Monday, February 15, 2016

At the Cross

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

Today we begin a new sermon series for the season of Lent, which is the 40 days, plus Sundays, that lead us to Easter, and we are going to be looking at the people we find in the passion story.  Rather than starting at the beginning and making our way to the cross, we are instead going to start today at the foot of the cross and make our way backwards next week to the trial, then to look separately at Peter and then Judas and conclude with the preparations for the last week of Jesus’ life. Then on Palm Sunday we reverse the story through Holy Week making our way again to the cross and then to the celebration of Easter.

There were many people who were there when Jesus was executed, some we know something about, some we know nothing about, some we can speculate about, and I think we can learn something from them, or at least I hope I do or this is a wasted time for us.  But I think it’s also important to pay attention to who is not there, and what we can learn from that as well.  Today’s passage begins after Jesus has been flogged and is being forced to carry the cross to the site of the execution, known in Greek as Golgotha, or the place of the skulls, but which when translates into Latin became Calvary. Even though popular imagery has Jesus carrying the entire cross, the likelihood here is that Jesus is not carrying the whole cross, but instead was only carrying the top cross bar, known as the patibulum.  Evidence indicates that the center poles, known as the simplex, were permanently in place just outside the city gates, especially in major cities like Jerusalem, and so the victim would carry the cross bar out which would then be placed on the center bar already there.

Now would probably be a good time to give some background on crucifixion.  Crucifixion was a punishment that was reserved for people the Romans wanted to make a special example of, and this will be important next week when we look at Jesus’ trial, only Romans could order crucifixion, and they were the only ones who used crucifixion at the time.  Although Luke refers to the two men crucified with Jesus as thieves, these were not just people who were caught stealing something. They would have been punished in another way.  In Mark, they are referred to as bandits, and that’s probably more likely because, the Romans reserved crucifixion for special cases, like runaway slaves, those who were subverting public order, and most especially those who threatened or challenged Roman imperial authority. Crucifixion was slow, painful, gruesome and very, very public in order to try and dissuade others from trying the same thing.

Normally, victims would have their hands tied to the cross bar, but we do have some records, besides for scripture, indicating that nails were used.  But they would not have been nailed into the hands.  The Greek word in scripture that is translated as hands, in reference to his wounds, is actually a word that refers to both the arm and the hand, like we might say his appendage.  If it was specifically the hand being referenced, there would have been another word added to the phrase.  But we also know that the bones in the hands are not strong enough to support the arms by themselves, so more than likely Jesus’ had the nails put into his wrists.  Now traditionally Christian imagery has shown a victims feet being nailed one on top of the other, but archaeological discoveries have changed that imagery.  They have found the remains of one person who was a victim of crucifixion, and he had a nail driven through his ankle and it was done in such a way that we know that his feet were nailed on both sides of the center pole. Does that mean there weren’t other ways? No, but that is all the proof we have at the moment for the practice, and the skeleton also indicated that his hands were tied not nailed.

But regardless of how they were attached, crucifixion was normally a long and painful process.  While popular theory holds that people would eventually die of asphyxiation, there is little evidence for that, and many medical arguments against it.  There were probably lots of different reasons why people died on crosses, but we do know it was brutal and painful.  We get the word excruciating from this, as it literally means “out of the crucifix.”  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.

But that leads us back to Simon of Cyrene who is pulled aside by the roman soldiers more than likely to carry the cross bar of the cross, which could have still weighed a hundred pounds, and after being tortured and flogged, Jesus was in no condition to carry it any longer.  We know very little about Simon, but what we do know is very intriguing.  First is that he is from the city of Cyrene, which is on the coast of north Africa in modern day Libya, so he is African.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that he was of a darker complexion, but the odds are certainly in that direction.  Cyrene did have a fairly large Jewish population, so more than likely he is Jewish and had gone to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, just as Jesus and the disciples had, and just happens to be in the wrong spot, or the right one depending on how you want to see it, as Jesus goes by.  And it’s what we are told about Simon in some other texts that is really intriguing.

In Mark’s gospel, 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, 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.  The likelihood, and I’m using that word a lot because a lot of this is pure speculation, but the likelihood is that Simon had no idea who Jesus was and knew nothing about him, until this moment.  But in this singular encounter with Christ, not only was his life changed, but his family’s life was changed as well.  This brief encounter with a man on the way to his death was enough to cause him to make a profession of faith, and to change the way he lived his life every day from that point forward. I definitely think there is something in that story for us to consider.

After Jesus is hung on the cross, there are two, or at least two, other criminals there with him, and Luke tells us that after being ridiculed, challenged and mocked by one of the criminals, that Jesus 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..  Although the likelihood that these were their actual names is slim to none, for the sake of tradition I will refer to them by these names, and at the least you will have some good trivia answers at work this week.  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 Gestas 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.  That even on his worst day, Jesus does not change from who he is and what he has come to do and to proclaim.

Standing at the foot of the cross are Roman soldiers.  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, of course played by John Wayne, the Duke, in The Greatest Story Ever Told, 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 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 depending on which gospel we are reading, 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 Mary’s is the mother of Jesus.  We might also note who is not there, which is the disciples.  Their absence is pretty tangible, but also, as we know, does not mean they are lost. That even though they are not faithful at this crucial moment, which we will come back to in a few weeks, they are still forgiven and reconciled.  That even on their worst day, it does not represent the sum of who they are, that they are more than those moments.

Finally, there is Joseph of Arimathea, for whom there is a lot of speculation, and a lot of tradition, including one that says he ended up with the Holy Grail, and we’ve seen that Indiana Jones too, but that doesn’t actually come about until the 12th century.  But we really know very little about this Joseph, even where he is from, because while Luke says Arimathea is a town in Judea, there are no other 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, which we will look at next week; 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 for Jesus to be removed for burial, which happens before the Sabbath began at sunset, and the women 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 in the Magnificat, which we hear at Christmas, he song of joy, in which she basically says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and that that witness iss then completed when Jesus said exactly the same thing.  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 story.  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.  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, his authority, 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 into serious 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 simply through the effort of carrying the cross.  Something happened in this brief interaction, or in the few days to follow, that was enough not only to make 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 really ask for forgiveness, but 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 by 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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