Tuesday, February 19, 2013

People Of The Passion: At The Cross

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 23: 26, 32-34, 39-56:

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, the time of the year in which we called into forty days of repentance as we make our way first to the story of the passion, of the cross and the darkness of the tomb, and then completed on Easter morning when we celebrate that the women found the tomb empty.  Now if you do a count of the days, you will notice that there are actually 46 days in Lent, so why do we talk about only 40 days? Well it’s because the Sundays of Lent are not technically a part of Lenten because every Sunday is a little Easter and so aren’t included as part of Lenten practices.  Now normally when people find this out, especially those who have given something up for Lent, they are quick to ask, “Does that mean that I can have chocolate on those Sunday’s without breaking my observance?”  Technically it does, but as some of you have heard me say, it is questions like this that make me dislike most of the practices that take place during Lent, and just to show you how convoluted Lenten practices have become, this week we found that the Pope is going to give up being Pope for Lent.
Part of my problem with Lent is its emphasis on sort of the darkness of the passion story, and acting in many ways like it is the cross and the suffering that is most important for our faith, as if Easter is sort of secondary to that, as if it’s an epilogue to the story of the passion.  Of course the other side of the coin is those who want to downplay the repentance aspects of lent, or of Christianity all together, who sort of want to ignore the cross and the suffering and focus solely on the Easter story.  But somehow we have to combine these two things and hold them in tension with each other.  I don’t believe that the cross makes any sense, in fact serves no purpose, without Easter, but similarly we cannot have Easter without the cross.  In order to celebrate, to truly celebrate Easter and its meaning for us, to understand that we are an Easter people, we have to spend time at the cross, but in order to spend time at the cross we also have to remember what comes after the cross.  And so for the Sunday’s of Lent, we are going to look at the people of the passion, learning something about who they were, what they were doing there, and then trying to see what we can learn from what they did that we can apply to our own faith lives.  This week we are starting with the people at the cross, next week at those of the trial, then we will look separately at Peter and then Judas, and then those who participated in the preparation for the week.  Although our scripture readings for this series will come from Luke’s gospel, I will make reference to differences or other information given in other gospels when necessary.  And with that, away we go.

As Jesus is being led to the site of the execution, which in Greek is called Golgotha, an Aramaic word meaning place of the skull, which when translated into Latin became Calvary, after the beating he has received, which would not have been unusual, he is unable to carry the cross, and so the Roman soldiers grab a bystander to carry it for him.  We are told that his name is Simon and he is from Cyrene.  Cyrene is located in northern Africa, in modern day Libya.  Cyrene did have a large Jewish population, and so it is entirely possible that Simon was Jewish and that he was there, just like Jesus, for the Passover, but that is really just speculation.  In his gospel, Mark gives us a little more information in that he says that Simon is the father of Rufus and Alexander.  It has been widely speculated, and probably correctly, that Mark would not have included this particular piece of information unless the community that Mark was writing to already knew who Rufus and Alexander were.  And since some believe that Mark was written in Rome, or at least to Rome, and if that is true then Paul’s remark in his letter to the Romans in which he says “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and greet his mother – a mother to me also,” (Rom. 16:13) may refer to the son and wife of this Simon.  Some also speculate that when Luke writes in Acts of some from men from Cyrene who have gone to Antioch to proclaim the gospel message, that this includes Simon.  But while this is all speculation, I strongly suspect that the reason why Simon’s name is recorded is because he was not unmoved by this experience and became a disciple of Christ.

