Why Crucifixion?

Steve Lindsley
(Luke 9: 22-25, Philippians 2: 5-11)

It is the summer of 2000 and I find myself in Puerto Rico on a youth mission trip – along with, I might add, my wife, Kim and Kato Nims, and Lydia Mobley; all of who were part of the First Presbyterian Church in Lexington at the time.  We lead a children’s Bible school, we do some manual labor – typical mission trip fare.  But as is always the case, it’s not the stuff we do that makes mission trips so meaningful.  It’s the people we meet.

I meet a lady named Maria on this trip.  It’s her house we’re working on throughout the week, repairing the tin roof and painting the interior walls her favorite color – pepto-bismol pink.  My task for the week centers on building a small set of wooden shelves for her living room, on which she can display her few possessions.  With it built and in place, I help Maria place those possessions; and as we do she tells me stories about each of them, with the help of one of our youth, who’d completed third-year Spanish.  There is a small bowl that her deceased mother had given her.  There’s a bird cage that housed the only other living creature in her home.  One by one we place these things on the shelves; always with a story.

The last item – on the very top shelf – is a replica of the cross.  It’s about a foot high, made out of simple wood with rough engravings.  It is the furthest thing from fancy; and yet as I lift it up to the top shelf, I can sense this feeling of reverence and awe from Maria.  With each previous item a story came quickly from her lips; but now she is strangely silent.  The cross sits on that top shelf for almost a minute before she says a word.  And when she finally speaks, it’s not a story she shares. It is, in fact, some of the best theology I’ve heard.  Through my young interpreter she says: 

Oh the cross!  It is hard, so hard to embrace the cross. 

I want to ask her what she means – why is it so hard to embrace the cross?  Is it because someone special had given it to her, someone no longer with her?  Or is it deeper than that?  Is her faith so important to her, her love for Jesus so strong, that the mere presence of it makes it too much to bear? 

Oh the cross!  It is hard, so hard to embrace the cross. 

I’ve thought about what Maria said ever since.  I’ve thought about the fact that here in the 21st century, in the western world, the cross has taken on more of a cultural icon.  We wear it around our necks, we hang it from our ears, we see it on billboards and graffiti walls.  We seem to have no problem embracing the cross.

Well, the symbol of the cross, that is.  What the cross represents – now that’s a different thing.

In the scripture Brent read earlier, the apostle Paul is writing to the church in Philippi, and quoting what most scholars today think was a hymn or worship liturgy used in the early church:

He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.
He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross.

That last line, “even death on a cross,” it sounds very Maria, don’t you think?  Even death – on a cross!  There’s a history to the cross that extends beyond the person of Jesus, beyond him to the Roman empire, the backdrop of power in Jesus’ first century Palestinian world.  There were many people who were put to death by the Roman empire on a cross.  Rabble-rousers and troublemakers, anyone who threatened the “Pax Romana” that was so critical to the empire’s grasp of power.  Put simply, the cross in its day was an instrument of torture of the powerful on the powerless.

So the meaning of the cross is not all that warm and fuzzy, especially with Jesus.  That he was whipped and beaten so his agony on the cross would be even more pronounced.  That his hands and feet were nailed into the wood so he would be suspended in mid-air.  That his own body weight would prove to be his downfall, making it so he would die simply because he was too exhausted to take another breath. 

That is how people died on the cross.  No wonder Maria had trouble embracing the it.  Shouldn’t we all?

And yet, there it was up on her top shelf.  And I wonder if Maria ever asked the same question that one of you wrote down on an index card a couple of years ago:

Why crucifixion?

I don’t know about you, but what I hear coming out of that question is a deeper one that gets to the heart of the matter; a question many of us perhaps have asked ourselves:

Why did Jesus have to die?

I mean, was it really necessary?  Could God not have accomplished the same thing with a Jesus who lived a full life, died of natural causes at an old age?  Why did Jesus have to die?  Why crucifixion?  Why that?

You ever wondered that?  I have!  I mean, it’s tempting to ask in our day and time, in our Western world, where crosses are found around necks and on top of steeples; where, by and large, we live long lives.  Which was not the case back in Jesus’ day.  Life expectancy for Jewish men living under the weight of Rome’s brutal rule was much less than now.  Even less for those who spoke openly of scandalous things like loving your enemy and healing the sick and caring for the least of these.  There is no room in the empire for troublemakers like that.

Still – why crucifixion?

It is a question that the greatest Christian minds have wrestled with down through the centuries.  And from their labors we have at least four understandings, four metaphors trying to lead us to an answer.

First up is what we’ll call the financial metaphor; and it goes something like this:  we are indebted to God; a debt that is simply too great to ever pay.  Jesus enters the scene and offers to buy our freedom; the price being his very life.  Jesus dies, our debt is paid.

