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Understanding the Cross

Sermon - 4/09/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 15:32-42

Judy read for us the Palm Sunday passage, the choir has sung it for us, and so I now want to move to the end of holy week with Good Friday, and tie these two days together.

The Good Friday text, or a portion of it, from the 15th chapter of the gospel of Mark says:

25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ 27And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. 29Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ 31In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ 36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’


The season of Lent comes to a close with Palm Sunday.  It is about journeys.  Historically, it is about the journey that Jesus takes to Jerusalem.  Spiritually, it is about our journeys, our faith journeys that we take.  Hence the videos that we have been sharing on Sunday mornings about faith journeys, and we'll see one more in a bit.

We have been journeying through Lent this season, through holy week.  And each of the last 5 Sunday's we have looked at each of the weekdays during that week as told to us in the gospel of Mark.  And since today is Palm Sunday, I want to take us back now to the first day of holy week, when Jesus made that rather dramatic entry into Jerusalem, with its festive crowd with palm branches and shouts of 'Hosanna'!  It would appear that it was a great start to the week.  But we know where it ends.  What went wrong?  How are we to understand this transition from the celebrating jubilee crowd to the cries of 'Crucify him!'?  What does the death of Jesus mean?

There are a host of interpretations in the New Testament given to the crucifixion.  And in the book that we are studying for our Lenten study on Tuesday nights, The Last Week written by Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, there are five typical examples given of interpretations given of the death of Jesus in the New Testament.  And I think it's surprising to people to hear that there are so many different interpretations given to the death of Jesus.  And most of these, at least some of these, should sound familiar to you.

First of all, there is the very familiar notion that Jesus died for our sin.  Paul says in Romans 3:  "Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood".

And typical of Paul, it's quite a mouthful.  And I think probably it leaves us scratching our heads and saying 'What did he say?'.  But it's really a simple notion, it means just that Jesus took our sin to the grave.  That our sin is dead to God.  And we don't have to worry about how that can be.  How can it be that someone 2,000 years ago could do something that would take away our sin yet today?  Because we spend too much time trying to figure that out, we miss the beauty and the power of this image -- that it is the sin of humanity (including our own) that is crucified with Jesus.  That we might experience the fullness of life in God.  That's all it means.

Secondly, the death of Jesus reveals the depth of God's love for us.  And we all know John 3:16 -- 'For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son. . . .'  Paul says in Romans:  "He who did not withhold his own son but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?  For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor rules nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord".  That pretty much sums it up -- nothing can separate us from that love.  The death of Jesus reveals God's love for us.

Third, the death of Jesus represents the rejection by the world of Jesus' message and way.  And his resurrection, then, represents God's vindication of him and that message and that way.  Peter, on the day of Pentecost, says:  "God has made him Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified".  And what's quite striking in this gospel of Mark is the first person to refer to Jesus as the son of God -- were you listening?  is who? -- the Centurion!  The Centurion -- the first one to call Jesus son of God.  And that is striking because 'son of God' was the title used for Caesar.  And so here we have a Roman official using it.  It's kind of a self-judgment against Roman imperial theology that the Centurion at the foot of the cross is calling Jesus son of God instead of Caesar.  So simultaneously, it serves both as a confession of faith and as a condemnation of Roman power and that imperial theology.

To put it differently, the crucifixion is the world's "No" to Jesus, just as the resurrection is God's "Yes".

Fourth, the crucifixion reveals the bankruptcy, then, of worldly power as exercised through military domination.  In Colossians we read that 'in the cross, God disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it'.  Triumphing!  In the cross -- in the crucifixion.  Over worldly powers, rulers, and authorities.  How can this be?

I recall for you, if you can recall in your mind, that image from the mid-60s, I don't remember it specifically, except that I've seen it so many times played over and over again.  Remember when Bull Connor turned the fire-hoses on the peaceful demonstrators, the marchers, where was that, Selma?  Turned the fire hoses on them to clear the streets.  And that scene, that violent scene, played over and over and over again on T.V. sets across America.  Now Sheriff Connor won the battle -- he cleared the streets, got rid of those protesters.  But he lost the hearts and the minds of the American public and thereby insured the victory of the civil rights movement.

In the same way, the crucifixion of Jesus is the beginning of God's victory over the domination systems of the world.  It reveals their bankruptcy.

Fifth and last, the crucifixion reveals the way of Jesus.  The way of the cross.  Quoting Paul one more time, from his letter to the Galatians:  "I have been crucified with Jesus.  It is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me".

One of the reasons that we perform baptisms by immersions is because it symbolizes so powerfully, bodily, physically -- death, being buried with Jesus and then being raised to new life.  The way of the cross -- of dying and rising with Christ -- is the central metaphor for Christian life.

So here we have five different ways of understanding the death of Jesus.  And I've taken the time this morning to uplift these five because I want you to think about them.  And the importance that they play in your life and faith.  And I invite you this week, as we approach Easter, to ask yourself this question:  are all five of these equally helpful?  Are some more helpful than others?  Some may not be helpful at all, or perhaps maybe even unhelpful.

