Friday, April 2, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 2:24; gospel starts around 12:56; sermon starts around 26:58)
(full disclosure, this is a reworking of a sermon I preached while on internship)
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 embedded at the ends, to inflict the most damage possible. 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 who didn’t have weapons would just be sitting ducks for people who did have weapons. He knew that only a good guy with a sword could stop a bad guy with a sword.
Jesus was also very much a part of this world, and he also knew how things worked – he knew what the consequences of his actions would be. Jesus was well aware of the kind of gruesome violence the Roman Empire was capable of inflicting on him. And so it must have come as a shock to Peter when Jesus rebuked him, and told him to put his sword away. Instead of engaging in violence and 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 crucify him. He does not fight back or curse his enemies as he is being killed, but instead he tenderly asks a friend to take care of his grieving mother. 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 selfishness, our violence; all these things 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 immigrant, the sick, and the imprisoned as problems to be solved.
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 in our hearts, and to see how that fear has shrunk the borders of our world, shutting out the light and leaving us in darkness. Jesus pleads with us to lay down our swords and to take up the cross instead. His cross.
We reverence that cross tonight, as we remember the story of Jesus’ death. And as we gaze upon the cross, we also open our hearts to ponder the great love that led Jesus to die there. And we reflect on the confident faith of Jesus, remembering that, even as he hung there, dying on the cross, 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 we begin to deal with the fallout of an entire year of this pandemic, even as our bitter cultural and political divisions threaten to tear this country apart, even as billionaires add to their wealth while millions go hungry, even as more lives are lost in yet another mass shooting, 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.