But this is probably a good time as well to talk about crucifixion, because even though popular imagery has Jesus carrying the entire cross, the greater likelihood is that he was only carrying the cross beam, or the horizontal piece, which could still way upwards of 1000 pounds, and that the vertical piece would be permanently attached into the ground so that they weren’t having to recreate the crosses for ever crucifixion, and there would have been many of them because this was one of the Roman’s particularly favorite forms of execution.  Victims would have their hands either tied to the cross bar, or nailed in, or sometimes both.  Traditionally Christian imagery has shown their feet being nailed one on top of the other, but recent archeological discoveries have changed that imagery, and we now believe that their feet where either turned sideways, with the nails driven through the ankles, or that their feet were nailed on either side of the vertical bar.  But regardless of how they were attached, crucifixion was normally a long and painful process, and as the victims became more and more physically exhausted, they would no longer be able to lift their body up to breath and they would die of asphyxiation.  The Roman writer Seneca said it would be better to commit suicide then be crucified, and Cicero called it the “cruelest and most disgusting penalty.”  What we also have to understand, and something which totally changed my perspective of the crucifixion, as that we normally imagine Jesus being on the cross way up in the air, but that’s not how it would have been done.  At most his feet would have only been three or four feet off of the ground.  Jesus probably would have been like this, and so this is what we need to see when he is interacting with people, there is an immediacy and intimacy not normally imagined when we picture Jesus nine or ten feet in the air, especially when we think of his last words or his words today in which he grants his executioners forgiveness.

We are told that Jesus is crucified along with two others, usually translated as criminals or sometimes thieves, and Luke tells us that after being ridiculed, challenged and mocked by one of the criminals, that he is defended by the other.  Normally called the repentant and unrepentant thief.  In a document written at the earliest in the 4th century, they are named Dismas and Gestas.  Something I learned in research for this series was how many of these characters were given names in later documents, and the likelihood that these were their actual names is slim to none.  But for the sake of tradition I will refer to them by these names, and at the least you will have some good trivia answers come Easter.  Gestas is the criminal who mocks Jesus.  Which makes you wonder, what type of person would mock someone else who is going through exactly the same thing he is doing?  Dismas, on the other hand, tells him to be quiet, and then says that while he and Gestas are guilty of whatever they are changed with and are being rightly punished, that Jesus is innocent of his crimes.  Then Dismas asks Jesus to remember him.

Dismas is referred to as the penitent or repentant thief, but there is actually nothing to justify that.  While he does say he is guilty of his crimes, he does not ask Jesus for forgiveness, nor does Jesus really offer him forgiveness.  But instead I think we should see that even on the cross Jesus is still seeking to save people.  I come to save not the righteous, but sinners Jesus says, to save the lost and forsaken, and so it is even on the cross.

Standing at the foot of the cross are Roman soldiers, some of whom we are told cast lots for his clothing, and they are probably the same ones who participated in flogging Jesus and mocking him, although again that is speculation.  Crucifixions were routine, so they would have been just another day at the office for most of these soldiers, but there is one who is affected by what he sees.  Again sometime around the 4th century at the earliest this centurion was given the name Longinus.  In the tradition he is the one who pierces Jesus in the side with a lance as recorded in John, as well as the centurion who, standing at the foot of the cross, either says “surely this man was God’s son,” as recorded in Matthew and Mark, or his proclamation of innocence in Luke’s gospel.  For any Roman, let alone a Roman soldier to make any of these proclamations would have been extraordinary, after all it is the Romans who have just executed Jesus.  But this is a special act of witness, and something that can teach us a lesson about the proclamation, because what Longinus has just done is to commit insubordination in claiming that the Romans, or anyone else who ordered the execution, were wrong for doing so.

Also standing at the foot of the cross, or nearby, is a group of women, sometimes named, and sometimes not, but when they are named there is Mary, and Mary, and Mary, and Mary, and one of those Marys is the mother of Jesus.  As we discussed during Advent, when Mary is told that she is to bear Jesus, she is told by the angel she is blessed among women, and yet this blessing could also be seen as a curse.  A young girl who gets pregnant outside of marriage was subject to being stoned to death, but this is Mary’s blessing.  Then she must suffer with Jesus throughout his ministry, including once being denied by him, and then she is there at the foot of the cross, I would think wondering where the blessing truly is.  And yet we still have her song, known as the magnificat floating through her life.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”  (Lk 1:46-48)  We may call her blessed, but I still wonder how we might feel if we received this type of blessing?

