We’ve read and heard this story so many times that I wonder whether it still sounds as shocking to us as it should. “Crucifixion” is a word that belongs to ancient history and church rituals; it doesn’t evoke for us the same kind of visceral reaction as “electric chair” or “firing squad” or “hanging.” And yet it is also a method of execution by the state, one that is a hundred times more bloody, torturous, and painful. Even before we get to the cross, there is an unbelievable amount of violence in this story. Jesus Christ is struck across the face multiple times. He has sharp thorns jammed down onto his head; this was after he was flogged, a practice in which one’s bare back is whipped with a whip that has small pieces of metal or bone at the end, to inflict the most damage. This story is a horrifying testament to the creativity of human cruelty.
I can’t even imagine how terrified Peter and the other disciples must have been in the garden, when an angry mob armed with torches and weapons came looking for Jesus. They already knew what was coming next. But in his fear, Peter acted quickly. He drew his sword and struck first. Peter knew how things work in this world. It had been wonderful and eye-opening studying the ways of peace and love with Jesus, but this was real life. He knew that people without weapons would only make themselves targets for people with weapons. He knew that only a good guy with a sword could stop a bad guy with a sword.
Jesus was a part of this world, too – and he knew the consequences of his actions. He knew full well what kind of gruesome violence the Roman Empire was capable of inflicting on him. And so it must have shocked Peter when Jesus rebuked him, and told him to put his sword away. Instead of fighting for the kingdom, Jesus peacefully submits to the violent crowd, and no one else gets hurt.
In every way, Jesus’ actions in this story contradict the actions of the people around him. He acts with love and faith while others are consumed with fear and violence. He protects the disciples by willingly turning himself over to the crowd. He stuns Pilate by refusing to plead his case with the man who has the power to free him or to turn him over to death. He does not fight back or curse his enemies as he is being killed, but instead he tenderly asks a friend to take his mother home. He shows no fear, but instead walks confidently into the jaws of death, full of faith that all things are in God’s hands.
In his death, Jesus shows us the inevitable end of our human ways: our fear, our hatred, our distrust, our envy, our greed, our violence; all these lead us into the way of death. It is a resounding critique of human behavior that rings down through the ages to our own ears. Jesus’ death calls into question the ways of a society that sees walls and guns and wars as the solutions to its problems. It calls into question the ways of a society that sees the poor, the migrant, the sick, and the imprisoned as problems.
The figure of Jesus on the cross calls out to us, begs us, to look at ourselves and see what we have become. Jesus implores us to see the ways that we have allowed fear to take the place of faith, and to see how that fear has shrunk the borders of our world, shutting out the light and leaving us in darkness. Later on in our service, we will hear that call even more clearly in the Solemn Reproaches. These are poetic texts from the ninth century that invite us to reflect on the intense contrast between the ways of God in the world and the ways of the world toward God.
As we reverence the cross and remember the story of Jesus’ death, we also open our hearts to reflect on the love that led Jesus to the cross. And we reflect on the confident faith of Jesus, remembering that, even as he was dying, he pointed our hopes toward resurrection and the power of God over the grave.
Jesus invites us to take hold of that hope, to unclench our fists, to straighten our shoulders and lift our heads, and shake off the shadows of fear. With the voice of a prophet, he calls us to lay down our weapons and look up, to see the faint gleam of light shining even in the midst of this dark night of the soul. Even though we, like Peter, know the way that this world works, this isn’t a story about the harsh, violent ways of the world. This is a story about the peaceful, powerful ways of God, a God who saves this broken world through self-giving love.
And even now, even as leaders of our world threaten one another with nuclear annihilation, even as economic inequality reaches catastrophic levels, even as refugees risk death fleeing violent places by the thousands, even as our children march in the streets for their lives, even as the stone is rolled across the entrance of our savior’s tomb, even now, there is the whisper of a promise –
that this is not how the story ends,
that there is still a power that is stronger than the powers of this world,
that there is still love that is even stronger than death.