When I was a young boy in Sunday School, I somehow got the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion was a unique event. I knew about the two brigands that were with him on Golgotha, because I had seen a particularly gruesome picture of the three men on crosses in a Bible picture book. But I thought this was the only event of its kind, and I didn’t learn until sometime much later that crucifixions were a common occurrence in the Roman Empire during that time.
Crucifixion was the dark side of the Pax Romana, that period of political stability that for over a century kept the peace from Rome out to the edges of the known world. During that time there were tens of thousands of crucifixions by order of Roman authorities. Crucifixion was so common that poles were permanently set up in many public places so as to be ready when needed. When Jesus carried his cross on Good Friday, and later, when Jesus was too beat up to continue, when Simon of Cyrene carried it for him, it probably wasn’t the whole cross they carried, but just the top cross bar. The upright poles were most likely there all the time, kept in readiness. In that world at that time crucifixion was a daily fact of life.
And yet, curiously, the accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus that we have in the Gospels, as brief as they are, are the most extensive accounts of crucifixion we have in ancient literature. If you stop to think about it, it makes a certain sense. Crucifixion isn’t something one wants to talk about or write about. It just wasn’t a topic for polite society. No, the upper classes of Roman society didn’t want to think about crucifixion.
Nonetheless, they tolerated the practice as an expedient way to keep the masses in line, as you and I, to some degree, tolerate capital punishment in our country. Such punishments are always for others, not for us. And educated, literate Roman citizens need not fear crucifixion. Nobody they knew needed to fear crucifixion. Crucifixion was reserved for nobodies: slaves, bandits, rebels, and conquered enemies.
And so it was that, when Jesus was crucified on that hill in Jerusalem, he died the death of a nobody, the death of a slave. We can well imagine how this must have been profoundly disappointing to his followers. You get a hint of this almost wistful disappointment in Luke’s story of the walk to Emmaus. The risen Jesus, unrecognized, is walking with two disciples and Cleopas starts telling Jesus about Jesus, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21)
Those high hopes about Jesus were what the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday was all about. When Jesus came into Jerusalem the people put down their garments in his path and waved palms. It was a royal entrance. Every Jew knew that certain things had to happen before God came among them in his fullness. The Romans had to be driven out, the temple purified, and a descendant of David take the throne of Israel once again.
So on Palm Sunday Jesus comes into Jerusalem and gets a king’s reception. The crowds shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highes theaven.” This is messiah talk. And messiah talk isn’t just religious, it is political. The Romans must have been justifiably nervous. There were big crowds there for the Passover festival. A messianic pretender could only mean turmoil and unrest.
And to exacerbate things, the very first thing Jesus does after coming into Jerusalem is to cleanse the temple. This is more than just messiah talk now. This is a highly symbolic messianic gesture. I am sure there were many that day who sadly shook their heads, and saw a cross in Jesus’ immediate future. They knew, as Tom Wright once said, “people who said and did the kind of things Jesus said and did usually ended up on crosses.” The Romans were not patient with insurrectionists and revolutionaries, even if their claims were wrapped up in religious talk.
So there seemed to be only two possibilities. Either Jesus was who he said he was, and he would drive out the Romans and take the throne as the anointed one of God, or he would end up on a cross. But what nobody anticipated is what actually happened. Jesus failed to conquer the Romans, and he was crucified, and that should have been the end of it.
But that isn’t what happened. Something else happened. The claim then and now is that God raised Jesus from the dead, and not just temporarily like Lazarus was raised from the dead to die eventually, but that Jesus was raised to never die again. Indeed, the claim then and now is that Jesus shares in the divine life, that to know Jesus is in some very real sense to know God.
And, as Philippians 2:5-11 proclaims, it was his death itself that makes him worthy of the name “Lord,” a name previously reserved for God. As one of our hymns on that passage says, “T’is the Father’s pleasure, we should call him Lord, who from the beginning was the mighty Word.”(Photo; R. L. Floyd: Celtic cross at First Church, Pittsfield)