sermon from Sunday, July 19
based on the crucifixion narrative in Mark.
The story of the crucifixion of Jesus is one we more often read than hear sermons about. On Good Friday at our church, we have a simple tenebrae service where we read this story, and a few psalms, and extinguish candles to remember Jesus’ sacrifice for us. It seems foolish, in a sense, to preach about it, because the story itself is so powerful.
I have many memories of hearing the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. I remember going to my grandparents’ church on Good Friday, when I was a boy. They had a tenebrae service too, on a grander scale than ours, but it was dark and spooky, and after they had read the last passage, where Jesus dies and is buried, they sounded a loud gong behind us, designed to shake us and remind us of what happened when Jesus died. That church service inspired me to start a tenebrae service wherever I go, and it is likely the church that we will join when we move.
I remember going to the Methodist church in town when I was very young, just a few years old. They were showing a movie about Jesus’ last days and death, I don’t remember which one. I remember my parents telling me that it wasn’t really Jesus up there, it was just actors; but I remember that it looked to me that the actor was actually nailed to the cross, which really upset me. My parents had to take me outside—I may not have been much older than Grace—because I wouldn’t stop asking about why that man was really being crucified when it wasn’t really Jesus, and was just a show.
I remember watching Jesus of Nazareth, a 1977 movie about Jesus’ life which was shown at Easter time. In that movie, Jesus’ death is brought to life again powerfully, and particularly powerful to me when I was ten or so was not the crucifixion itself, but the long walk to the cross. Here, on the walk to the cross, Jesus is mocked and scourged; he looks at the women who are weeping and says, “Weep not for me, but for yourselves and your children.” And I just remember being powerfully moved at seeing the angst on Jesus’ brutalized face, and still seeing the empathy and love he had for people to the end.
It is a powerful story, to be certain. But sometimes, I think that my understanding of the story was incomplete. It was on the right track, but incomplete. Do you know what the overwhelming thing I experienced in the story of the crucifixion when I was a boy? Sympathy. I looked at that picture of Jesus, all bloodied and bruised, and I thought, “That poor, poor man. What a good man, God in the flesh and no one saw it, no one understood it, and this is what they did to him.” I was overwhelmed by the blood and the gore and the violence and the pathos of it all, and I mostly was just thankful it was him and not me. Seeing a representation of the crucifixion makes you thankful for all that Jesus did on the cross, and it overwhelmed me with a sense of sympathy and appreciation for a God who loved me like that.
To be honest, this way of understanding the crucifixion continues to win the day today. Witness Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the Mel Gibson movie of six years ago. It was a beautiful and violent movie depicting the events leading up to Jesus’ death and the crucifixion. I saw it and was moved and touched, although I wondered why many churches were using it as an evangelistic tool. It didn’t seem to me to be the right choice for that, but nonetheless it was a profound work of art with a particular slant on Jesus’ death.
People’s response to The Passion was similar to how I felt as a child—that it movingly portrayed the love of God who died for us. Even Billy Graham said something to this effect: “I doubt if there has been a more graphic and moving presentation of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which Christians believe are the most important events in human history. The film is faithful to the Bible’s teaching that we all are responsible for Jesus’ death, because we have all sinned.” For Billy Graham and most others, The Passion was a meditation on the depths of God’s love for us that he took the punishment so we don’t have to.
Now again, I want to be perfectly clear that I believe that, that Jesus’ death for us is supremely important. But there’s a part of me that has come to believe that is not enough. You see, when we view the crucifixion that way, it becomes trapped in history: it becomes confined to one person in one time—Jesus of 2000 years ago. But throughout the New Testament, it becomes obvious that the crucifixion is more than just a one-time event that changed history. It is that, but it is more than that. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection become the patterns for us to live our lives. In short, it is not simply that Jesus took the pain of crucifixion so we didn’t have to. It is that Jesus took the pain of crucifixion because he also knew his followers would have the pain of crucifixion in their lives. Jesus was not only crucified so we wouldn’t have to go to hell; he was crucified and resurrected to help all of his followers who would be crucified with him.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at these choice passages. Galatians 2:19-20, Paul is describing what his life is like, and he says, “I am crucified with Christ; I no longer live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” In that passage, Paul understands his life and changes in his life in terms of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Paul believed that there was something in his life that had to be put to death—not just the bad things he had done, but that he had to completely change his priorities from one thing to another, had to die to one way of life and start living to another way of life, had to let go of one reality and embrace another reality. Jesus’ crucifixion gives Paul the image and the strength and the power he needs to stop being the person he naturally believes he is and to start being what God had called him to be.
