And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him.
In the summer of 1998, Westminster Abby unveiled ten new statutes over the door of its main entrance. Niches that stood empty for more than five hundred years were filled, in one breathtaking stroke, with figures of twentieth-century Christian martyrs. Some of the more recognizable ones to us are Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, and Janani Luwum, who was Anglican archbishop of Uganda under Idi Amin. The ten men and women memorialized lost their lives bearing witness to their Lord. There is no hint, however, of how they died. There are no guns, no hang-man’s nooses, no machetes. The point is not how they died, but that they died.
The death of Jesus is different because the “how” is of unique importance. As Paul noted in his Philippian letter, “and being found in human form, he (Jesus) humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
It takes some effort of the imagination to understand the singular degree of public disgust caused by the crucifixion as a method of execution. Yet we must make this effort in order to understand the scandal of the cross (Galatians 5:11) We are conditioned to think of Jesus’ death as the scandal—and it was, indeed, an heinous act to kill the Lord of Life. In fact it is not the death in itself but the mode of death that creates great offense.
John the Baptist’s execution as the behest of Herod’s wife is portrayed in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as a portent of Jesus’ own destiny. John was innocent of any capital crime, or indeed of any crime except confronting the ruler with his own misconduct, but John met a cruel fate by order of that ruler and his wife. John’s death was memorably horrible; who can forget the severed head on the platter? Yet even this gruesome image does not carry with it the same stigma as crucifixion. It is the stigma itself that needs to be emphasized if we are to grasp the extreme peculiarity of a cross as a symbol of faith. (Rutledge, Crucifixion, p. 74.)
The four gospels have virtually nothing to say about the physical suffering of Jesus during his passion; even though we know such suffering to be considerable. In Matthew’s account he writes with only a few words, “and when they had crucified him.” This omission is extraordinary, being so different that what we would expect. The Evangelists want us to focus elsewhere. Matthew, for example, says “when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots.” They are paying no attention to him. Jesus has been rendered a no-body; nonperson; nonhuman. His only value now was that his cloak was worth rolling dice over. They are playing a first century equivalent of “rick, paper, scissors” over all that remains.
Crucifixion as a means of execution in the Roman Empire has as its express purpose the elimination of victims from consideration as members of the human race. It cannot be said too strongly: that was its function. It was meant to indicate to all who might be toying with subversive ideas that crucified persons were not of the same species as either the executioners or the spectators and were therefore not only expendable but also deserving of ritualized extermination.
Matthew goes on to tell us about the shame and degradation heaped upon him by those who walk by. The mocking and jeering that accompanied crucifixion were not only allowed, they were part of the spectacle. And were programmed into it. In a sense, crucifixion was a form of entertainment. Everyone understood that the specific role of the passerby was to exacerbate the dehumanization and degradation of the person who has been thus designated to be a spectacle. Crucifixion was cleverly designed—we might say diabolically designed—to be an almost theatrical enactment of the sadistic and inhumane impulses that lie within human beings. One cannot help be struck by the utter godlessness of crucifixion. According to the Christian gospel, the Son of God voluntarily and purposefully absorbed all of that, drawing it into himself.
Jesus allowed himself to become less-than-human scum. All the evil impulses of the human race came to focus on him. Now to be sure, in one sense the crucifixion is only one barbarous scene among many scenes of human atrocity. However, there is one feature of the crucifixion of Jesus that sets it apart from the rest. It is a feature which Matthew and Mark draw to our attention. It is the cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
A feature of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion that is apparently Bach’s own invention is not only musically arresting but also of great theological importance. Jaroslav Pelikan (Bach among the Theologians) describes it thus:
Bach uses the “halo,” the string quartet that plays various chords to accompany each saying of the sayings of Jesus and, it has been said, “floats round the utterances of Christ like a glory” … Bach was apparently the only one (among composers of his time) to see that the absolutely appropriate place to suspend the “halo” was the cry of dereliction, Eli, Eli, lama , sabachthani … The glory of the Father was withdrawn from the solitary figure on the cross … now he is all alone and forsaken.
