Encounter: The Cross

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
April 14, 2017
Good Friday

John 19: 16b-30 (CEB)
The soldiers took Jesus prisoner. 17Carrying his cross by himself, he went out to a place called Skull Place (in Aramaic, Golgotha). 18That’s where they crucified him—and two others with him, one on each side and Jesus in the middle. 19Pilate had a public notice written and posted on the cross. It read “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.” 20Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city and it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. 21Therefore, the Jewish chief priests complained to Pilate, “Don’t write, ‘The king of the Jews’ but ‘This man said, “I am the king of the Jews.”’”

22Pilate answered, “What I’ve written, I’ve written.”

23When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and his sandals, and divided them into four shares, one for each soldier. His shirt was seamless, woven as one piece from the top to the bottom. 24They said to each other, “Let’s not tear it. Let’s cast lots to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill the scripture,

They divided my clothes among themselves,
and they cast lots for my clothing.
That’s what the soldiers did.

25Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene stood near the cross. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

28After this, knowing that everything was already completed, in order to fulfill the scripture, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29A jar full of sour wine was nearby, so the soldiers soaked a sponge in it, placed it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips. 30When he had received the sour wine, Jesus said, “It is completed.” Bowing his head, he gave up his life.

When I was fifteen, I had what is unquestionably the most transformative experience of my life. I was on a youth retreat. It was the last evening of the retreat and we had just shared in a powerful worship service with communion. The thirty or so of us in attendance were spread through the cavernous sanctuary of Central United Methodist Church in Knoxville. I don’t remember every single detail, but here’s what I do remember. It was quiet—no music, no talking, nothing. Our instructions were to reflect and pray in solitude. It was dark; really, really dark. I think the only light was shining came through the small square windows of the doorways into the hall beyond. I remember my eyes taking a long time to adjust to the darkness of the room. And I do remember the cross—that is the vision that is seared into my memory. It was a simple wooden cross that hung above the communion table. On this night it was nothing more than a shadow—barely lit from behind by those lights out in the hallway.

I must’ve looked at that cross for an hour or more as I prayed. My grandfather had been diagnosed just a few days before with an inoperable brain tumor. He would live another four years, but we didn’t know then that he would hang on that long. In the midst of my sadness, I just wanted to know that God was with me. What followed my opening plea was most unexpected, and looking back on that evening over the years, here’s what stands out: I was reminded in that moment of all the people in my life who had been instrumental in shaping who I was to that point—and let me assure you it was far more than just my parents. God was letting me know that I wasn’t alone. But after that came a nudging—it was the first inkling of a call to ministry; God urging me to use my life to make a difference in the lives of others, to work in shaping lives the way others had shaped mine…All of these memories come with that picture of the simple cross that hung before me in that cavernous, dark, sanctuary. I stepped before that cross as one person, I left it as an entirely different person; my life had changed.

On the day that Jesus was crucified, he hung on a simple wooden cross he had carried to Skull Place. He surely felt the pain of the nails that held is body in place as over the course of several hours he slowly asphyxiated. At his feet, nothing more than a few inches off the ground, were several people; some of those people were the officials and soldiers who had put Jesus on the cross. They were busy debating the merits of Jesus’ title and divvying up his only belongings by casting lots. The other folks were some of Christ’s disciples. They were there to be present with Jesus in his suffering; to do whatever they could to alleviate the torturous pain he was experiencing.

It seems like an unusual gathering, but what strikes me as I think about those people who stood around Jesus at the hour of his crucifixion is that, together, they are the embodiment of everything Jesus Christ was about—overcoming evil with good. On one extreme was the evil that so often consumes us; the soldiers, distracted by greed and folly, were unconcerned by the suffering and death happening right before their eyes. On the other extreme are these disciples of Christ; the scant few who were not hidden away in fear. They are the embodiment of God’s presence. A few hours before, Christ cried out to his Father, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” And now, even as Christ hangs on the cross, they are the presence of God in these difficult hours of pain, loneliness, alienation, and death.

I think we are here today, at this hour of the crucifixion, because we know that Christ’s death means something; it matters. And yet, we wonder why: why did Jesus have to die? And, what does his death mean for my life? The really amazing thing to me is that the answers to those questions are found right in the people who stand at the foot of the cross as Jesus hung there, dying. Why did Jesus have to die? Jesus had to die because we kill innocent people. Jesus had to die because we don’t stand up in the face of oppression and fight against injustice; we just go along with it. Jesus had to die because we give in to temptation. Jesus had to die because we get caught up in greed, and folly, and all the worldly things that stand against everything Christ is about.

So, since Jesus had to die, what does Christ’s death mean for my life? It means that I can change. It means that I can have a new beginning. It means that I can go from being the person who stands against everything God is about to being the person who embodies God’s love in the face of life’s greatest hardships. That’s what Christ’s death means for my life. That’s what the cross represents. And you know what’s so beautifully profound about Christ’s crucifixion? Christ hung on that cross for every person who was around him that day—for Pilate and the chief priests, for the soldiers, for Mary his mother, and his aunt, and Mary Magdalene, and the “beloved disciple.” Maybe, just maybe, that “beloved disciple” isn’t named because we are all the beloved of God. Each of us has the opportunity to be profoundly changed by Jesus’ life and ministry, and even his death; and through that change, each of us has the opportunity to share Christ’s love with others when they most need it; to embody God’s love in times of pain, loneliness, isolation, and even death.

You know, on that early Spring evening of 1995, I didn’t walk out of the sanctuary of Central United Methodist Church a righteous person, I just walked out a changed person. And I don’t know that I could even begin to count the number of times since that I have stood before the cross completely caught up in my own “stuff”, distracted by the world, and unaware of the pain and suffering I was inflicting at the very least on God, if not others as well; probably hundreds of times. But here’s what I do know, it’s because of that cross and the life of the person that hung on it, that I can be someone different. It is because of the Spirit that breathed out with his final words, “It is finished,” that I can be changed.

Christ died. On this day, some two-thousand years ago, he bowed his head and breathed his last. His life was finished, but it was the culmination of what God had sent him to do. The cross is not a sign of defeat, but a proclamation that even still, God’s redeeming love continues.

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