The Compassion of the Cross

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

Good Friday, April 21, 2000

Luke 23


Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.


One thing we can say for certain about the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is the way he died was not unique to Palestine in the first century AD. Crucifixions were commonplace forms of public execution. The Romans used crucifixions as a public form of state sanctioned torture and terror. The Empire's message was unequivocal and clear: if you challenge our power and authority, we will destroy you through a painful, slow, and brutal execution!

In fact, to execute only three people at one time, as witnessed in the story of Jesus' crucifixion, was a smaller number than ordinary for the Roman authorities. At one point, 20 years before his own crucifixion, over 2000 men, women, and children were nailed on crosses outside Nazareth because of a petty uprising. Although we have no written evidence, it was entirely possible that the young Jesus was ordered to make crosses in Joseph's carpenters shop for the state display of murder in the killing fields of the Roman Empire!

At the very least, Jesus and every man, woman and child whoever heard him say, "take up your cross and follow me" knew exactly what the cost of discipleship would be! This phrase was not some highly spiritualized figure of speech to Jesus. To take up the cross was, and should always be, seen an act of ultimate commitment, sacrifice, and political action. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to take up the cross is the unity of prayer and righteous action.

Yes, every Palestinian Jew who heard these words had at some time seen crucifying crosses standing bloody and stark against the sky - even as our Savior's cross stands bloody and stark against the sky of this day.

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a grim and brutal affair. We cannot simply recast the story in words which pass for kindergarten versions or candy-coat the story in a way that passes muster with Disney films.

Jesus was stripped and whipped with lashes that contained little pieces of stone and metal whose jagged edges poked through the leather ball that contained them. He barely survived the flogging of 39 lashes. Then the soldiers had their sport. Since the (untrue) word had come to the Roman guard that this holy man had referred to himself as a "King," they took him after his brutal beating, placed a red Roman cloak around his shoulders, thrust a reed in his hand to symbolize a scepter, and then forcibly pushed a crown of thorns down upon his head. Then mocking him, they pretended to pay him obeisance. Finally, finished with their cruel fun, they led him up the hill to die - carrying a heavy cross beam tied to his shoulders. Weak from the scourging, Jesus often needed help up the narrow streets. A Black man from Cyrene named Simon, was pressed into service to carry the cross for him.

Once on the hill, Jesus stood along with two criminals and was once again stripped of clothing, then fastened onto the cross beam with nails driven through his hands. The beam was hoisted and attached to the upright, his feet were nailed to a projection jutting from the vertical beam and elevated only about two feet off the ground. A sign attached above his head read the crime he had been charged with for all passers by to see. The sign read, "King of the Jews." The crowd pressed close, milling, pushing, jeering, having sport. The High Priest and his company were there and took occasion to taunt the prisoner whom the Sanhedrin had condemned.

Crucifixions were usually noisy and violent. The pain was excruciating. Often the men, women, and children who were being crucified screamed and cursed for hours - even days. Courageous and filled with superhuman strength, it is recorded that Jesus spoke seven times from the cross as he died that day.

Some of the words he spoke were so kind and so focused on redemption and grace that people who did not really know him - which was most of the crowd - must have thought him to be deranged. He said, "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." Replying to one criminal on the dying tree beside him, he said, "Today you will be with me in paradise." He looked to his mother and his beloved disciple and said, "Mother, behold your son. Son behold your mother." After a long painful silence he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Later he cried out, "I thirst!" It was common for the crucified ones to thirst because the combination of tremendous blood loss and suffocation caused a traumatic thirst that was almost unbearable. Even in serving his needs, he was mocked for he was given vinegar on a sponge. Then about three in the afternoon, he cried out, "It is finished" and finally, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." No more words. It was finished.

As the end came, the heavens become dark with storm clouds. Thunder and lightening shook the hill. Then in the hour in which he died, the whole earth shook violently with an earthquake. That earthquake caused the temple veil to tear in two, signifying the act of a father renting his garment upon news received of a child's death!

There was no more mocking. No more torture. No more suffering. No more words. Now there was only the lifeless body of Jesus the Christ hanging on the dying tree.

In a biography about the founder of the Sisters of Charity, the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, she said of Jesus on the cross today:

Look at the cross and you will see Jesus' head bent to kiss you, His arms extended to embrace you, His heart opened to receive you, to enclose you within His love. Knowing that the cross was His great er love for you and me, let us accept His Cross in whatever he wants to give us, let us give with joy whatever He wants to take, for in doing so they will know that we are his disciples, that we belong to Jesus, that the work you and I and all the Brothers and Sisters do, is but His love in action . . . (Edward Lejoly, Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Biography, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1983, pp. 334-335).

Today, as we close our eyes in prayer, we can see the sacred body of Christ stretched out and crucified upon our planet Earth. For just he was murdered by state sanctioned violence, he suffered still with those who are wounded in the world by injustice - and thus liberated by His Cross! We see Him suffering and bleeding as people kill each other in tribal warfare, in civil wars, in gang warfare on our city streets, or in high school hallways in places named Columbine and Paducah. We witness His pain as He beholds the sheer "greed" of national pride, and the battlegrounds by oil fields, and land grabbing and environmental destruction of nation-states and mega-corporations. We see His dying face in the faces of starving children, of homeless refugees on our city streets and in refugee camps worldwide.

We see the body of Christ in people clinging to each other in desperation, people tortured, burned, mutilated, and beaten because hatred still holds the hearts and still lashes out in persons, groups and nations which are homophobic, racist, sexist, and dangerously ethnocentric. We see Him calling to us "behold your son, behold your mother" as we witness the pain and loneliness of our loved ones who are alone in their addictions, locked in their apartments for fear, hungering for a kind word, or a day without abuse and a night without terror. We cannot escape His voice calling to us in people of all ages - babies, children, teens, adults, middle-aged, retirees, and elderly - crying out in their time of pain and need, "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?"

Imagining the naked, lacerated body of our Savior stretched out over our globe - dying on the tree all over again, bearing the marks of suffering in His face, my heart breaks for I cannot help but see the fullness of Christ's compassion on the Cross.

Then, as we open our eyes, we see people of all ages, tongues, and races coming to the cross as they identify with the suffering compassionate One. They come in the midst of their own pain and suffering. They come to Him. They come walking and limping. They come in wheelchairs and limousines. They come seeing and blind. They come hearing and deaf. They come woman, man, and child. They come with skin every color and hue of the rainbow and of the Creator's imagination!

They come to His cross with sighs, and tears, and pain too deep for human words. They come. And at the foot of His cross their sighs of pain are healed by His breath of Hope and smiles break upon their tear-filled faces and their hearts are mended by his sacred heart. They come to the cross feeling alone and they depart never feeling alone again. They depart knowing that God in Jesus Christ suffers with them and identifies with them. And the words of Mother Teresa become real to them. For, at the foot of the cross they discover that the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ kisses them with His head bent down, embraces them with His arms extended, receives them with His open Heart and encloses them with His unconditional love.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, if you have never come to the cross before, I invite you to come today. If you have never felt or witnessed the unconditional love of Christ poured out for you and now dwelling with you eternally - come to the cross of compassion and grace.

If you are hungry, come! If you are thirsty, come! If you are lonely, come! If you feel forsaken, come! If you feel the foot of injustice upon your back, come! If you are hurting, come! If you are seeking the love of God which is so immense that every ounce of that love is given for you, come! Here, today, may the words God's Holy Communion become real for you, "The body of Christ," The body of Christ," "The body of Christ . . . " Amen.

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