Meditation on St John’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion
St John describes the crucifixion very briefly.
So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others – one on each side and Jesus in the middle.
He doesn’t go into detail; he didn’t need to; his readers would all have been familiar with the practice. In our time, we aren’t familiar with it – thank God! – so we have no real idea of the horror. Suffice it to say, it was a procedure designed to strip the humanity from the victim, by the infliction, in public, of humiliation and intense pain continued until death.
The soldiers did that to Jesus, and I have to ask ‘Why?’
It was clearly willed by God the Father. There’s no getting around that.
I cannot see how a God of love could demand such a thing.
Let’s see what might allow it to happen.
Firstly, let’s ascribe responsibility for the execution itself to the right quarter. It was Roman soldiers who carried out the crucifixion, on the orders of a Roman governor, in response to the lobbying of the chief priests of the Jews. In other words, it was human beings that put Jesus on the cross. It wasn’t God.
Secondly, God the Father did not demand that Jesus be crucified. Jesus’ crucifixion is not a sacrifice to God.
Thirdly, God the Father could see that a certain sequence of actions would bring about the crucifixion of Jesus. In that sense, he planned the crucifixion.
Fourthly, Jesus, throughout his whole life, subordinated his will to that of God the Father. Like all of us he had free will, but he chose in every action to implement God’s plan.
Fifthly, Jesus continued steadfast in God’s will until the very end of his life. It was immensely costly; when we read the synoptic gospels we see that he was terrified at the prospect of being crucified.
Sixthly, it must have been in some way necessary. And now I’m starting to guess at mysteries, so take what I write with caution; it’s probably mostly wrong and certainly incomplete.
Perhaps part of the answer can be found in John 16: 7 “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”
Despite the flawed nature of humanity, we can experience God living within us in the form of the Holy Spirit. This is our access to God the Father. This gives us strength and guidance as to how to become better people. Perhaps God’s long-term plan is that humanity should eventually be able to live authentically good lives? Wouldn’t that be worth Jesus’ (completely voluntary) sacrifice on the cross?
Well, that may indeed be the case, but why does it require such a horrible event? Or, to make it even sharper, why does God have a plan that includes the crucifixion? And I think to even start to understand that we have to return to my first point
“Firstly, let’s ascribe responsibility for the execution itself to the right quarter. It was Roman soldiers who carried out the crucifixion, on the orders of a Roman governor, in response to the lobbying of the chief priests of the Jews. In other words, it was human beings that put Jesus on the cross. It wasn’t God.”
Sin, or doing the wrong thing, is built into human society. It is firmly cemented into the power structures. When power structures are seriously challenged, they respond with violence. Take the case of the military junta that ruled in Argentina in the nineteen seventies. They didn’t want people working to help the poor. They snatched people who did so – teachers, health workers, union representatives – imprisoned them without trial, tortured them and killed them. Tens of thousands were murdered in this way.
I firmly believe that any power structure that is vigorously challenged about its wrongdoing will respond with violence, especially if it looks as though it may be forced to change its ways
I suggest, very tentatively, that the crucifixion of Jesus was the example we have been given to follow. We have to be prepared to challenge evil, not just in our own lives but in the society in which we live. It almost certainly won’t lead to martyrdom – although it may – but it will always be costly.
And why should we follow a course of action that could cost us so highly?
Because the really important aspect of Jesus’ crucifixion is actually his resurrection, the act by which God says “It is worthwhile challenging evil, because good has now overcome evil, and will do so onwards throughout history.”
Meditation on St Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.’
The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’
There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’
But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’
* * *
St Luke records three things that Jesus said as he hung on the cross in agony.
The first was: Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’
He prayed for those who were torturing him. His thoughts were not for himself but for others.
The second thing Luke records was:
Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’
Once again, his thoughts were for somebody else. What great compassion he showed to the condemned man hanging next to him! Jesus was continuing his ministry to bring sinners to repentance and then forgive them, right up until the very end of his life.
We will come to the third saying later.
What is going on in today’s reading? What is the message?
Jesus is perfectly displaying the love of God. He is giving every last breath to the service of God and his fellow men. To copy Jesus’ focus on God and on those around him is what we are called to do. It is all we are called to do.
Then we look at the cross. Who designed it? Human beings did. Who decided it should be used? The Roman Empire – made up of human beings. Who sentenced Jesus to die on it? Pontius Pilate – a human being. You see, human beings believe in punishment; we believe in retribution when something bad has been done.
And yet punishment for wrongdoers is the last thing on Jesus’ mind. He forgives those who crucify him – and I feel sure that the forgiveness extends back beyond the soldiers driving the nails through his flesh, to Pontius Pilate, and the Jewish authorities. None of them really knew what they were doing. He forgives the criminal beside him, even though the man says, ‘We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.’
God does not believe in punishment.
There is nothing conditional about Jesus’ forgiveness. The soldiers don’t have to stop driving the nails through his feet. The rulers don’t have to stop mocking him. The forgiveness is free and unconditional.
This is the climax of Jesus’ mortal life. Everything has led to this point. It is the most perfect and clear image we have of Jesus, and hence about God. And what does it say to us? It says, ‘God is love.’
GOD IS LOVE!
You are love. You care for each one of us with a passion we can’t imagine. Thank you, Lord, thank you!
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Meditation on St Luke’s account of Jesus’ death
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.
The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’ When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.
The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
* * *
One of the key verses of this passage is v.49: But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
St Luke clearly feels that it’s extremely important to reassure his readers that the events he is describing are true, and happened in the way he describes. He has said from the start that he himself was not an eye-witness, so how does he know the detail of the crucifixion? This verse is the clue, particularly the phrase “including the women.”
There is considerable evidence that suggests that St Luke had access to Jesus’ mother Mary’s memories of the events of Jesus’ life. Indeed, it is quite likely that he heard them face to face from Mary herself.
St Luke reports that as he died, Jesus said ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’
This affirms that Jesus was fully human. It was necessary for him to commit his spirit to the Father, because as a human he had been separate from the Father. I do not believe that Jesus knew precisely what was coming next; he was fully human; he had to trust in God, just like the rest of us. And, having suffered the worst things that humans can do – betrayal, abandonment, denial, wrongful accusation, injustice, torture and death – having suffered all these, his faith in a loving God is unbroken. He can say ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’
Jesus has reached the end of a blameless life, totally dedicated to God’s will, and yet his life closes in isolation and agony on a Roman cross. It seems that sin has won.
Similarly, when we look at the world it can sometimes look very bleak, as though human sin is triumphant.
But Jesus, in these last few seconds, can say, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’
Sin does not win. Jesus died trusting the Father totally, because he knew the nature of the Father. The closer we can cling to God, the greater our trust in him will become.
The last six verses of this passage describe the burial of Jesus. Here, too, we have a verse about the women. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it.
Once again, St Luke wants us to know that the burial was witnessed. There was no question of Jesus’ body being removed and buried somewhere unknown to the disciples; the women followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid in it. Jesus’ body was not stolen and smuggled away; it was laid in a tomb close to Jerusalem. The women saw it lying there, before going home and preparing spices and perfumes to anoint the body. They couldn’t go immediately to prepare Jesus’ body, though, because it was the Sabbath.
They had to wait…
Thank you for courage and trust and obedience that Jesus showed as he died. Help us to follow him wherever you choose to send us.
In Jesus’ name, Amen