by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
19 April 2019
Imagine yourself driving from Montgomery to the Atlanta airport. Imagine that once you hit Tuskegee you saw a crucified man along the highway. And then you saw another one 100 feet down the road. And then another. And then another. And then another. Wondering how many more there might be, you look ahead down the road and as far as your eye can see, and all you can see along the highway is cross after cross after cross. Passing a crucified man, every 100 feet, for the remaining 120 miles to the airport. If you were to count the crucified men along the road, you would count 6000 of them. All in various states of dying. Some already having succumbed to death.
The men you would see were naked except for a loin cloth, beaten and bloodied. Flogging was a legal requirement before crucifixion. The whip used to flog these men consisted of leather thongs of various lengths which had iron balls and hooks of sheep bone fastened to them to bruise the body and rip the flesh. The expected time it took a person to die on the cross was inversely proportionate the severity of the scourging he received prior to being nailed to the cross.
As you drive along the highway you will see birds of prey feasting on the shredded flesh. If you open the windows you will hear some men screaming, some moaning, some whimpering, and some only able to gasp desperately for breath. If they don’t die of blood loss first, they’ll die of a heart attack or finally of asphyxia.
The scene that I just asked you to imagine did not, of course, happen on I-85 between Tuskegee and Atlanta. But the scene actually did take place. It took place in 71BC along what is called the Appian Way in Italy. The Appian Way was the most important strategic thoroughfare of the Roman Empire in Italy. And, those 6000 men crucified along the road were the unfortunate survivors on the losing side of the Third Servile War, which was the last of the major Roman slave revolts, led by the ex-gladiator Spartacus. That scene along the Appian Way is what Rome does to political revolutionaries. The power and brutality of the Roman government was visibly and abundantly on display.
Crucifixion, as many of you will remember, was reserved mainly for political revolutionaries and those who were a threat to the government. It was one of the most brutal forms of death used by the Roman Empire. The word “excruciating” literally means, “Out of the cross.” The Romans were merciless and brutal in their punishment. And, they did not do it sparingly. To die by crucifixion was so terrible, that the people in the Roman Empire would not utter the words cross or crucifixion in polite company.
I’ve told you about this scene along the Appian Way to make it clear that the people depicted in the Gospel stories were not demanding that Jesus be subject to a form of death which was rare or, of which they were not familiar. When the crowds demanded Jesus be crucified, they knew exactly what they were asking for and what crucifixion entailed. They wanted Jesus to suffer, to bleed, to experience the excruciating agony of crucifixion, to be mocked, to be taunted, and to be humiliated. They wanted his last day to be such a public spectacle that the political and religious movement that he had started would be put to death along with him. The Romans, ironically, did not find Jesus guilty of any crime, but the crowds demanded that he suffer the death of a political revolutionary anyway, because he claimed to be a king.
“Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews,” they laughed as Jesus was ridiculed with a purple cloak over his shoulders and a crown of thorns on his head. A crucified king, beaten, bloodied, humiliated and shamed in front of the political rulers, his religious leaders, friends, and family. This man whom with a straight face, calls himself the Son of God. This is the kind of person you want to worship and rule over you? How utterly ridiculous and absurd everyone thought.
And, it’s true. It is ridiculous and absurd that the God we worship as Christians is a crucified God. But it is ridiculous and absurd by the world’s standards. And, ridiculous by the standard of almost every other major world religion. (Which is why I might point out that when some say all religions worship the same God, we might stop and consider whether this is really true.)
An incarnate God is an anathema to Islam. It is considered blasphemy against the divinity of Allah to suggest that he would deign to become human, let alone crucified. Jews do not accept that Jesus was Yahweh incarnate, but only a failed prophet. Buddhism has no concept of a God like we think of one. And Hinduism’s Vishnu manifests himself through avatars throughout a cycle world creations and destructions.