I have observed with you before that the event of our Lord’s crucifixion is not self-interpreting. Observing him crucified caused no one to leap to the conclusion that this has to do with human sin. I have been pointing out to you that as the Evangelists tell the crucifixion story they are pointing us to what they want us to observe; they are interpreting. And that is what the rest of the New Testament does—it interprets this event for us.
In his Galatian letter the Apostle Paul wrote “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” (Galatians 3:13-14) The connection that I want to make in our Good Friday reflection on the cry of dereliction is Paul’s announcement that God, in the person of the sinless Son, put himself voluntarily and deliberately into the condition of greatest accursedness—on our behalf and in our pace. This mind-crunching paradox lies at the heart of the Christian message.
I know of no illustration or parable that can make this pretty or digestible for religious palate that hopes for something sweet to the taste. The point I wish to make with you is that the reason Jesus dies by crucifixion and not some other means of execution is because there is a correspondence between the profound godlessness of crucifixion and the utter sinfulness of sin. It is not possible for us to know what sin means to God. But here at the cross we observe that sin must be horrific. This mode of execution is in some measure commensurate with the extremity of humanity’s condition under sin.
Here, at the cross of Christ, God exposes sin in its utter depravity. Here we see what sin does. It so corrupts that the powers are all aligned to crucify the sinless Son of God. The Roman power that saw itself as bringing peace and civilization to the world; rulers like Herod styled as a King of the Jews—a leader of people; the religious leaders who think they are preserving Israel’s worship; the educators in the person of the scribes are mocking; the common people who shouted their preference of “crucify him”; the disciples who said they loved him and would defend him have all deserted; even those few who would support him are powerless observers who can only show up to take down the body. They are all here—and this is what sin does. This is humanity’s condition under sin. Would it be any different today?
Each time I come to preach on Good Friday and probe again our Lord’s life given for us I find myself overwhelmed by the magnitude of what has been undertaken here for our sakes. I offer you Christ, and him crucified. Not some theory for making the world a better place but one who makes for us a better world; not a teaching about giving back but a person who gave his back for us. The inclusion at the cross is that all of us are corrupted by sin; only Jesus and Jesus alone could do this for us.
The gospel—the good news that is Jesus Christ—makes a distinction between faith and religion. Jesus does not claim to propagate some superior religion. He offers us himself. Faith is our Lord’s incursion into our lives. Religion is people imagining what God is like (or unlike in the case of atheism and agnosticism) and acting out of their religious imaginations. Human religious imagination is rendered silent at the cross. No one imagines that this is God acting on our behalf.
In our religious imaginations we prefer principles and values as the things that will direct life and be for our good. Values like inclusion, tolerance, intersectionality, racial harmony, or ecological sustainability. We imagine habits for being highly effective or eightfold path for enlightenment or exploring our spirituality. At the cross of Jesus Christ where God is making his incursion into human life all this is rendered silent. The witness of scripture is that this is for sin. Sin is a category only known in relationship to God. It is not how the world’s self-understanding speaks or imagines. We talk of right and wrong, ethical and unethical, legal and illegal.
The bible speaks of sin. Sin is spoken of as a responsible guilt—I am a sinner, and as an alien power that enslaves. The cross of Christ is spoken of as the place where God in the Son (Father and Son together, aided by the Holy Spirit) made atonement for sin and liberated us from the power of Sin that enslaves. Sin cannot be overcome by human determination, human capacity, or human moral resolve. Our religious impulses no matter how sterling, our values however vaunted, our habits however disciplined cannot do it. This is why the cross is so scandalous—it renders our highest religious imagination or most glorious values silent. It is little wonder people object. But as the Apostle Paul said, to those who believe “Christ crucified the power of God and the wisdom of God.” God comes among us and take this upon himself in the Son and offers his victory to any who would cling to him in faith.
As we approach the cross the world’s self-understanding says there is nothing to see here. Just hapless barbarism. Our religious imagining will never make sense of the cross; rather the self-giving of the Son for sin makes sense of us; it forges its reality over us and all our falsehoods. We have come to the cross once again that its reality may shape us in our living in the world.
I close with the proclamation of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians who regarded themselves superior with regard to religious imaginations. “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:21-24)