Rev. Sabrina Ingram
John 19: 19 – 42

When Terry and I were in Italy we visited a cemetery of allied troops killed in battle. On the white grave markers were many religious and national emblems such as a Star of David, a Medicine Wheel and a Maple Leaf. All of them positive images of heritage and home. But by far the most widespread symbol was that of the cross. The cross is not a happy symbol. It’s a symbol of an ancient form of capital punishment. Having a cross on a gravestone is rather akin to having a picture of a noose to represent a hanging or a flame to commemorate someone burnt at the stake. It’s like having a guillotine or an electric chair. Or how about a rock for stoning or a needle for a lethal injection? What? Too gory? Disturbing? Or just plain inappropriate? If you lived in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death, a cross was simply a Roman instrument of torture for those who condemned to a criminal’s death. Of all the methods of execution I just touched on, a cross was probably the cruelest. Josephus and other historians comment on the horrors of crucifixion which was a slow, long and painful process. The piercing through the hands and feet were agonizing, the pulling and lurching of the body to place it on the cross felt as torturous as a long slow stretch on the rack. Then, one would writhe in pain trying to hold up the weight of their body while the slow dripping of blood from the wounds created an insatiable thirst. This went on for hours, even days, before one’s chest collapsed, and suffocation brought the relief of death. Crucifixion was an evil, gruesome form of punishment.

Crucifixion was a sign of extreme contempt. According to Today in the Word (Nov.1992), Julius Caesar had a serious dip in the popularity polls early in his career and decided to take a vacation overseas. En route to the island of Rhodes, pirates attacked the ship and captured Julius. They demanded a ransom of 12,000 gold pieces, and Julius’ staff went to arrange the payment. Julius spent almost 40 days with his captors, everyone of whom he told he would, someday, return to crucify them. The kidnapers were amused by his threats. When the ransom was paid, and Julius was freed, he turned his fleet around in pursuit of the pirates. All were captured and crucified. The cross was reserved for the worst criminals, sociopaths, the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth, those whom the Romans wanted to humiliate and brutalize. No one who died on a cross was considered brave, exceptional, elevated, noble, or important. It was an “honour” reserved for dirt bags.

As such, the cross is an odd symbol for a grieving mother to choose for the tomb stone of a precious son shot down in battle or for us to make into a lovely, shiny gold cross to hang about our neck. To any Roman citizen it would say: “Here’s my son, the dirt bag” or “Look at me, I admire and follow, a base degenerate”. A cross is an odd instrument for God to choose. Yet the cross is the central symbol of our faith. We’re called to put our trust in a crucified man in order to be saved. We’re told to take up our cross and follow him. Odd suggestions, if ever there were. How can an executed man save me? He couldn’t even save himself! Who wants a cross? It’s a sign of ethical failure, moral degeneracy and condemnation. One aspires to a crown, not a cross.

The cross of Christ is a scandal. In ancient times, polite society removed themselves from the emotional trauma of crucifixion. Cicero wrote, “Let the very mention of the cross be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.” People with delicate sensibilities preferred to pretend the cross didn’t exist. Not much has changed. Newsweek religion editor Kenneth L. Woodward writes: “Clearly, the cross is what separates the Christ of Christianity from every other Jesus. In Judaism there is no precedent for a Messiah who dies, much less as a criminal as Jesus did. In Islam, the story of Jesus’ death is rejected as an affront to Allah himself. Hindus accept only a Jesus who escapes the degradation of death. The figure of the crucified Christ, says one Buddhist, ‘is a very painful image for me. It does not contain joy or peace, and this does not do justice to Jesus’. There is, in short, no room in other religions for a Christ who experiences the full burden of mortal existence.”

It’s interesting that the Gospel writers did not deny Jesus’ crucifixion. If they wanted to impress us with a Messiah worth following, they’d have made up a more flattering story. They could have described the end of Jesus’ time on earth as being like that of Elijah who was lifted into heaven alive. Instead he hangs on a cross, pained, disgraced and abandoned. His biographers let him bear the full weight and degradation of a criminal’s death. On the other hand, the evangelists didn’t attempt to arouse our pity or play on our emotions in their description of Jesus’ crucifixion. They simply and faithfully reported the facts. They left out the gory details. They didn’t want to manipulate our feelings. They weren’t trying to evoke pride or pity. They weren’t wanting to arouse us to a forced and fleeting sentimentality, they wanted to arouse us to faith, a faith which comes from an awakening to the Divine purpose of Christ’s cross and death.

