Jesus’ great gift

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Theme: Jesus’ great gift

Let us pray.

Most holy, Lord God, on this day Jesus hung on a cross for the sins of the whole world; we give you thanks for this great gift, but do so with sadness; may we never forget what your son did for us, through him who died for our sins, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

If you get a chance to go to Jerusalem, there is a part of town that has several significant sites. It is called Mount Zion. I won’t get started on where the true Mt. Zion is, but these days it is south of the Old City. King David’s tomb, the Upper Room, and a church over the site believed to be where Peter denied Jesus, St. Peter Gallicantu, or St. Peter of the crowing rooster.

A few years ago, what is believed to be Caiaphas’ house was excavated next to the church. Everything they have found there is consistent with a villa of the high priest. When I was there, we went down a couple levels where the jail cells are. This is where the temple prisoners were held. This is likely where Jesus was held as the Sanhedrin gathered for his trial.

There is a nearby room that is dug out from the rock. It is as it was when it was dug out (not that the room with cells was the Waldorf). Looking up in this room there is hole going through all the floors above. Prisoners were hung upside down from a rope up above and left to dangle in the dark below. It is very likely that they did this to Jesus. Guides turn out the lights so that visitors experience the total darkness in that room.

Jesus talks a lot about light and darkness in John’s gospel. He warned his disciples that they would not have the light much longer. In John’s prologue, John calls Jesus the light of the world. The light is nearly out in Caiaphas’ house, especially when hanging upside down in the dark.

Jesus knows his time is coming to an end. Jesus’ only defense is to point out the hypocrisy of his accusers. This only makes them angrier. Jesus verbally spars with Pilate, but stops short of defending himself against his accusers. The deck is stacked against him. The odds are good that the religious authorities had already arranged with Pilate to effect Jesus’ execution. They were astute politicians who have worked with the Romans to ensure that they can continue to practice their religion.

The Romans are even more vicious than the religious authorities. Nobody is crucified without being scourged first. Many don’t survive the scourging to make it to the cross. And Jesus was already tortured before being brought to Pilate. Even though Jesus was not on the cross a good deal of time before his death, the Romans would not be surprised given all that Jesus’ body had already endured.

The point is that Jesus had to go to the cross. Jesus had to survive to make it to the cross. It needed to be public and not a death in some private Roman courtyard. People needed to witness Jesus’ death. There had to be no doubt that Jesus physically died.

Even with all these lines being filled in, there were some who doubted that Jesus really died on the cross. According to them, he rested, gathered up his strength, and escaped a few days later. This was said by critics of Christianity and even by some Christians who were later branded as heretics. This is why the gospel writers go to such great lengths to make sure the reader or the hearer knows Jesus really died.

When someone who has lived a full life dies, we celebrate the life they had. When someone dies young, we struggle to make sense of a seemingly senseless death. It took a few centuries for Christians to make sense of Jesus’ death. But the basis for this thinking was done for us by St. Paul and others. Our sins died on the cross with Jesus.

Author and Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge tells the story of a friend named Sally who was falsely suspected of shoplifting at an upscale department store. Rutledge writes, “The store in question is fashionable and elegant. Sally herself is fashionable and elegant, the epitome of aristocratic dignity.

“She bought an expensive blouse at the store and took it with her in a shopping bag. Unfortunately, the saleswoman had forgotten to remove the white plastic device that was attached to the blouse. When Sally tried to go through the door, the alarms went off and the security forces pounced upon her. ‘Oh, my dear, how horrible for you!’ cried her friends, listening to the story …. ‘Did you have identification? Did you call your lawyer? Did you ask to see the president of the store?’

“Sally answered, ‘That wasn’t a problem. I didn’t have any trouble establishing who I was. That wasn’t the bad part. The really bad part was the feeling of being treated like a common criminal!’”

Reflecting on this incident, Fleming Rutledge made a connection between Sally’s experience and Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, “I tried to explain to Sally that the feeling of shame that she felt was a clue to the meaning of the death of Jesus, who was arrested like a common criminal, exhibited to the public like a common criminal, executed like a common criminal.

“I was unable to put this across. She does not believe herself to be guilty of anything. Wronged, yes; misunderstood, yes; undervalued, yes; imperfect, perhaps; but not guilty, certainly not sinful. Because she believes herself to be one of the ‘good’ people, because she could never, never commit a small sin like shoplifting, she cannot see the connection between Jesus’ death as a common criminal and herself. Sally could not hear the message of Good Friday.”

The Passion story is a brutal story. The world throws all it can at Jesus. But Jesus remains unfazed and triumphant. Jesus gives us a glimpse of what it means for us in how we are capable of being transformed by the Holy Spirit. We can be more present to the horrors of the world – to the suffering of the world – to the inhumanity of the world. With God’s help we can confront the evils of the world and not be defeated.

Text: John 18:1–19:42 (NRSV)

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