A Spectator’s View Of the Cross (Good Friday)
“When all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. (Luke 23:48)
It is slightly more than a decade ago, that I witnessed a crucifixion. Oh, it wasn’t a real crucifixion and the person nailed to the cross that day, didn’t really die that day. It was a re-enactment, but it was realistic enough that as I watched, I was almost completely overcome by emotion. I simply couldn’t keep my eyes on the stage. Time and time again, I had to look away, less I be so overcome by emotion that I have would lost control.
I had that experience in Oberammergau, in the south of Germany right next to the Swiss border. It was at the Passion Play performed every 10 years in that tiny village, as a thank you to God for saving the people of the village from the bubonic plague that swept across Europe in 1634.
Performed on a stage with no roof above them, villagers young and old re-enact the story of Jesus’ life and ministry; a story which concludes with the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord.
Having experienced that presentation, and witnessing the crucifixion, I have some idea (all be it, just a bit of understanding) of what it must have been like to actually witness the death of our Lord, two thousand years ago. I doubt very much that, had I actually been there, that I could have endured that horrendous experience, without suffering a complete emotional collapse.
And yet the Gospel writer Luke tells us that on that awful day, there were many spectators who witnessed Jesus’ death. This morning, I’d like us to consider how those spectators responded as Christ hung there that day.
SIMON OF CYRENE (verse 26)
The first spectator to be mentioned is Simon of Cyrene. Simon was the unfortunate spectator commandeered by the Roman soldiers and forced to carry Jesus’ cross, when our Lord could no longer do so.
We don’t very much about Simon, save that he was on the path that Jesus had to take as He walked to Golgotha. However, we have good reason to believe that Simon was converted because of this encounter with Christ.
The Gospel writer, Mark, identifies him as ‘the father of Alexander and Rufus, (Mark 15:21) two men that Mark assumed his readers would know. We know also that Rufus was greeted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. ( Mark 16:13), and apparently Simon and his two sons became well-known Christians who were held in high esteem by the church.
A GREAT NUMBER OF WOMEN (verse 27)
Then there were the unnamed women, of whom we know only that they were crying out loudly against this horrendous deed.
We can identify with their response. They were overwhelmed by the horror of this deed, and the experience left them emotionally overcome.
THE CRIMINALS CRUCIFIED WITH JESUS
Next mentioned, are the two criminals crucified with Jesus. They, of course, were more than spectators. They were participants suffering the same fate as Jesus.
The two men, however, couldn’t have responded more differently. The one looked at Jesus with contempt in his eyes. “Are you not the Messiah?” He yelled scornfully, then “save yourself and us.”
But the second man, rebuked him saying: “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong!” (verses 39-41)
Then turning to Jesus, he acknowledged His Lordship by saying: “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your Kingdom.”
We’ve all heard of death-bed conversions; last minutes changes of heart. Some people, I think, even plan to convert at the last minute. It’s one way to have fun with wine, women and song throughout their lives, and yet still get their reward at the end of the journey. The problem with this attitude is, of course, none of us know when the end is coming, so we may not have time for a last minute change of heart; and even if we did, how could we prove it was genuine.
THE SOLDIERS (verse 34)
The fourth group were soldiers, just doing their duty. No doubt they’d been through this kind of experience many times before. We get the sense that they were bored with it all, and to amuse themselves, while they waited for the trio to die, they cast lots to divide Jesus’ clothing. It was just something to do to while away the hours. Most of them had no idea who this man Jesus was, or why He was being put to death; though the Centurion in charge of them, when He say how Jesus died, had a change of heart and praised God, saying: “Certainly this man was innocent.”
Boredom is a common experience today. We see so much violence and evil on our television screens, and video devices that after awhile, it becomes a bit monotonous. We get conditioned to it. It doesn’t mean the same to us anymore.
This is also a danger for those of us who have been raised in the church all our life. We’ve heard the stories of the Bible so many times, that we can begin to take them for granted. They no longer evoke strong feels of faith, that they may once have done. We’ve become bored with it all.
THE CURIOUS BYSTANDERS (verse 35)
The fifth group mentioned by Luke are the bystanders, the people who gathered there merely to watch a spectacle. They’re the kind of people that gather around when someone is doing something unusual, such as walking a tightrope or threatening to jump from a high ledge. There the people with no real connection to what is happening. They’re just curious; standing around to see what is going to happen.
There are many people in society who fall into this category. For them the Church and Christian faith are mere novelties; something to watch from a distance; but not something with which they wish to become involved.
THE RELIGIOUS LEADERS
The sixth group standing at the foot of the cross were the religious leaders, the ones truly responsible for nailing Jesus to that cross. They, of all the spectators, should have known better. For centuries their forefathers had foretold of a day when God would send them a Messiah. But when He came, their pride and arrogance prevented them from acknowledging that Jesus was truly the Son of God.
Of course, it is not just religious leaders who get blindsided by the truth. It can happen to any Christian who gets entangled in narrow theological issues, stressing one aspect of the Bible as more important than other aspects. Those who fall victim to this miss the total message which God has revealed in and through His Gospel. It’s one reason why the Church today is so divided today. Time and time again, groups of Christians have focused upon one or more passages in the Bible, making them the center of their faith.
In one of the sessions in my Teen confirmation course we look at how many different denominations there are today within the Christian Church worldwide. The lists fills 8 pages, single spaced! One of my favourites is the ‘Two Seed in the Spirit Predestinarian Baptists’; sometimes called the ‘Anti-mission Baptists’. I haven’t a clue what this denomination holds most dear in the Christian message, but whatever it is, it’s led them to separate from other Baptists to form their own denomination.
The end result of such narrow thinking is that the Christian world-wife has become divided and divisive.
JESUS’ ACQUAINANCES &THE WOMEN OF GALILEE
In verse 49 of Luke’s account of the crucifixion one group of spectators is identified simply as ‘all His acquaintances’, a group which Luke says included Jesus’ Mother and Mary Magdalene.
Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene we know well. Of all those acquainted with Jesus, they were most devoted to Him and would never have deserted Him in His hour of need, even if being present there risked arrest and torture at the hands of His enemies. But who were the others?
The Gospels imply that the other disciples had run away; that it was only John who was present at the crucifixion, for it was to John that Jesus said: “Here is your mother.” (John 19:27); but we are left wondering - who were those other brave souls who dared stand at the foot of the cross?
Truly they must have been men and women deeply committed to their Lord; for only the strongest faith enables Christians to risk everything life and limb in the face of such danger. .
Thankfully there have always been such dedicated Christians, in every age; Christians who stand by their faith and are loyal to Christ, no matter what it costs them. But they are few in number, and probably always will be; for most of us lack the courage to stand firm by our faith no matter what the consequences.
And so there we have it, seven groups of spectators, all witnesses to the most terrible event in human history. And I wonder, had we been there that dreadful day, with which group would we have been standing?
For those of us whose faith is weak, there is hope. The very fact that most of the disciples ran away, only later to return, gives us hope that even if we lack the courage to stand by Jesus when our safety is at risk, that we too, strengthened and guided by God’s Holy Spirit, will be drawn back into the fold, to be armed with the strength and courage that only God can provide.
So let us pray, that through the Holy Spirit, we too may be number among Jesus’ loyal acquaintances.