Introduction: Many people have crosses. Here are my favorites. (Show the crosses and tell the occasions when I received them.) Many of us wear crosses, but their meaning often has little to do with the crucifixion. A professor once told our class that we should wear little electric chairs to remember that crosses were instruments of torture and execution.
Situation: The Romans learned about crucifixion from the Carthiginians. After naval defeats, they crucified the admiral who lost the battle. Crucifixion made a powerful point. The Romans adopted it as they conquered territory leaving behind small detachments to pacify large populations. Crucifixion warned everyone not to mess with Roman authority.
Crucifixion followed a standard format. The victim was led through the streets along the longest route. A soldier led with a placard showing the crime against Rome. Behind this soldier came the victim carrying the crossbar. Other soldiers followed, prodding the victim and controlling the crowd. In Jesus’ case, the placard read, “King of the Jews.” They led Him through the streets of Jerusalem, out of the Ephraim gate, and to the top of Golgotha. In her blog this week, Jane Patterson mentioned that one of the tragedies from the crucifixion of Jesus is that many people may not have even noticed. This violent form of death had become somewhat commonplace before any festival with a large gathering that might turn riotous.
A sequence of events then unfolded when they reached their destination. First the pious ladies of the city offered pain-numbing wine mixed with myrrh. Jesus refused. Then the soldiers stripped him of his clothing, tripped him backwards onto the cross, nailing his wrists and ankles to the beams. This action involved several soldiers as they pinned him to the wood so that the executioner could locate the hollow of the wrists and the spot for nailing both feet together to the cross. Once fixed to the wood, they lifted the assemblage up and into the post-hole. The victim hung about six feet above the ground in a prominent spot so that everyone coming in and out of the city would get the message not to challenge Roman authority.
In previous eras the victim sat on a saddle. Unfortunately the process lasted for three days allowing the victim to insult Rome. To prevent further insolence, the Romans removed the saddle. Without support, the body sagged against the wounds in the hands. In order to breathe, the victim had to pull himself up level to the cross bar. Eventually the leg and arm muscles would give way and the diaphragm would no longer move air. The person died of asphyxiation after hours of torture. In Jesus’ case, he died in only three hours.
While Jesus struggled for breath, He managed to utter 7 sentences, according to the four Gospels. These last gasps of air revealed clearly the kind of person He was. He entrusted the care of his mother to John. He was thirsty. He assured the believing thief of salvation. He forgave the sins of those who crucified him. He asked why God had forsaken him. He entrusted his spirit to God. And then he cried out that all was finished. To the bitter end Jesus remained loving, forgiving, and very human in relationship to God and others. An innocent and pure victim died that day on the cross.
I grew up with a version of the cross that assumed that God needed a sacrifice for our sins in order to let us into heaven. As I grew older that idea bothered me more and more until I realized how horribly God was portrayed. There are many theories of why Jesus died and opinions on whether or not he knew in advance that he was going to be crucified. You have all studied these perspectives enough to have lively discussions. Perhaps your view of what the cross means has changed over time and accelerated during your seminary studies.
Solution: Without attempting to theologize on the meaning of the mystery of the cross, I do want to point out two very obvious parts of the dialogue between humanity and God. Through this symbolic act there are two words spoken. In the cross, the word from humanity to God is a clear, “No!” Yet on this same cross, the word to humanity from God is a resounding “Yes!” In my perspective, the response from God who is rejected, abused, and tortured to death is crucial. Rather than seeking revenge or perpetuating the conflict between God and humanity, God shocks us. Though we are against God, God is still for us. There is nothing we can do to keep God from loving us. That is what I see as I peer into this mystery. I see awesome and unfathomable love.
Conclusion: Do you ever wonder if God really loves you? I remember as a small child wondering if my Dad loved me as much as my Mom did. I believed Mom loved me more because I spent all day with her and felt safe in her presence. Dad, on the other hand, couldn’t be around enough for me to feel as comfortable. One day, however, my belief that Mom loved me more was challenged. While frying meat in an iron skillet the grease caught fire. She screamed as the flames licked the cabinets and curtains. Rocketing out of his chair, Dad grabbed the iron handle and rushed to the yard. Once safe, we examined his hand. He was horribly burned. From then on, if I ever wondered if my Dad loved me, I would picture his hand, burned badly for our safety. There are times when things happen causing us to doubt God’s love. All we have to do is close our eyes and picture His hands, pierced with nails. Today, let us walk with Jesus through the events of His crucifixion. Let us recall again that God loves us more than we can fathom. If you ever doubt His love for you, close your eyes and see His hands.
Dave Scheider is the Director of the Loise Henderson Wessendorf Center for Christian Ministry and Vocation at Seminary of the Southwest. Prior to joining the faculty of Seminary of the Southwest, Dave served as an Army Chaplain for 25 years.