That’s one.  There’s also the military metaphor.  It’s a classic battle: the Devil and God duking it out, Evil verses Good, and the victor wins the soul of every human being.  Jesus, God’s top general, leads the way.  He loses the battle – on the cross – but three days later, wins the war.

There’s the sacrificial metaphor.  In the Old Testament, the priest would offer a sacrifice to appease a vengeful God.  But it’s a sacrifice that had to be made over and over again.  With Jesus, though, only one sacrifice is needed, and it sets things right for all eternity.

And finally there is the courtroom metaphor.  The scene is a courtroom and we are the ones on trial.  God is the judge and issues the verdict: guilty.  We’re being led away to receive our punishment when Jesus steps in and makes an offer: his life for ours.  Our guilt is no more.

My hunch is that you’ve heard these somewhere before. Perhaps it was taught  by a Sunday school teacher, or heard in a sermon a pastor preached, or shared by a mentor who always had a way of explaining hard things.

But I wonder something this morning.  I wonder if there’s a part of you that has always felt a little uncertain about these understandings.  Something that didn’t quite feel right.  And so, in the spirit of our sermon series, I want to invite you into space to doubt and question those understandings, and consider whether perhaps there’s another way.

I wonder if part of you feels as Martin Luther did; a Roman Catholic monk hundreds of years ago who struggled mightily with his faith.  He felt in every fiber of his being the weight of serving a God so holy and a Son so perfect.  For years Luther tortured himself with this burden.  And then he came to realize that, in his own words:

The only answer must be that Christ, for our sakes, became sin and so identified himself with us as to participate in our alienation.  He who was truly man so sensed his solidarity with humanity as to feel himself along with mankind estranged from (God).

Participate.  Now that does not sound like a Jesus who buys our freedom, or wins a battle, or takes our place at the altar, or wins the courtroom over.  No, this is a Jesus who fully participates with us in all of our mess.  Not up there or over there.  Right here.  Emmanuel, God-with-us.

God-with-us because God became one of us.  God-with-us, knowing the intricacies of our lives, the ins and outs of each day, because God quite literally walks in our shoes.  Experiencing the joys and celebrations of life, as well as its pain and suffering, because human existence is full of both, and Jesus is with us through it all.  So when Jesus bears the cross and all the pain and suffering that comes with it, it is not his.  As Luke says, it is ours.

There is a minister sitting in his study one day, working on the Sunday sermon, when he hears a knock at the door.  He looks up to see a strange man standing in his doorway.  The man is in his 60’s and looks worn from the journey.  His beard is unkempt and his eyes hollow.  The pastor invites him to take a seat.           

The man barely sits down before the words tumble out of his mouth: the steeple, pastor.  I want to know what happened to the steeple!  There’s an edge to his voice, as if irritated, as if there’s some great need in having this addressed as soon as possible. He sits on the edge of his seat, his whole body clenched.

The pastor, a little caught off guard, collects himself and explains.  The church is undergoing some building renovations, one of which is the tall steeple above the sanctuary.  It’s being cleaned and will be put back up by week’s end.   It had only been down since earlier that morning.

The pastor asks the man why he wants to know.  And so the man tells his story. 

He’s a Korean War vet, and he still suffers from the trauma of war.  He often wonders why he survived, and sometimes wishes he hadn’t.  Upon returning home, he decided he needed to “get away from it all” to heal his wounded soul.  So with the little money he had, he bought some remote land out in the county and built a shack of a house on a slight hill where he could see all of the city skyline in the distance.   For forty years he rarely left home for the city, except to grab groceries and make occasional visits to the VA. 

But there was something in the city that demanded his attention, day after day.  Every morning for four decades, after sleepless, nightmare-filled nights, this man would wake before dawn and gaze out his window to a darkened city skyline, and his tortured soul would feel its pain and suffering.  And then, in the light of early dawn, he would gaze upon a tiny steeple in the distance, on top of which rested a cross.  The first sunlight would hit that cross, and the glare would cut across the city skyline, right into his soul.  The cross was always there – winter, spring, summer, fall; on his bad days and on his really bad days, it was there.  Day after day, that cross reminded him that there was someone else who knew exactly how he felt, someone who understood the depth of his pain and suffering like no one else.  And knowing that gave him enough to make it through the day.

This man had gazed on that cross every morning for forty years; until this morning, when he looked out the window and saw it was gone.  And so that is why he’s now sitting in the pastor’s study, telling his story and desperately wanting his cross back.  

Why crucifixion, friends?  Why did Jesus have to die?  I wonder if the better question to ask is, what has happened because he did.  He knows us, people of God.  He joins with us in our lives, in the best life of times and the worst of times.  He is, now and forevermore, Emmanuel, God-with-us.   And we are never alone.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!


* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.