“Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54). Their affirmation was not an official statement. But it carries more weight than any political, religious, or military edict. Those who were closest to Jesus, as He died, recognized His divinity.
The crowd joined the Jewish leaders and Romans to crucify Jesus. The unanimity of those who represented the world against the innocent Lamb justified their position legally, religiously, and socially. Too often, we still believe this way, that, “This is the way the world works! Somebody has to pay!”
In Christ Jesus, God was willing to die at the hands of humanity. He gave Himself to us and for us. To our will God submitted His own will. This self-giving created a vacuum of forsakenness which tore the heart of Jesus.
We killed the Son of God. God lets us have our way. Even when our way ends in death, God allows us freedom. Even when it ends in the death of God’s Son, God allows us agency. It looks like wrath to us, but it is the way of profound, un-controlling love.
Lord, thank you for revealing Your Son and our evil at the cross. May we receive your gracious forgiveness with gratitude and changed hearts. Amen.
What does it take to recognize the Son of God on the cross?
We must look back to the introduction to the reading for this morning. Jesus went to the place called Gethsemane, to pray. He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee with Him. While the disciples flagged with sleepy eyes, Jesus prayed three times “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matt 26:39b). “…But as You will!”
Where we get our desires defines how we live. We get our desires from one another. This begins as parents teach their children and siblings show one another the way to the ice cream. We get our desires from one another.
As we grow up, this process becomes less visible, but it is built into our system of life. World-based desires wind up self-centered. Worldly desires are marked by envy, revenge, and violence. Our enemies, our neighbors, Madison Avenue, and Washington, D.C., dictate our desires even when we are not aware of it.
Like any sane human being, Jesus did not want to suffer and die. But in His prayer, He gave His will over to the will of the Father. What His Father did with His own will fills out the rest of the story. Together, They gave Themselves to the will of the crowd. And this crowd represented the whole world, rejecting the life-giving mission and message of Jesus.
The dynamic of conflicting desires between people brings us squarely into the realm of human justice. Early on, society learned to handle interpersonal violence by creating a scapegoat to neutralize the growing conflicts of selfish willfulness. After His appearance with Caiaphas, we find Jesus before Pilate as the scapegoat to end all scapegoats, the Lamb of God.
To recognize the Son of God on the cross, we recognize the possible sources of our desires.
Pilate and Company
Pilate was managing the scapegoat mechanism. This so-called scapegoat mechanism is a device of polite societies everywhere. This mechanism works to make peace by the periodic sacrifice of a victim. Often, in our justice system, this victim is guilty of some terrible deeds and deserves death according to our standards.
Capital punishment troubles many of us. Arguments about how the death penalty deters crime may or may not be convincing. And the satisfaction of a vengeance wrought usually shows itself shallow and fleeting. Revenge leaves a deep bitterness in the soul.
More often, our scapegoats are not in the judicial system. As a prelude to the scapegoating of an individual, groups find solidarity and security by identifying the latest threat to their safety.
We think in binary and exclusive terms. We want it clear who is in and who is out of our group. We then scapegoat that person or group of people: Blacks, Whites, Mexicans, Muslims, Communists, women, men, heterosexuals, homosexuals, the rich, the poor. Almost any group can feel “picked on.”
As long as the conflicts are between groups of nearly equal size and power, we continue in the polarized situation such as we have in American politics today. Or, we see the world-wide conflicts such as that between the White Satan of American exceptionalism and the Axis of Evil in Islamic society.
This teetering war between groups takes a huge toll. It is horrible. Conflict between “equals” is symptomatic of our unresolved envy and bent towards violent resolution. Polarization is the first step towards rectifying our conflicting desires. We think, “Find some folks with whom you agree and dig in your heels!”
However, beware of when the majority finds a small group or an individual to blame for its ills. This often happens in the classroom or on the playground or in the boardroom or in the family or even in the church. Bullies can turn an entire class against the geek.
Whether a bonafide individual scapegoat or a commensurate enemy, the cure in either case is grace. Violence begets violence, vengeance compounds revenge. Grace gives new life. The grace of God in Jesus Christ identified the scapegoat mechanism and revealed the evil of the crowd.
To recognize the Son of God on the cross we must admit that violence funds society.
Soldiers’ Improv and More
The soldiers mocked Jesus. They improvised a riff on His rule as King.
The Prince of Peace was made to wear a warrior’s robe. They used the pretend scepter as a club against Him. The crown of thorns, their mock obeisance, and the sign they put above His head show us more about the soldiers than about Jesus. They were completely consumed by the system. The scapegoat mechanism works, and they were model employees.
The disciples fled; the crowds gathered. Only a few women disciples stood by at a distance. It is not an exaggeration to say that the whole world had turned against Jesus. “And all the people said, ‘His blood shall be on us and on our children!’” (Matthew 27:25, emphasis added). The phrase translated, “all the people,” literally means that all the people were complicit.
The scribes and elders and priests joined in identifying Jesus as the one who must die for His blasphemy and threats against the temple. Such it is with scapegoats. They become the source of all our troubles. We become unanimous against them; removing them, casting them out, killing them becomes the only viable solution.
To recognize the Son of God on the cross we admit our willingness to crucify others. Whether you realize it or not, to the extent you already think in non-violent terms, the story of Jesus has informed your life. Any gracious, forgiving, loving impulse the world finds today God gave us on the cross of Jesus. All genuine goodness comes from God and is revealed on the cross.
The Voice of Jesus
The gracious cure hung before them on the cross. The gracious cure calls for someone to stand apart from the crowd and to provide the minority report.
The gracious cure called for someone to endure the humiliation and to absorb the pain. The gracious cure called for someone to forgive our evil, sinful, violent actions and attitudes. The gracious cure called for God to give Himself for us, to us. And Jesus gave Himself.
We know this happened because Jesus sowed the seeds of a contrary witness. Crying out in what is the most difficult passage of Scripture to understand, Jesus said, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (27:46b).
The mystery of the Trinity complicates this exchange. We only hear God answer in the darkness, and the torn veil, and the earthquake, and the raising of the many dead from their tombs. We cannot appreciate one God in three persons no matter how many times we sing or teach or pray about it. Yet, we hear the Son of Man calling out to God, “Why have You forsaken Me?”
In Christ Jesus, (who is fully God and fully man), God was willing to die at the hands of humanity. He gave Himself to us and for us. To our will God submitted His own will. This self-giving created a vacuum of forsakenness which tore the heart of Jesus. And He cried out as He absorbed the terrible pain of our wrath.
That’s the best I can do to understand this mystery. Others have extended, alternative, explanations. I will rest in this, God loved us more than He loved Himself. God’s will was, in this awful moment, to abandon His will to our will.
To recognize the Son of God on the cross, we must see the love of God, willing and obedient unto death. We must see that the way to life requires self-giving through the place of living sacrifice. We must be willing to take up our own crosses and to follow Jesus. Amen.