March 28, 2013
How do you hold two very contradictory concepts or ideas in your head at the same time? More specifically, can extreme cruelty exist simultaneously with extreme love? Does one prevail over the other?
That’s the cross. It was an instrument of extreme torture, perhaps the cruelest and most degrading form of execution anyone could possibly devise. First, scourged with a whip to open wounds in the condemned’s skin, crucifixion was a slow, agonizing death. After carrying the cross beam to the execution site, the condemned would be nailed to it, hoisted onto the vertical post and left to die. Death would take hours and sometimes days – it actually didn’t matter because the person remained on the cross until he died. The process was so cruel and humiliating that it was not used on a Roman citizen. It was reserved for slaves and revolutionaries, those who committed the most heinous of crimes, upsetting Roman peace and order.
We should not think of Jesus’ crucifixion and that of the other two criminals as isolated cases. If we walked down a well-traveled road in Jesus’ Palestine, we would have seen crucifixes on the hillsides all along our route, some empty posts and some with bodies. That visual was intentional – it instilled enormous fear in the people. It was one of the ways the Romans kept the peace.
Jesus’ death was political. Jesus didn’t die because God took the life of his only begotten son to save us from our sins. Jesus was not the ransom paid to free us from our sins. Jesus’ death was inevitable because his ministry posed a threat to the entire Roman system of power and authority. Jesus’ ministry was a living contradiction of the Roman premise that peace came through fear. Jesus through his ministry showed another way to achieve peace, love.
Love casts out fear. Love’s opposite is not hate; its opposite is fear. It’s stunning to think that for all the mighty weaponry of its day and its huge powerful army and its enormous wealth, the Roman authorities feared love. They feared love’s values: generosity, loyalty, compassion, mercy, and grace. They feared love’s imperative that we live not for ourselves but for others. They feared reconciliation and the transformation that comes from forgiveness. They feared love’s power because weapons of violence could not match the true and lasting peace that came from sharing the bread and the cup. Love stood for all that Roman authority was not: care for widows and orphans, accepting one’s enemy as a brother, servant leadership, and God’s favor upon the poor, not the rich.
Jesus spent three years in Galilee before he set his face towards Jerusalem. He had done all he could to teach this way of living and that confronting the political and religious authorities in their seat of power was all that he had left. Even though Jesus went to the cross as a condemned man, he went knowingly.
Jesus through enormous suffering gave his life in love for all humanity. He said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 5:12-13) The medieval theologian, Peter Abailard, wrote, “Wherefore, our redemption through Christ’s suffering is that deeper affection in us which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also wins for us the true liberty of sons of God, so that we do all things out of love rather than fear – love to him who has shown us grace that no greater can be found…”
Jesus’ crucifixion was not just for the sinners and prostitutes. He didn’t do it for only for the widows and the orphans, the poor and the hungry. He willingly went to the cross for the hemorrhaging woman and the woman at the well. He went to the cross for the thousands who sat in groups of hundreds and fifties when he broke the bread. He went to the cross for Zacchaeus.
As he hung from the cross he said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” By those words he also went to the cross for all the Pharisees and scribes who doggedly sought to entrap him. He went to the cross for the guards who mocked him and the Roman centurion who nailed him to the cross beam. Jesus went to the cross for Pilate. Jesus went to the cross out of love. Love, the power which frees all people from the slavery of their sins, knows no bounds. Jesus’ death on the cross was the fulfillment of love.
The cross as a symbol of love – God’s love. The cross is extreme love. The cross is the gospel, the world inverted and overturned, where what is is no longer and what cannot be becomes the new reality.
In the cross we have two very contradictory perspectives, but only one prevails.
 Peter Abailard. Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans (An Excerpt from the Second Book). A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham. Edited by Eugene R. Fairweather. The Westminster Press: Philadelphia. 1956. Page 284