not want to incite Jesus’s followers to riot. In the end Pilate put the sign “king of the Jews” above Jesus. It stated the reason that he was being crucified but it also was a way that Pilate mocked Jesus, the Jewish people and their aspirations to have a kingdom of their own.
If Rome wanted this rabble rousing Jesus gone, what did his own people want?
Remember that the city of Jerusalem had swollen with the thousand who came for Passover. Clearly there were a group that greeted him as the messiah on Palm Sunday and we know that as he walked to his death a great number of people followed him and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him (according to the Gospel of Luke.) There were many in Jerusalem that had no desire for this Jesus to die but the leaders of the temple had their own interests to protect.
Jesus had taken those authorities on at every turn. Just days before his arrest he had overturned the tables at the temple and had halted the very business of the temple. Remember that Judaism was a temple-centered religion and to suggest that the leadership and the system were wrong was a capital offense.
If we want to be generous we could say that they were protecting what they considered to be God’s way of life for them.
So we have Rome and the Temple authorities in agreement about this Jesus but what about Jesus himself. Was he a victim? No. He was prepared to die. Yes, he was. He fully expected to be tortured and killed. Hear the words from Mark 8. ‘Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” On numerous occasions Jesus predicted his death in Jerusalem. Neither Rome nor Caiaphas would have been able to crucify Jesus except for the fact that he chose to die. In the gospel of John, Jesus says: “for this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my father.”
Jesus saw his death as obedience to his father. He also saw himself as having come to earth to serve not to be served. To give his life as a ransom for many. He saw himself as a ransom for the sins of a nation. The suffering servant in the book of Isaiah pictures God’s servant in the following way:
He was despised and rejected by others
A Man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
And as one from whom others hide their faces
He was despised, and we held him of no account
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases……..he has poured out himself to death and yet he bore the sin of many.
Jesus chose to suffer and die for our sake that we might be made whole. This servant of God came to bear our sins. And by bearing our sins he brought forth the coming of God’s kingdom.
Jesus was part of the long strand of Jewish history and tradition. As Messiah and Son of Man he would bring about the kingdom and make whole that which had been broken by sin in the garden of Eden.
Jesus understood the purpose of his death. At that table when he took the bread and took the cup he was saying to us that before—before this night the Passover had been about God’s salvation of Israel but that very salvation was embodied in him.
Even as God once saved his people from slavery in Egypt, so God was then saving his people from the slavery of sin through his death.
From Jesus’s perspective he was no victim of Rome or of the Temple authorizes he was choosing to lay down his life for his sheep. He chose the cross of his own accord.
So when you look on a cross. Think of the agony, think of the choice and lastly think of the love, A love so great that Jesus would choose to die that each of us might be reconciled to God. Sin which had separated us from God has been borne by Jesus.
Paul says it best. “Since we were in fact sinners, and as sinners estranged from God….the fact that Christ died for us became a stunning demonstration of God’s gracious love.”
That is why we can call this day: Good Friday.