So, why did Jesus die? What as the purpose of that particular cross? Jesus’ death was like no other death in the history of humanity. On the cross where Jesus hung, one person died, an unjust death to serve a greater aim. Jesus didn’t die for himself – as Pilate admitted, he was not guilty of any crime. Nor did Jesus die for a political or religious cause. He wasn’t a political Messiah. He wasn’t trying to make a statement. Something occurred at Jesus’ crucifixion that is infinitely greater than a martyr’s death. We admire William Wallace dying for Scotland’s freedom and St. Stephen laying down his life out of faithfulness to Christ, but what they did was insignificant compared to what Jesus did. In his death on the cross one man, Jesus, died for all of humanity. One person suffered for every person. When Jesus died, he didn’t just die – he died for you.

On that day at Calvary the greatest exchange of all eternity took place. Jesus not only died for your benefit, he died in your place. Jesus redeemed us from the curse of sin by consenting to being cursed. Because we live in a world that has broken away from God’s will – that is a world where sin is lives and breathes and is present in each of us – we’re separated from God who is holy, set apart, sinless. And because we’re separated from God who is the source of all life, we’re all doomed not only to suffer a physical death, but to die spiritually and eternally. Rather than allowing humanity to bear that punishment, God laid our sin, mine, yours and the sin of the world on Jesus as he died on the cross. The punishment for sin was given to him alone to bear. In the depths of his soul Jesus bore the darkness and death of hell for us, “the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18). The punishment for all sin was inflicted on him. If we miss that point, we don’t discover the personal application of Jesus’ death towards our own eternal destiny. We can weep every Good Friday for the rest of our lives in sympathy for Jesus’ pain and it won’t do us a bit of good. John wrote his gospel so that “…you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31). Have you embraced the cross on that basis?

The last words Jesus spoke were, “It is finished!” (John 19: 30). What exactly was finished? Not only were Jesus’ life and suffering finished, his eternal, spiritual work was finished. The price for our redemption was completely paid. When you and I are struggling in our personal battles we must not forget the victory shout of our saviour. Jesus’ act of redemption was finished 2000 years ago. Our standing in God’s eyes is based on something completed by Jesus on the cross that day. I live in relationship with God not because of my own good conduct or moral code but because Jesus fulfilled God’s purpose through his own death. When you are flooded with doubts, tempted to fall away and give up, confused by some hardship or illness you’re going through, frightened that you may not be acceptable to God, remember, “It is finished!” It was finished by Jesus on the cross and it remains finished forever.

Have you seen Jesus as the one who took your punishment, so you will be forgiven and set free? Have you aligned yourself with Christ so that his separation from God at the point of death becomes the moment when your separation from God ends? That was and is the purpose of Jesus death on the cross. It only has value if we believe that, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5: 21) In many ways the full meaning of Jesus’ death is so tremendous, so loving, so immense it is unbelievable, yet we’re invited to believe. Through faith death on the cross becomes our personal means of salvation from the penalty and power of sin.

The reason, of course, that mother’s put crosses on their son’s grave or that we wear them on chains around our necks is to signify to the world that we, by grace through faith, are united with Christ. We trust that his death ensures our life. We trust that his separation from God, heals our separation from God. The cross is the symbol that says the death of Jesus is central to everything we are and do. It’s a symbol that says Christ exchanged his life for mine to free me from death. It’s also a symbol of another exchange – it says: I willingly admit that the punishment Jesus suffered belongs to me because on my own, I am the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth, a person worthy only of being brutally executed by capital punishment. I am a sinner who cannot save myself. I’m not heroic, brave, exceptional, holy or noble. I am unworthy. I should be hunted down and killed like a pirate. I deserve nothing less than to suffer and die on a cross. And yet, Jesus died there for me. I throw myself on his mercy. I live by his grace. I cherish his cross and I trust in his mercy.