A meditation by Pastor Robert Schaefer
Spring Creek Lutheran Church
Good Friday – April 9, 2004
Text: John 19:16-18
On a spring morning, around the time of the Jewish Passover, 1,971 year ago the Roman authorities in Jerusalem led three men outside the city to be killed by the state. The condemned dragged or hefted heavy beams of wood, the instruments of their torture. Their backs were bleeding masses of flesh, freshly broken by Roman whips. The men climbed a hill known to the locals as the Place of the Skull, and there they were crucified – hung up on wooden beams by ropes or nails – and left to die a horrible, public death.
Two of these men were common, garden variety criminals. They had stirred up trouble in the city, perhaps; or maybe they were just disobedient slaves. They were hung there that morning as an example: If you disobey your Roman masters, you, too, will suffer like this.
The third man, the one in the middle, looked no different from his neighbors, except perhaps that he was even more disfigured from his beatings than they. The accusation against him was a political one: a sign above his head mocked this broken, dying creature, naming him the Jewish King. King of the cross.
But this king screamed just the same as all the rest of them when the nails rammed through his wrists. His blood flowed, thick and crimson, no different from anyone else’s. No armies fought to save his life; the soldiers didn’t even glance over their shoulders as they swung their hammers. The Jew-King was just one more gory task in their service to Caesar, and he died alone before their eyes, just like they always did at Skull Hill.
They didn’t know his name was Jesus, and if they did, they certainly didn’t care one whit about it. There was nothing remarkable about this broken little man or the two others nailed at his side. Nothing at all. Just one more crucifixion, that’s all.
The Roman Empire crucified thousands upon thousands of people in the five centuries of its history. During revolts against the Empire, governors sometimes found themselves crucifying 500 or more people in a single day, day in and day out, until the horror of it all finally had its desired effect, and the revolt was put down.
When the slave Spartacus led a massive revolt in the year 71 BC, the authorities crucified 6,000 of his followers along highway from Capua to Rome; travelers making the journey by foot passed 150 dead or dying slaves every single hour of the four-day journey.
Jesus, the mysterious man from Nazareth who was killed these 2,000 years ago was no different in his death from any of these poor souls. He suffered horrifically, and then he died. Though his followers have taken the cross as our banner, the truth is that there is absolutely nothing unique in his agony on that cross that sets him apart from the endless thousands of other victims cruelly executed there.
No, what makes the story of Jesus special, even remarkable, are two facts that have nothing to do with how he died.
The first simple fact is that what he did, he did for you.
No other man or woman among those pitiful thousands chose the cross, and if they did, they certainly did not have your face before their eyes as they made their choice. What Jesus did, he did for you, however – he chose the road of the cross because it’s what you needed. Dying on the cross, Jesus had you in mind, each of you, in a way that no one else before or since has ever had. His ordinary death was extraordinary because he did it for you.
But it is the second fact that truly makes his common death astonishing – for this one man among thousands who died on a cross, his terrible death was not the final word. Jesus Christ, alone among the many victims of the cross, rose from his grave after three dark days. Without the resurrection of Easter Day, Jesus’ Friday afternoon death on a cross means nothing; knowing that Easter is coming, the power of his death means everything to us today.
We stand before the Holy Cross with awe and gratitude tonight, not merely for the physical pain that it represents, but because on this life-giving cross Jesus Christ bore our sins and those of the world. And that is the most extraordinary, unexpected, unheard of gift the world has ever known. Thanks be to God for making the cross of death into our tree of life. Amen.