Friday, 7 March 2008

The Cross

Mark 15:1-20
1. The cross shows us what human beings can do to other human beings

We like to think of ourselves as civilized

At the LIFE exhibition, talking with the children and asking them what some of the differences are between the time when Jesus lived then and now. And one of the children said, ‘We don’t do the sort of things that they did then. We don’t crucify people’.

I wish that were true. Certainly it is not normal in our society – but then our society has had 1000 years of Christian teaching. The values of tolerance and mercy have grown because there are men and women – people like Wilberforce, and Elizabeth Fry and Shaftesbury – who have taken the teaching of the bible seriously, and because – up to now – a great deal of Jesus’ teaching is enshrined in our law. It will be interesting to see, for instance, how society develops as you begin to demand tolerance from people, but give them no reason for tolerance.

The problem is that we only need to look at other societies, even societies which have had centuries of Christian teaching, and see what people do to each other.
Reading Orlando Figes on the Russian revolution. They crucified people then.
I heard of the girl in Rwanda who survived for a month, during the genocide, by living under the dead in a church.
We hear of what happened in Sarajevo.

The brutal reality is that it does not take much to transform us from civilized human beings into a mob screaming for someone’s death. Underneath the garments of respectability, there are wild beasts controlled by demons.

In Mark 15, we read how Jesus was falsely accused, defamed before Pilate, dehumanized, mocked, subjected to intense physical violence, tortured and then murdered. It is a story about envy, fear, mob aggression and brutality.

It is a story that is repeated in big ways and in little ways every day.

We strip our enemies of any validity. The Nazis did it to the Jews: they said that the Jews were like rats, spreading disease. On Friday we had the funeral service for Fred Morley, a former FEPOW. They were treated as if they were subhuman. Or we think of what was going on in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. And once you have defined your enemy as a pest, as a subhuman, it is relatively easy to do to them things you would never do to people you considered human.

But it is not just about what others do. We are as guilty. We do it here: every time a person is turned into a label. In Holloway we ran a centre for asylum seekers. I’m not saying that issues about asylum seekers are easy, or that this country should have an open door policy for everyone – but we really do need to see asylum seekers as people - they are not all over here to get our benefits, they are not all terrorists, they do not all infest our country with deadly diseases.

There is a danger that we do it to people of other religious convictions: all Muslims are not terrorists. I get very nervous when I hear people in Christian circles denouncing Muslims. Of course there is so much with which I profoundly disagree with in Islam, but actually there is so much with which I profoundly disagree with in contemporary society. Muslims are just too easy a target for us. We need to turn our attention to the many things that are happening that are much closer to home. It is too easy to dehumanise people with whom we have little or no contact.

We need to be careful when we stop seeing people as people and start to see them as numbers or objects or labels. It is too easy to do things to someone who you do not know, who you do not need to treat as a person. You treat them as a label, a number, a statistic; you name them – naming someone is incredibly powerful – they’re a CHAV or hoody or YUPPY. You joke about them, think it is OK to get one over on them, you make them look stupid or vulnerable. You make them wait, know their place; you say 'no' to them because you can say 'no' to them. And add a bit of fear and a bit of envy, and it is very easy to move on from that: you spit at them, you hit them, you put a crown of thorns on their head, you beat them, you nail them to a wooden crossbar and you crucify them. And the really frightening thing is that you can do that, and go home and kiss your wife and sit your daughter on your knee and tell her a story, and go to bed and sleep peacefully. Why? Because you did your job – it had nothing to do with you: you were the exterminator brought in to do a bit of pest control..

The cross shows us human depravity in its darkest form.

Please do not think that you are exempt from the sort of stuff that goes on here. In other times, in other places we - you or I - would be there with the crowds: we flatter ourselves if we think that we would stand against the lynch mob, or the requests to inform on neighbours to the secret police, or abstain from the practice of denunciation if by doing so others would denounce us. We kid ourselves big time if we think we would refuse to obey orders that came from above to take part in the elimination of a group of aliens.

So the cross shows us what human beings can do, and do do, to other human beings.

2. The cross shows us the love of Jesus
Jesus confesses in front of Pilate (so different from Peter).

In verse 2, he confesses openly to a title, ‘King of the Jews’. It was a confession that would lead immediately to his execution. It is called 'the good confession' by Paul in his letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:13).

Jesus did not need to answer Pilate's question. He was clever enough to say it in a way that would have meant that they would have nothing on him, or in a way that would have meant they could dismiss him as a madman or a no hoper. In effect that has been happening for the previous 3 years. But he doesn't. He declares the truth: and in confessing, he signs his death warrant.

And the reason: Jesus is like us – but he is not like us. He has the same hungers and desires as we have, but he knows where those desires can be most fully satisfied, and that is in God. So he wills God. And although he is tempted to put his trust in anything but God, he stands firm.

In making his confession, Jesus chooses death. But he chooses to die out of love for us and obedience to his Father.

a) He chooses to die to identify himself with us in our God-forsakenness


The cross really is the one thing that should make despair about our human condition. Is there any hope for men or women when we can do this sort of thing to another person.

But the cross convinces us of the love of God.
Jesus goes into the pit of God-forsakenness in order to identify with us in our suffering and God-forsakenness.

There is a poem which some of you will know. It is not theologically perfect, but it makes the point. It is called The Long Silence
At the end of time, billions of people were seated on a great plain before God's throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly, not cringing with cringing shame - but with belligerence. "Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?", snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. "We endured terror ... beatings ... torture ... death!" In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. "What about this?" he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. "Lynched, for no crime but being black !" In another crowd there was a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes: "Why should I suffer?" she murmured. "It wasn't my fault."
Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He had permitted in His world. How lucky God was to live in Heaven, where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the vast plain, they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man. Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die so there can be no doubt he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it. As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.
When the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered a word. No one moved. For suddenly, all knew that God had already served His sentence.
Whatever it is you are going through – Jesus has been there. And he went there, not in order to beat himself up for the suffering that we go through, but because it really was the only way to save us. He has to identify with us in the full consequences of our sinfulness in order to save us from our sinfulness.

b) He chooses to die in the same way that a soldier might choose to die so that his friends can live.

But whereas a soldier will die for his friends, Jesus dies for his enemies.

He dies for Barabbas
He dies for the very people who mock him, beat him and torture him.
He dies for people who dehumanize others
He dies for us

Whereas we are controlled by envy and fear, he is controlled by love and obedience.

Key verse in Mark's gospel: Mark 10:45

He dies for us, so that we can be set free from this slavery to dehumanise others – so that we can be forgiven, and begin to see others, particularly others who we might envy or fear, with love.

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