What a strange, disorienting day this is! A few moments ago we were waving our palms as the procession paraded around the church in high spirits. But as we’ve just seen, with breathtaking speed the exuberance of the parade turns to tragedy. We find ourselves crying out along with the crowds, “Crucify him, crucify him,” and then before we know it we are at the foot of the Cross, in the presence of our crucified Lord.
And of course most of us would rather still be part of that opening parade and avoiding all the unpleasantness. I remember hearing a comment after a Palm Sunday service some years ago when a man said as he was leaving, “I thought church was supposed to be cheerful.” It’s no accident, for example, that the attendance at our Easter services will be ten times the attendance on Good Friday.
Everything in Jesus’ life led to the cross. He had been a teacher and healer, attracting enormous crowds in the remote region of Galilee. He gathered around him people whose lives had worn them down and who hungered for God. He welcomed into his circle the ones no one else wanted—the sick, the lonely, and the poor. And told them of a kingdom of love and justice that was beginning to break into their world.
He didn’t have to go to Jerusalem. There was plenty of work to do right there where he was helping people to trust a God who knew them each by name. Finally, though, he made the fateful choice to go. He decided to act out his people’s deepest hope—that a messiah, a savior, would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey to inaugurate the new age. And so as he approached the city throngs of ordinary people ripped palm branches from the trees and threw their coats on the dusty road and shouted, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
But then things shifted with terrifying speed, and within five days he was dead. Christians believe that everything Jesus said and did found its ultimate expression in this twisted figure hanging in our midst today.
But who is this tormented man hanging here? Was he simply a great teacher, or a martyr in the cause of justice, or a good man caught up in tragic events that spun out of control? No, we Christians believe that this death long ago means something far more for us—and for the whole world.
I once heard an account of the revered New Yorker writer of a generation ago, Joseph Mitchell, going to sit at the deathbed of his sister. “Buddy,” she asked him, “what does Jesus’ death on the cross a long time ago have to do with my sins now?” And Mitchell hesitated, then answered slowly, stammering as he often did, “Somehow, he, he was our representative.”
This wasn’t one man alone’s betrayal, trial, and death. What happened on that cross 2,000 years ago matters for all time because this representative human being, who gathers up all of who we are, went into death for us. I want to suggest today three ways that the death of this representative man makes all the difference for us.
First, Jesus’ agony on the Cross represents all the cruelty we human beings inflict on one another. It’s comforting to convince ourselves that the crucifixion is a story of local leaders wanting to get rid of a troublemaker. But of course this story didn’t just happen once. Children of God have been killed in every generation. History is strewn with holy wars, concentration camps, and prison cells that seek to destroy God’s faithful servants. In the world’s history of this century we can list Auschwitz and Dresden, Capetown and Baghdad. There are crosses littered across human history.
And Jesus made clear that if people wanted to know him, they would find him among the most vulnerable around us. “In as much as you have done it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.” There on the cross he represents all those it is easiest for us to walk by on the street and forget.
We hold in our hearts and prayers this day the terrible suffering of the people of Iraq. There is no way to see the pictures of the destruction of the great mosque in Baghdad, and with it nearly a hundred lives, without seeing the face of Christ in those victims. There is no way to see the courage and pain of American soldiers arriving at Walter Reed Hospital beginning years of recovery from devastating wounds, without seeing the face of Jesus.
And we who gather in the presence of one who loved the least and lost can’t help but pray for our Latino brothers and sisters in this time of fear about their future. Congress wrestles with an impossibly difficult challenge—to find an orderly, generous, compassionate way to make room for a new generation of immigrants seeking refuge and hope in America as so many other immigrant groups have before. But that process surely cannot be punitive and destructive. “Give me your lost, your homeless,” the Statue of Liberty declares. Sounds like Christ himself. We must be careful how we treat our newest immigrants. Jesus is among them.