The God we worship as Christians is not like any other. It is folly, as Paul says. It is folly, from the point of view of the world. But the world’s view is like looking through the wrong end of the telescope, using the big lenses of sin and idolatry to evaluate the crucifixion. When we flip the telescope and look through the proper eye piece of faith, we will see the crucifixion from God’s point of view and then understand more clearly what it is we are looking at.
When we view the crucifixion through the proper end of the telescope we see that our crucified God is a God of love. And that this God of love will go to the most extreme lengths, lengths to which no other God or human being would go, in order to rescue us from the sins and idolatries that have the power to destroy us individually and as communities. God suffered the horror of the crucifixion to reveal to us what power really is and how it should be used, what love can accomplish and what it is for, and why obedience is hard, but ultimately necessary.
When we view the crucifixion through the proper end of the telescope we see the true character of God and what it means to be a human being. In the crucifixion we see God’s humility, where God the Creator of the heavens and the earth has become the creature. In the crucifixion we see that the love through which God the Creator created the world, is the same love through which God the creature redeems the world. It is the same Love. It is the same God. We are the same people whom God created through love, and the same people whom God has redeemed through love.
But, something even more decisive was going on by the power of love hanging on that noble tree. Through his death, God the Creator and God the creature, by the power of God the Holy Spirit, was bringing forth his new Creation, and his new Adam. And, this is what is good about that Friday. Yes, God did indeed, die for our sins, but why? Not just simply so we could one day go to heaven when we die, for what are we supposed to do in the meantime while we are living our lives now? On that first good Friday, God defeated the powers of sin and death, so that we his creatures would be free to live in a creation where sin and death are defeated. While it doesn’t always seem like it, it is the truth about the reality of the world we live in now.
At 6pm on that first Good Friday, the world had radically changed. The first Christians did not know the world had changed until the following Sunday. But God’s new creation was initiated on that Friday, when Jesus lured all the powers of sin, evil, idolatry and death and took them to the grave with him, defeating them once and for all. The resurrected Jesus is the first manifestation of the new creation and the new Adam which would finally be free of the power of evil and death. As baptized Christians who are part of the body of Christ, we, too are the new Adam, who live in God’s new and redeemed creation. And this is why we are here today, to remember the day and the event where the new creation had begun.
I leave you this afternoon with the following story told by the former Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris in one of his homilies a number of years ago which demonstrates the power of the cross and its ability to transform lives. The story goes like this.
One day in 1939 a group of boys wanted to have a bit of fun and dared each other to go inside the church and confess a made up list of terrible sins to the priest in the confessional. One of them, a Jewish boy named Aaron, took up the challenge.
So Aaron marched into the confessional and confessed this made up list of sins to the priest. But the priest, who was both very wise and holy, immediately knew what the boy was up to. And, without showing any sign of annoyance, the confessor gave Aaron a simple penance. He said, “For your penance I want you to go up the altar, kneel before the large image of Jesus crucified, and say three times, “Jesus, I know you died for me. But I don’t give a damn.”
Aaron though to himself, “Hah! That’s an easy one. No problem!” So he went up to the altar to do his penance. He knelt down and looked up at the large image of the crucified Jesus and shouted “Jesus, I know you died for me. But I don’t give a damn.”
He declared a second time, “Jesus, I know you died for me. But I don’t give a damn.”
The third time he said, “Jesus, I know you died for me. But I …” The boy could not go on. Kneeling there in front of the cross the boy broke down in tears.
The following year, in August of 1940, Aaron was baptized and took the name “Jean-Marie.”
As the Cardinal wrapped up the story he said, “I know this story is true because I am that boy, who is standing here now speaking to you.”
For all of us, there is something about the power of Jesus hanging on the cross that grasps us. It captures our attention before we can form any words to try to explain our experience of it. But the cross does grasp us and it has transformed our lives. We can’t explain why God chose crucifixion as the vehicle to express his love for us, it is the mystery of God, but that is what he did. No other God has done that for his people. This is why today is a good day. And, why we can say, “Jesus, I know you died for me. And, I thank you for your death.”