(As we prepare for Holy Week I offer this sermon of mine from 2004, my last year (as it turned out) as pastor at First Church in Pittsfield. Mel Gibson’s controversial film Passion of the Christ had brought the issues of the cross into the public view, and provided an opportunity to address this (quite literally) “crucial” subject.)
“This year more than other years, there has been interest in the meaning of the passion of Christ because of the new Mel Gibson movie. I am not going to talk about the movie very much since I haven’t seen it. Seth Rogovoy from the Berkshire Eagle asked me to see it and be on a panel, but I said I wasn’t going to see it. But I had read the book!
I haven’t seen it for two reasons. The first is the same reason I have never seen Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. I’m a wimp. I experience film as a powerful medium, and I am emotionally effected by movie violence. Somehow I can deal with battles between hobbits and orcs, but the depiction of historical violence I find very disturbing.
The second reason I haven’t seen it is subtler, and perhaps harder to understand. It is my feeling that there are some things that shouldn’t be put on film, and I personally feel that the death of Jesus is one of them. That may seem hypocritical since I have a reproduction of Matthias Grünwald’s Crucifixion on the wall of my study. Artists have always depicted biblical events. Why not film artists? For me, it is the appearance of reality about film, that “You Were There” quality that makes it so powerful.
I know people who have loved this movie and people who have hated it, people who have felt their life changed by it and people who have walked out of it. I have spoken to people who felt the movie was anti-Semitic and people who didn’t. It seems the movie for some people has served as a kind of cinematic Rorschach test for beliefs people already hold.
However accurate the film is, there is at least one sense in which the movie is not quite biblical, and that is in its detailed depiction of the event. None of the Gospels really describe the crucifixion. There is a restraint about the Gospel accounts, a kind of modesty before the obscenity and horror of the event. Of course, the harsh truth is that none of the Evangelists needed to be told what a crucifixion was like. Whether they wanted to or not most of them had seen crucified slaves along the roads. Tens of thousands of the enemies of Rome, real or perceived, were crucified in the first century AD, so Jesus’ crucifixion was just another one of those.
When the movie came out the cover of Newsweek asked in boldface type: “Who really killed Jesus?” That question arises out of a long and shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism. The foundation of this anti-Semitism has been the attempt to attach historical blame for the crucifixion to the Jews. For centuries in Christian Europe violence toward Jews frequently took place on Good Friday.
We must acknowledge the sad truth that for Jews the cross has been an emblem of persecution just as for Islam it has been an emblem of the Crusades. To admit this is not to apologize for the cross, but it is to apologize for the reprehensible acts that have been done in its name.
The truth is that the responsibility for Jesus’ death lies at the feet of all humankind. That the characters in the Gospel accounts of the Passion were Romans or Jews is incidental to the significance of the cross. We must never forget that Jesus and all his followers were Jewish. Let us remember, too, that “Second Temple Judaism” was not monolithic, but had parties and factions, and some of them were hostile to Jesus.
We do know that crucifixion was never a Jewish method of execution; that would have been death by stoning. A cross was a Roman device, and his executioners were Roman soldiers. So from a strictly historical point of view it must be said that Jesus was the victim of a Roman state execution.
But to the question, “Who killed Jesus? The better answer must be, “I did. You did. We did.” Which is to say that it was human sin that killed Jesus. He not only died for our sins, he died because of our sins. That is expressed in the second verse of the hymn “Ah, holy Jesus,” which asks:
“Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.”
And the second station of the cross in the Roman Catholic Church prays: “My Jesus, this cross should be mine, not Thine; my sins crucified Thee.”
How can this be? How can a man who died two thousand years ago in Jerusalem have anything to do with me? How can I be guilty? In much the same way church members have sometimes told me that they don’t feel like the confession of sin in our service relates to them. They don’t feel as if they have done any of the things we confess, such as being unjust to their neighbors, or fouling the environment, or what have you.
I try to explain to them that a general confession is just that, general. The prayer speaks for a broader constituency that any of us, or even all of us within the congregation. For when we come before God we don’t come merely as individuals, we come as part of the human family. And as part of the human family we participate in vast social, political and economic networks, many of them unjust and even evil.
Which is to say, that to some extent, we all have blood on our hands, although none of us likes to think about it. In Dostoevsky’s profound novel The Brothers Karamazov, he tells the story of “The Grand Inquisitor.” Christ comes back again to earth, and who he is and what he stands for are too threatening to the status quo for him to be allowed to live. The question is asked, “If Christ walked among us again, would we kill him again?”