Look at 1 Corinthians 15:31, where Paul says, “I die every day, brothers and sisters.” Paul understood the Christian life as a process of being crucified, of putting to death one way of living and embracing another way of life. Jesus himself understood following him to mean this. Remember what he said in Matthew 16: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.” Self-denial for Jesus is not simply forgoing the ice cream and eating a salad instead; self-denial means choosing to live your life as if you were not at the center of it, but God’s will was at the center of it. And to do that meant effectively that you had to put to death that self-centered way of living. And so Jesus says, “If you want to follow me, here’s where I’m going: and so if you want to follow me, you grab a cross and come along because that’s what following me means.” It means to put to death everything which would hinder you pursuing God with everything you have.
So the crucifixion, according to the New Testament, is not locked in history, confined to one man and one time. The crucifixion is a reality for anyone who wants to follow Jesus; anyone who wants to follow Jesus must put part of their natural being to death. And the fact Jesus was crucified gives us the strength that we need to be crucified in a world which encourages us to spoil ourselves and enjoy what we can while we can.
The image of the crucifixion is profound in this context, because it changes how we see the story. No longer are we sitting at home clucking our tongues at this poor person, beaten and tortured to death for us. Instead, those images leap off the screens, leap out of the pages of the Bible, and become events where we are not watching but we are participating: and we are either the crucifiers or the crucified. Either we are on the sidelines, actively mocking Jesus or passively pretending not to notice, or we are out there with him, in line, with our crosses, with our instruments of death, prepared to pursue truth and the God-centered life even when the world thinks it’s silly or throws up roadblocks in our way. And so the question we all must face is “Am I crucified with Christ?” Have I approached the Christian life as a series of duties which I have to do, or an attitude I have to take on, or a set of intellectual ideas to believe or a group of people to belong to? The Christian life is all of those things in part, but at its heart, the Christian life is a willingness to be crucified with Christ, to lay aside all that hinders us just as he laid aside all that hindered him for the sake of the glory which awaits us both?
Well, this is a bit of a downer of a sermon, don’t you think? Death sentences are rarely uplifting. But you know what is uplifting? This little thought: the fact that Jesus’ death is a template for our death means that Jesus’ resurrection is a template for our resurrection. As we have been crucified with Christ, we will certainly be raised with Christ. Just as the crucifixion was not simply a historical event trapped way back then, the resurrection is not simply a historical event, but it’s for us to live and experience.
When Jesus was raised from the dead, it was an enormously fruitful period of ministry for him. Many saw him and were convinced he was trustworthy and so they left everything to follow him—you would too if you saw a dead person come back to life. An encounter with the risen Jesus left people invigorated, excited, and renewed about what God is doing in the world.
Now here’s a question for you. What if the Bible is telling the truth when it calls us the body of Christ? Because this is what that metaphor means, I think: that Christ’s church is made up of people who identify with Christ so deeply that they have become Christ’s presence in the world. “You are the body of Christ,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:27, “and you individually are members of it.” The overwhelming good news of the New Testament is that we are not mere copies of Christ, we are Christ to a world in need of his touch in a new way today.
And just like an encounter with the risen Christ in history left people renewed and invigorated and freshly dedicated to God, that is what an encounter with the body of Christ should do today; seeing you (or more properly seeing the church) should leave people with that same sense of vigor, and renewed dedication to becoming the people God created them to be, living that abundant life that God has for them as a free gift.
In our home Bible study, we read John 14 and 15 the past couple of weeks. That passage is just astounding because it really makes very plain the way that Jesus’ plan for his disciples is for them not just to worship him, but extend the work that he did—in essence, to be him, aside from the whole being God part. Here’s how he put it: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Do you catch how exciting that is? How different it is than most of us live our daily lives? Jesus’ vision is that just as the Father lived in him and exercised his ministry in total partnership with him, Father and Son but one and the same, in that same way, Jesus wants to live in us and for us to exercise his ministry in total partnership with him. And yes, the difficult thing is that his death is our death; but the amazing news is that his resurrection is our resurrection, and the most amazing thing of all is that his ministry of reconciling the world to God has become our ministry. And his presence with us is not just this crutch for us when we are going through difficult times until we get back on our feet again; but instead his presence is this indwelling, palpable reality in which we naturally do what Jesus would do because we are one with him, just as he is one with the Father.
Today we have borne witness to this amazing reality. Today we welcomed Lily Jenks to the realm of baptized believers. We have watched her symbolically be buried beneath the waters of baptism and rising to new life. Lily, in this is a piece of the amazing reality which God has for you; your life is going to be one of crucifixion and resurrection from now on. You have been marked as Jesus’ and you have chosen to take his name, and so you too must die to self and rise to his desires for your life.
And many of us who have been here have today remembered our baptism. And my prayer for us is that like Lily, we will remember that is what life is. In the upcoming time of transition at the church, you will have many chances to exercise your power. You will shape the church with the decisions you make and mostly with the attitudes you show to others. May your life together bear witness to the crucified and risen Christ, living here among you and wherever God’s people are gathered. May your lives individually and together show forth the crucifixion and resurrection that mark you as a follower of the great King Jesus.