Finally, there is Joseph of Arimathea, for whom there is a lot of speculation, and a lot of tradition, but of whom little is actually known.  This includes the town of Arimathea where he is reportedly from.  Luke says it is a town in Judea, but outside of the Bible, there are no references to its location, so it’s not known where this was.  According to some accounts, Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish council who were responsible for sending Jesus to Pilate and Herod for execution; others simply say that he was a disciple, maybe secretly according to John, and that he offered up his tomb for Jesus to be laid in.  But in order to do that, Joseph has to go to Pilate and request the body.  Now it was normal practice for the Romans to leave those who had been crucified on the cross, but by Jewish law the dead had to be buried before sunset on the day they died, and so there is speculation that the Romans allowed Jews to follow this practice, and Pilate consents, again against Roman practice, for Jesus to be removed for burial, which happens before the Sabbath began at sunset, and the woman saw where the tomb was and prepared spices and ointments to take to the body on the day after the Sabbath, but when they got there to perform that rite the body was gone.

What strikes me in looking at those at the cross is that most of them probably had not come into contact with Jesus before the crucifixion and yet how their lives were changed by this event.  There are possibly two exceptions to this.  The first is Mary who remains faithful to God throughout Jesus’ life.  As one commentator said, it might be said that Mary’s song of thanksgiving was really a statement that said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and that that witness was then completed when Jesus said exactly the same thing.  She is one of those people I talked about last week when I said that scripture is full of the witness of people who in the midst of suffering don’t turn from their faith, but instead hold on with white knuckles, and I think that is the witness of Mary in this.  I don’t think she understood what was going on, but she remained faithful, she trusted God that no matter what happened God would be with her, and she commended her spirit into God hands.

The second is Joseph, who whether he had ever met Jesus before or not, clearly knew of him and respected him enough to give over his own burial tomb to him.  This is a man described in Matthew as being wealthy, and of course Jesus has a lot to say about money, but while he doesn’t ever say that money is evil, he does say it can be a problem because it can distract us and distance us from God if we put our emphasis and reliance in it, rather than on God.  We will discuss Joseph a little more next week when we talk about the trial, but Joseph was willing to use his money, his possessions to help someone who was less fortunate, and by doing so he was also willing to make a public proclamation of being a disciple of Christ, a position which may have gotten him in trouble.

And then there are those who seem to have come into contact with Jesus just on the day of his execution, Simon of Cyrene, Dismas the criminal and Longinus the Roman centurion.  Although there are traditions that all of them are, or become followers of Christ, the one we have the most information for that possibility of Simon of Cyrene, who apparently became a follower of Christ through the effort of carrying the cross.  Did he know Jesus before this?  The likelihood is not, did they have a conversation or share some other moment during the time it took Simon the time to carry the crossbeam to the site of Jesus’ execution?  Although we have no information, I can’t imagine that this wasn’t the case.  But regardless of what happened, this brief interaction was enough to make not only Simon a disciple of Christ, but to pass the faith on to his sons, who become leaders in the church, and to his wife who becomes even like a mother to Paul himself.

Then there is Dismas and Longinus.  Dismas does not ask for forgiveness, but he is forgiven and we are told will join Jesus in the kingdom that very day, because he is willing to recognize Jesus for who he is, and he also recognizes himself for who and what he is, as someone who has fallen short of the glory of God, and simply asks Jesus to remember him, and be doing so he is saved.  We might compare that to Gestas, the other criminal, and Paul’s words from Romans that we heard this morning.  Gestas calls for Jesus to save him, although his call is really a mocking of Jesus rather than a cry of faith.  Paul says “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” by Gestas is not calling on the Lord, whereas Dismas does.  And Jesus takes the time to save one more person even while he is on the cross.  In some gospel accounts, Longinus is the first person to make a claim of divinity about Jesus in claiming that he is the son of God, although in today’s reading it is to proclaim his innocence, and thus is also a claim about Jesus paying a penalty he did not incur, which is what Dismas is saying to us as well.

When we gather at the foot of the cross we encounter not just Jesus, but the people at the cross.  People who are willing to make amazing statements of their faith, and who are changed by Jesus just through simply meeting him once, and who go out proclaiming the gospel message for generations to come.  And then there are those who meet him who have heard of him, but who do not truly know him, and never come to know him.  We have a choice, we can be like Gestas or we can be like Dismas.  We can be like Longinus and proclaim Jesus as Lord, or we can be like the other Roman soldiers who met Jesus but went on as if they never did.  We can be like Simon of Cyrene or Joseph of Arimethea and in meeting Jesus give up everything to follow him and proclaim him to all we meet.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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