There are consequences for this kind of life
|One of the many depictions of the Crucifixion at San Marco by Fra Angelico|
But today, I cannot gloss over the crucified and died part. Jesus’s death was not poetic or lovely, it was not like Beth in Little Women, who just faded away gently and sweetly. It was not like Sampson, who brought down the Philistines and himself as a last act of power and vengeance, an angry and guilt-ridden self-immolation. It was not beautiful and although Jesus went willingly, there is noting about crucifixion that can be called noble.
Crucifixion was the way the Romans put political criminals to death; it was reserved for the lower classes; it was done right on the road where everyone could see - it was a public spectacle - and meant to be a deterrent. It was the way the powers that be could remind anyone who was a threat, “We can kill you if we want to.”
Jesus of course was not a criminal, but he was a threat to the powers that be, both the religious and the civil leadership. His death was the result of society’s blindness, fear, scorn, and hate. That society, no different from societies all over the world and throughout time, was willing - maybe even eager - for its leaders to draw a line and challenge anyone who crosses it, to say both to certain individuals and to whole groups of people, You don’t belong on my side of this line.
Jesus crossed the line. He would not operate by society’s norms and uphold its standards, not if those norms and standards included hoarding resources, exclusion, pushing aside the sick and the poor, persecuting sojourners and foreigners, hatred of and discrimination against entire groups of people, and the use of force and violence to gain and maintain power. Pilate may have said he washed his hands of it all, but he didn’t mind presenting a beaten and bloody man to the Jewish people and announce sarcastically, here is your king! And so Jesus wore a crown of thorns over his bruised and bleeding face and stood before the people, the intended audience for this deliberately crafted performance. Ecce homo, said Pilate: behold the man.
How is it that this unspeakably cruel scene is supposed to draw us all together? How are these arms stretched out upon the cross able to gather us into a saving embrace when there are nails and blood and jeers and spitting and mocking in the way?
As far as I can tell, when the Scriptures say that Jesus through the cross would draw us all unto himself, it is in the same manner as a train wreck captures our gaze. We gather in fear, dread, and bewilderment. We look and cannot look away. We watch, mesmerized and yet repelled, with focused attention, the spectacular smashup and see what has been exposed - betrayal, manipulation, cruelty, corruption. We should look at that and say, that was wrong, never again. But we haven’t.
Clearly Good Friday was not the end of the wrongful conviction of innocents, the end of mocking, the end of spitting, the end of hateful violence, the end of deadly power plays, violent seizures. It was not the end of the powerful saying to the powerless, we can kill you if we want to, if you cross the line.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, here in the American South, there were thousands of deaths of this sort. Mobs clamored for the death of men (and a few women) who dared to cross the color line, mobs capturing these men and advertising the upcoming public hanging (and accompanying degradations) so that people could come and be the audience to the performance of other people being lynched. People, black people, hung on trees, maybe after being tortured, while other people, white people, stood around, watching. Sometimes folks posed for pictures at these spectacles, and photographers made and sold postcards of men and women and even children standing, smiling, next to the black dangling feet or maybe the mostly or partly whole but dead bodies of people killed in a show of power and control and its attendant sentiments: fear and hatred. This is what we can do, the powerful said, and we’re not at all unwilling to do it if you get out of line, if you cross our boundaries. You will pay. Look. See?
And so it continues in other forms, a knee on the neck, perhaps; "You must be subdued."
So what is truth? as Pilate asked Jesus. What is the truth of this day, of this life? I am the Way, Jesus said, and the truth and the life. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.
Jesus is God made flesh. And Jesus, God made flesh, would not come out to battle evil with swords and clubs, would not use humiliation and violence as means to an end. That is the truth that stood in front of Pilate. Jesus showed us another way of being, of living, that is about divine, abundant life for everyone in the midst of a world that is more at home with stories about scarcity and the never-ending fight for power and control by a few.
Jesus came to show us God, and the world did not like the way he broke down the walls that the world puts up, the way he crossed the lines and not only crossed them but erased them. And there are consequences for this kind of life, of crossing and erasing boundaries. There are consequences for this kind of life.
We have seen it today. Ecce homo, behold the man.