I remind you, that in our tradition, we have no creed but Christ.  That means if you find one or more of those that aren't helpful to you, you can throw it out!  You don't have to believe them all.  There's nothing that says to be a Christian you have to accept all five of these things.  

And since we are using the gospel of Mark as our guide in this Lenten season, I want to take another look at these five from the perspective of Mark's gospel and his understanding of the cross.  And ask, which of them are in Mark?

I'll go backwards, beginning with the 5th, the way of the cross.  Most certainly in Mark.  That is a central theme, indeed, of Mark, of this journey to Jerusalem.  After the first prediction of his passion, Jesus says to the disciples:  "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me".  The way of the cross -- it's a central theme of Mark's story of the journey to Jerusalem.

Number 4, bankruptcy of worldly power.  As I suggested last Sunday, with the story of Barabbas, this is one of the themes of that story.  That the leaders chose the violent Barabbas over the non-violent Jesus and in a way that is a pronouncement of judgment upon the rulers and upon the city in Mark.  And in the year 70, Jerusalem, as a result, was destroyed.  That is the bankruptcy of worldly power, to take the way of violence.

Number 3, the rejection of the way of Jesus by worldly power.  Mark tells us when Jesus was stripped and mocked, he was surrounded by a cohort of soldiers.  A cohort, in the Roman system, was 600 soldiers.  Jesus is outnumbered 600 to 1.  And they place a crown of thorns on his head, they strike him, they spit on him, the kneel in mock homage to him.  If that isn't a rejection by the worldly powers, I don't know what is.  The rejection of the way of Jesus by worldly powers.

Number 2, the depth of God's love.  After that first prediction of his passion, Jesus goes to the mountaintop, remember in the transfiguration story, where he appears with Moses and Elijah and the voice from the heavens says "This is my beloved son, listen to him".  And later on in Mark's gospel, he tells us this beloved son is to give his life as a ransom for many.  Ransom is a payment for liberation.  Jesus gives his life as that payment to liberate the people of God to experience the fullness of life.  That is the depth of God's love in action.

Number 1, Jesus died for our sins.  Listen to what the gospel of Mark says about this doctrine, considered so central to Christian faith:  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And that's it.  That's the entirely of what Mark says about that notion that Jesus died for our sins.  And if Mark, the first to write a gospel, makes no mention of the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin, how essential can it be?  Borg and Crossan conclude, in fact, that Jesus died not for our sins but because of human sin.  The sin of oppression and domination and injustice and the abuse of power.

So I am suggesting that this idea of Jesus' sacrifice for our sin, it's not that it's wrong, it's just that it's not necessary.  And sometimes it's downright unhelpful.  I had a woman in the first service, one of our new members, who said:  "You know I almost got up and left in the middle of that sermon because I just can't deal with that notion of sacrifice for my sins.  When I was four years old, I was scared by a storm and the thunder.  And I was told that the thunder was God's anger for sin and for my sin".  What a terrible thing to put on a four year-old.  I hope we have learned, and can do better than that. 

The whole point of the passion story as told in the gospel in Mark is not the substitution by Jesus for us, but participation with Jesus by us.  That is, that we are called to go with Jesus on this way that confronts the worldly powers of domination and injustice with the alternative of God's kingdom.  God's way of being present here on earth.  And perhaps the ultimate symbol of that confrontation is the story of Palm Sunday.

Mark tells us Jesus came to Jerusalem from Bethany, that is, from the East moving West.  Now, we know that Passover time was a time of frequent unrest in Jerusalem, as thousands of pilgrims flooded the city.  And Passover, remember, is the celebration of the liberation of the people of God from foreign domination.  Then under Egypt, now under Rome.  It was a time of national fervor.  And hence there was all kinds of unrest, and in fact there were many riots and massacres by Roman authorities during Passover.  So to keep things from getting out of control, as they sometimes did, the Roman governor would bring his troops (stationed on the coast where the governor typically spent most of his time, understandably), a cohort of soldiers, into Jerusalem.  Would come from the West, marching East into the city.

So here we have one procession from the West marching East:  Roman standards and flags, soldiers on horses, all in full armor, marching in unison to send a clear message -- don't mess with us.

And then another procession, from the East coming West.  Palm branches, hosanna's, Jesus and a donkey, clothed in peasant's garb, walking casually.  A deliberate and intentional parody of Roman military power.

Now it too had a clear message, an unmistakable message:  this is the way, the light, and the truth of God.  This is the way God wants us to be in this world.  To rule with gentleness, and to serve with humility.

Undoubtedly, the Romans laughed at this puny display of power.  But as the week wore on, and the popularity of this donkey-riding messiah grew, the threat became all too real.  And so they did what they had to do, they did what domination systems always do.  They crucified him.  And in the final act of irony that showed their "No" and God's "Yes", they hung a sign that said "King of the Jews".  Hanging there on the cross.

It all begins with two processions, just days before.  The hard question, authors Borg and Crossan put to us, is this:  which procession are we in?  

 


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