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Reclaiming the Symbols of Lent: The Cross

Mark 15: 1-15


How many of us has participated in actively killing someone? It would be difficult if not impossible for any of us to assist in actively assisting in pulling the switch, dropping the bomb, pulling the trigger, administering the medication, or in Jesus’s day: assisting in a crucifixion. The very thought of doing such things to a human being sends shivers of horror through us. “Whatever else I might do,” you might think to yourself, “this I could not do.  I would not be capable of crucifying a person. It is such a gruesome form of torture and death.” We are so civilized–at least on the surface.

But let us look at the people who brought Jesus of Nazareth to the cross…to crucifixion. They were not monsters–but ordinary women and men like you and me.  What do we know about them? The Roman soldiers? Pilate? The Sanhedrin?  Caiaphas? The crowd that chose Barabas instead of Jesus to be released? Judas? The nameless carpenter who made the cross? The false witnesses? Each of them was responsible. Every one of these individuals had to cooperate to make possible the scene at the cross.

Throughout the centuries of Christendom, the primary symbol of the church has probably been the cross.  There are more than 400 variations of the cross that have been shaped into symbols to help us remember its message. But the cross has not always been held in a place of sacred honor and respect. It could not be at first because for the early Christians the cross was too painful a reminder that their Christ–the Messiah had died on that cross.

The cross was the means of execution for the enemies of the state. Imagine what it would be like to come into our place of worship and find elevated above our baptistry a symbol of execution for enemies of the state–say, the electric chair…or the gallows with a swinging noose…or a guillotine…or even a semi-automatic rifle? Or perhaps we could be a bit more modern and would suspend from the ceiling a cyanide capsule, or a syringe filled with a lethal drug.

Can you imagine writing hymns in which we would lift up and glorify our means of execution? Could you sing, “In the electric chair of Christ I glory,” or “Beneath the guillotine of Jesus…?” I say these repulsive things to help us identify with those early Christians who saw nothing beautiful about the cross. It was a ghastly form of death, and they wanted no reminder of it. This is the story of the cross:

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do[a] with the man you call[b] the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them, and after flogging Jesus he handed him over to be crucified.   Mark 15:1-15

Why did Pilate condemn Jesus? Because he was afraid of what Caiaphas and the priestly party might do to him if they took this story to Caesar. It was easier to condemn Jesus than to suffer disgrace himself. Pilate condemned Jesus because he cared more about his position than he did about justice. He did not have the courage to stand for what he knew was right. Whenever you and I are willing to sacrifice someone else for our own benefit; whenever we do not have the courage to stand up for what we know is right–we step into the same course Pilate took–the course that led to Jesus’s death.

And Caiaphas. Was he a monster? Far from it. He was the most admired and revered religious leader of the most religious people in the ancient world. He was the High Priest. You can read about him in the other gospel stories of the crucifixion. Caiaphas’s personal habits were impeccable. He was devout and a sincerely religious gentleman. Why did he seek to have Jesus condemned to a horrendous death? He did it for a simple reason: he was rigid. He did not believe that God could be revealed in any other way that through the Holy Scriptures and the temple services. Jesus upset what was most holy and valuable to him. Jesus broke the rules and caused problems in the church. Jesus was a young rebel. Caiaphas was the establishment.

The members of the Sanhedrin sat and watched the farce of a trial which was called in the middle of the night. They were carried away by the enthusiasm of the accusers. And the few who did think for themselves must have said to themselves, “Everyone is carried away by the accusations. My voice will not matter. Why should I make a fool of myself if my voice or vote against this sentence will not count anyway?” So, the Sanhedrin sat and let the sentence stand.

Every time you or I are carried away by the enthusiasm of the crowd and do not think, we are guilty of this fault of character which led to Jesus’ crucifixion. When we fail to register our vote, we share in the very failing that enabled a few individuals to ensure that the crucifixion of Jesus happened. How often do we neglect to take our part? 

What about Judas? If Caiaphas had not had the cooperation of Judas, he would never have been able to find Jesus and take him by night. And he never would have dared to arrest Jesus during the day in the Temple. Too many thought well of Jesus and the risk of rioting would have been too great. Why did Judas betray his Master? Many scholars believe (and I tend to agree) that it was impatience. He had been with Jesus for two years and he wanted Jesus to show his power. All Jesus had to do was call on his power and take over. Getting Jesus turned over to Caiaphas would push the issue and Jesus would surely seize the moment.

Judas was not interested in the 30 pieces of silver as much as he was interested in his Master taking over control. His fault was that he could not wait–he was impatient –and he used a bad means to bring about a good end. When we want to push thing through; when we think we can accomplish a good end by evil means...we do just what Judas did. When we are in a hurry, we step onto the path of action which in Judas led to the condemnation of Jesus, we do just these things. How hard it is to wait and to use only admirable means!

What about the false witnesses at the trial? They agreed to testify against him at the midnight trial. They lied to gain something for themselves. They changed with Jesus said and swore that he said it just as they related it. This gossip by these false witnesses turned the tide in the Sanhedrin. Whenever we use words as they did: words of accusation or condemnation, and are not certain about their truth, then we act as these false witnesses did, when they crucified the prophet of Galilee. How many of the unkind words we speak and hear in the streets of New York, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, or Wichita are precisely true?

The carpenter knew full well what the purpose of the cross was. He was simply making a living. We must all ask ourselves if we are pursuing jobs which add or hinder human welfare. Do we make crosses for our modern world?

And the Roman soldiers were only carrying out their orders and doing their duty. But there are times when conscience must revolt against duty–for duty to our profession or our country may make killers of us all. To whom and to what do we owe our first allegiance?

With all of this stacked against him, Jesus still would not have been crucified if it had not been for the indifferent mob of people in Jerusalem who did not care what happened to him. Only a few hundred could have prevailed upon Caiaphas, or the Sanhedrin, or Pilate. But they did not care enough to rouse themselves. He was a fine man–they had heard this; they admired him; but they shouted Jesus instead of Barabbas. They did not try to protest. Indifference to Jesus is what led to his crucifixion as much as anything else. Those of us today who are indifferent follow in the footsteps of those who made possible the greatest injustice. There is no force which harms or hinders the work of Jesus more today than pure indifference–not caring enough to be for him or against. It is sometimes the very attitude we can have–the very destructive force there is.

These were the things that made the cross possible that week. It was not wild viciousness or sadistic brutality or naked hate. It was the civilized vices of cowardice, bigotry, impatience, religious tradition, falsehood, indifference–all vices we share. These are the human vices we have which crucify humans today. 

Perhaps we too might have helped crucify him had we been there. The cross shows us the qualities in each of us which make for destruction and crucifixion. The cross helps us measure our lives correctly–our littles daily trespasses and faults. How much they cost others and God. They lead to war and riot. They break today’s men and women–driving them to mental illness, homelessness, crime, and even death. And perhaps that is why there is a cross still hanging in our churches today.