“But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.” (Matthew 27:14)
Some of us were joking with Michael Covey earlier this week when he told us that he was going to read the part of Jesus in today’s reading of Matthew’s passion narrative. Michael is a criminal defense attorney. He travels across the state to defend clients in all sorts of cases, including murder trials. One week he might be up in Bayfield, another week he’s in La Crosse. His is an important, but often unappreciated, even vilified job, because he represents people accused of sometimes horrific crimes. He advocates for them, gives them voice, protects their rights. It’s ironic, though fitting, that he read Jesus’ role, because in this trial, Jesus stood alone, abandoned by his friends, confronting the most powerful authority in the known world, without rights or hope. And as Matthew tells the story, from his arrest through his execution, Jesus remained silent for the most part in the face of his accusers.
It’s hard for us in the twenty-first century to understand how enormous a problem it was for early Christians that the person they regarded as the Son of God, risen from the dead, had been executed by the Roman Empire. Crucifixion was, as one scholar has called it, “execution by torture.” It was used against those Rome regarded as its worst offenders, especially revolutionaries. Crucifixion was a public display. The upright posts were permanent fixtures on roads coming into important towns and cities—the condemned would often carry the crossbeams themselves, as the gospels say Jesus did. And the deaths were prolonged as well as excruciating. It could take days to die. The corpses would be left hanging as mute witnesses to the fate of those who opposed Rome. For Jesus to have been crucified was to mark him, and his followers, as enemies of Rome.
It’s hard for us, in twenty-first century America to comprehend the ignominy, the disgust with which those condemned to crucifixion were regarded by the good people of the Roman Empire, the fine upstanding citizens of Jerusalem, or Rome, or any other prosperous Roman city. The best comparison for us might be to understand crucifixion for the Roman empire and culture as we regard someone branded, and prosecuted, as a terrorist—an enemy of the state, an enemy of everything we hold dear, all of our cultural values.
That’s how Rome regarded Jesus. That’s why he was executed, because he was fomenting rebellion against the state, because he was advocating an alternative to the Roman Empire, to Roman cultural values.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t just a rabble-rouser, nor was he a terrorist, although it is likely that the two men who were executed with him were something of the sort. As bandits, they were involved in some sort of armed resistance against Roman authority. What brought Rome’s attention to Jesus, and what finally resulted in his execution, was his proclamation of the coming reign of God, a realm in which values diametrically opposed to Rome were proclaimed, experienced, and shared.
We heard those values announced and explicated in the Sermon on the Mount. The vision laid out by Jesus there and throughout his public ministry is a vision of a transformed world, transformed relationships, where the poor, outcasts, outsiders are welcome; where enemies as well as neighbors are loved, where violence and oppression give way to peace. It is a vision of self-giving love, for individuals and for the whole people of God. Most of all, it is a vision of a world in which the values held dear by the wider culture—celebrity, success, wealth, and power give way to a different set of values—where the first will be last and the last first.
We see something of that vision expressed by Paul in today’s reading from the letter to the Philippians. It is the Christ hymn that sings of Christ emptying himself to become human, humbly and obediently living in such a way to show us God’s love incarnate; living in such a way that he aroused the hatred and enmity of Rome, and died on the cross.
We may want to focus on the cross today and in the days to come, but the important point to remember is that death is not the end of the story, either for us or for Jesus. As Paul argues here, Christ’s obedience, humility, his incarnating of God’s love that ended in the cross was vindicated. The gory, painful, ignominious death transformed into life, a victory over the forces of evil and death.
Jesus’ silence comes to an end on the cross with his final, despairing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a cry of despair, doubt, and pain, at a moment when all seems lost, when the reign of God seems farther away than ever before, when the message of love proclaimed and lived by Jesus seems to be refuted completely by the power of the Roman state.
But in that moment we see the power of God; we see God suffering with us in all of our struggles, suffering, and pain, we see God with us, in the struggle for justice and peace, we see God breaking open the gates of hell and conquering evil.
Many of us struggle; we are disheartened by the world in which live; horrified by the fate of refugees and immigrants, fearful for the future of human life and our planet, crushed by the weight of injustice, our hearts breaking for the victims of oppression and violence, including those who were gassed this week in Syria and the US’s knee-jerk military response to that carnage.
The cross offers no escape from any of this. The cross is a symbol of the reality of our world, the depths of human evil and depravity. But in its horror, in the horrors of our world, the cross also symbolizes the presence of God in all of those places, suffering with us, suffering with victims of injustice, violence, and oppression.
The cross is a symbol that even when things seem darkest, when it seems that evil has triumphed, the story is not over. God hears the cries of the suffering and the oppressed. Sometimes, we cry with them, sometimes we cry on their behalf. Sometimes, God cries with those who are suffering and in pain. The cross is a symbol of hope, of our hope that ultimately God will prevail. God does prevail.
Luther’s “theology of the cross”!