John Thomas has written, “Our fingerprints on the nails are easy to overlook, but they are there. Holy Week presses us to see that we too, are violators. Some years ago,” he writes, “I watched a documentary on the Holocaust, titled “Shoah,” which included expected scenes of horror. But for me, the most disturbing portrait of evil was the benign face of an elderly man who had worked for the German state railroad. His job was to issue tickets to Jews forced into cattle cars for transport to the gas chambers. This bewildered-looking man couldn’t comprehend that his bureaucratic job had anything to do with the horror of the Holocaust. He didn’t shoot Jews or toss them in the ovens. He just issued tickets.” Thomas concludes, “You and I don’t flay the skin off Jesus. But we do issue tickets. Our complicity in evil is real and often profoundly undramatic. Until we face that reality, the Passion is little more than a tragic movie, and we will miss the truth of our own profound need for the redemption of Easter.” (United Church News, April 2004)
But at the foot of the cross we can be set free to recognize ourselves among the guilty. We can identify ourselves among the crowd, both on Palm Sunday when they cried, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and on Good Friday, when they shouted “Crucify him.” A disappointed angry mob is dangerous, probably not all that different from the crowd that mutilated the bodies of the slain American workers in Fallujah in Iraq this week. Such shameful acts of violence and horror take place all the time, not just in the past, not just “in history.” At the foot of the cross can we acknowledge that even the very best of us bears some resemblance to the worst of us? Can we recognize ourselves as sinners in need of redemption?
Can we put aside the tendency to blame “the other” for human sin and evil? Can we leave behind the need to point an accusing finger at those who are not like us, whether they are poor, or black, or Muslim or Jewish, so that we don’t have to confront our own sin?
This sounds like a grim exercise, but it is a necessary one. Because the Gospel is often bad news before it is able to be Good News. God’s judgment and mercy are two sides of the same coin. And so when we admit our sin, and the sin of the human family of which we are a part, we can then receive the forgiveness God wants for us. At the foot of the cross we can see that Jesus died not only because of our sins, but also for our sins, to take them away and free us for new life with him and for each other.
And this is only possible because Jesus’ death is not just any death. No, the incredible claim we make is that “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.” If Jesus had been just another man, even a very good man, then he is, at best, an example to us of the power of sacrifice, and, at worst, just another martyr to human violence. Then his death is merely a tragedy. Because suffering is never, in and of itself, redemptive. Just ask anyone who suffers. To believe otherwise is masochism.
But why is his death redemptive? Why is Jesus’ death different from all the other tragic deaths in history? Why is his death different from all the other men who ended up on Roman crosses? The answer is not that he suffered more. Others have suffered more, even at the hand of Christians.
So what is it that makes his death different, and makes his cross not a symbol of shame, but a symbol of faith? The full story will be told next Sunday on Easter. It is the resurrection that makes the difference. It is the resurrection that transforms the cross from an emblem of horror into an emblem of God’s wondrous love.
To the eyes of Easter faith the bitter cross is viewed as an act of Israel’s God, consistent with who God had been in the past, a God who rescues and saves, who liberates and reconciles. So the cross is transformed into an atoning, redeeming, reconciling divine act of grace. God in Jesus Christ gives up his life in humble obedience. He takes our sin and the judgment that goes with it and puts it to death on the cross with himself. That is how the cross becomes the symbol of Christian faith, not as a way to blame others for sin, but to admit our own sin and marvel at the lengths that God will go to take it away.
If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus, and him crucified! There you will see the very nature of God. As C. S. Dinsmore once wrote, “There was a cross in the heart of God before there was one planted on the green hill outside Jerusalem.”
The cross tells us that God’s grace is bigger than our sin. The extent of that love should humble us. As Isaac Watts penned, “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the prince of glory died, my richest gain, I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”
That is what the cross stands for, the vast love of God, and our humble contrition before it when we consider the weight of our now-forgiven sins. To turn the cross into a symbol of Christian triumphalism, or of a Crusade, or of persecution is to betray its meaning. To make the cross an emblem of hate like the twisted crosses of Nazism or the Ku Klux Klan is to crucify Christ all over again.
But to admit “I crucified Thee” is not an empty pious gesture. Nor is it mere breast-beating. It is an honest admission of our need to have our sins forgiven, and not only ours but the sins of the whole world, our need to be reconciled to God and to our neighbors. The Good News that we preach is that God has already accomplished this for us through the cross. We need only take what he gives us, and we will find that when we turn to him, he is already coming to meet us.
So let us come to his table today in humility and contrition as those who need forgiveness, as those who need God’s grace. And let us find in him, whose body was broken for us, and whose blood was shed for us, both bread for the journey and food for eternal life. Amen.
(I preached this sermon on Palm/Passion Sunday, April 4, 2004 at First Church of Christ, Congregational in Pittsfield, Massachusetts)
(Painting: “Crucifixion” by Matthias Grunewald)