When we abandon the poor, when we allow the homeless to be thrown onto the streets, we crucify our Lord as surely as the Romans did on Calvary. When we fail to take the side of victims of injustice in this city or around the world, we hammer the nails into the Lord of glory. When we participate in a business life that cuts corners and manipulates truth, that blithely destroys our natural world, or takes advantage of workers in desperately poor countries, we join ranks with the crucifiers through the centuries.
Jesus hangs on the cross representing all of the victims of a world hell-bent on power and prosperity at all costs.
This crucified Lord is our representative in a more surprising way too. The one we see hanging on the cross actually represents you and me, and all the ways we crucify ourselves. Jesus was the complete human being, living his life free of fear, free of possessiveness, free to be himself and to give himself freely away. And now as he hangs on the cross he reveals the ways we crucify the True Self we were made to be, rather than allow ourselves to risk real living. In a book called The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger the monk Sebastian Moore says that the crucifixion is above all about our frightened refusal to be our real selves.
Our real secret, he says, the secret that operates in every corner of our lives, is that we don’t believe in ourselves, and because of that we react in fear, we build walls to protect our frightened inner selves, we subtly corrupt even the best parts of our lives. We use each other for reassurance, to make a sale, to get a step ahead, or simply for pleasure. We plunge into a driven, acquisitive culture, work ourselves to the bone, and keep busy enough to silence the restlessness within. “The most passionately protected thing in us is our mediocrity,” Moore says.
Our only hope is that our fearful behavior can be exposed, but in a way that we can see God holding us and showing us a love that can contain and heal it all. The crucified Jesus is no stranger, because we are not only the crucifiers, but the crucified. Here at the foot of the cross today, the one hanging there represents you and me, crucified by our fear of really living.
But all this would be meaningless if Jesus were not our representative in the most important way of all. Hanging on the cross he represents for us not only our sinful, wounded selves, but the face of God. Jesus on the cross is the clearest picture of God the human race has ever seen.
In the midst of the worst evil imaginable, and the worst suffering human beings can endure, it is God who is there on the Cross, going through everything, even the scream of Godforsakeness, “My God, why have you forsaken me.” God doesn’t remove evil, or destroy it, or solve it. God embraces it. God gathers in all the pain of our cruelty and fear and rejection, absorbs it, and in absorbing it creates the possibility of life beginning again. Jesus is there representing God to us, and us to God. And because God is eternal, what we see going on once on Calvary reveals what God is doing always and everywhere.
How the cross changes us we can’t fully explain, though Christians have tried many ways. He was a sacrifice for us, some say, like an ancient burnt offering to God to close the gap between the divine and us. Or, on the cross he defeated the most destructive cosmic energies and powers with his unstoppable love and forgiveness. Or, simply, he showed us love that will stop at nothing, even death, to bring us home.
There’s an old Rod Steiger movie called The Pawnbroker about a German concentration camp survivor struggling to make ends meet running a pawn shop in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York. He can’t shake the flashbacks, though, of the camps, and even in his life now he sees misery everywhere—poor people selling off the last things they own, thieves getting a few dollars cash for their stolen goods, pimps and drug dealers trying to do business through his shop.
More and more the pawnbroker is worn down by the evil around him, to the point that he begins physically to collapse.
Then something terrible happens. Men with guns break into the store to rob him and are about to kill him when his young assistant, a vibrant Hispanic man named Jésus, leaps to his defense and ends up being shot instead of him.
In the final scene the Pawnbroker hovers over the body of this man who died for him, and then we watch him walking away, stunned—that Jésus would do that for him, that someone would be willing to die for him, that in this world such love could exist. And it’s clear that seeing that has pushed him to the verge of a new life.
The final word of this day is that our representative has sacrificed his life for us. We who crucify him now see in his face the deepest truth of all—a God who has climbed up on the cross, fitted his hands onto the nails of the beam, and died so that we can start to live.
All we can do in response today is to receive that love and be grateful. The hymn we sang a few moments ago puts it well:
My song is love unknown, my savior’s love to me,
Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.
Oh who am I, that for my sake,
My Lord should take frail flesh and die.