Not too many years ago a bishop told the story of taking a break in the middle of the day to go to a department store to buy his wife a Christmas present. A nicely dressed young woman waited on him at the perfume counter. Because he was working, the bishop was wearing his purple shirt with collar and a blue blazer. Around his neck was a chain from which hung a large, gold pectoral cross. The young woman commented on how pretty it looked. She then asked him if it had any special meaning.
Lest we be too judgmental of the sales clerk, we might want to remind ourselves that there are people from different eras who would frown upon the cavalier way we use the cross today. For us, it functions theologically as a symbol of redemption. It functions devotionally as a sign of God’s great love for us. It functions spiritually to remind us to pick up our cross daily and follow Jesus. But for the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, it functioned one and only one way. It was a political symbol of Roman power and domination. It was an instrument Rome used to intimidate and humiliate any person or group or movement that threatened the ‘peace’ they brought to the regions they occupied. This horrific method of execution made a very, very public statement to occupied people, “You really don’t want to ruffle our feathers.”
Thousands upon thousands of people were crucified by Rome every year. Typically it would take several agonizing days for a person to die. It was not unusual for corpses to remain on a cross for days and weeks. For occupied people living under Roman rule, the way we wear and display crosses today would be for them the equivalent in our day of wearing a symbol of an electric chair. It was as repulsive to them as Jihadist videos of beheadings are to us.
That the Cross has been transformed in our eyes is a testimony to God’s ability to redeem the absolute worst in life. We risk losing an appreciation for the magnitude of this great act if we lose sight of how terribly awful the cross really was.
John’s account of the trial and crucifixion leaves no doubt that Jesus is put to death for claiming to be the King of Jews. More than in the other gospels, in John’s telling it is Jewish leaders who force the issue with Rome’s authority. Pilate, for his part, is portrayed as a reluctant participant who eventually hands over Jesus to an ugly and murderous mob. While other gospels place more weight and responsibility on Pilate, all four agree that Jesus is crucified for claiming to be a king.
There is a second thing to which all four gospels testify. The kingship of Jesus begins as he reigns on the cross.
His kingdom begins with an exchange. On the cross God says to humankind, “I take upon myself all the hurt and all the pain and all the brokenness and all the evil and all the sin of the world. I forsake none of it. I turn my back on no one for any reason. I take it all into myself as the ultimate demonstration of my deep desire to be in a covenant relationship with all that I have created.” And then God says, “I take into myself all that is bad so that I can pour into you all that is good. I fill you with my love so that you may love as I love you. I extend to you forgiveness and grace so that you may offer forgiveness and grace to one another. I give of myself to you so that you may give of yourselves to one another.”
Years ago I knew a brilliant neurosurgeon who was an incredibly down to earth person. He talked with me about my work and my interests and the conversation always flowed so naturally. One day he had to take a phone call from a colleague and immediately launched into conversation of medical terminology that might as well have been a foreign language. The issues they discussed were completely beyond my comprehension. It was then that I realized how much my friend took upon himself to be in relationship with me. I could never ever have picked up on all his medical training so that I could relate to him.
Good Friday proclaims that God does what is necessary to be in relationship with us, what we ourselves can never do. God in the person of Christ bears all that is broken so that we might live into all that is blessed. This is the kingdom of God.
There has been a good deal of conversation this week about Indiana’s religious freedom law. I can’t speak to other religions, but I believe we followers of Christ are never called to discriminate against a person or group based on our religious belief. We believe that on the Cross God takes into God’s self all of the evil and the sin in the world and pours into us all that is good. Our call is not to judge, not to accuse, not exclude, but to welcome, to affirm, and to embrace.
Look at Jesus’ life. Look at those with whom he associates. They are tax-collectors and prostitutes and lepers and people possession by demons and Roman military officials. He sits at table with these folks and invites them to be his disciples. He extends God’s love in his day to the very people who would have been the targets of a ‘religious freedom’ bill had there been one.
We are about to engage the Solemn Collects, which are my favorite part of the Good Friday liturgy. They remind us that as Jesus’ work in this world comes to a close, our work in Jesus’ Name begins. Like the Cross, the Collects remind us that Christ bears all that is broken so that we might live into all that is blessed.