Bound forever by love

If Jesus is the king, why didn't he come down?  As it turns out, for the same reason he did everything - love.

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Bound forever by love

April 2, 2015 – Matthew 27:32-66

 

            Each Sunday this Lent, I have spoken on the Passion of our Lord according to Matthew.  We read the complete passion together last Sunday.  I didn’t speak about it then, so I will speak now.  This will prepare us not only for tomorrow, but also for hearing Psalm 22, which will be read at the conclusion of the service tonight.  Before we get to Psalm 22, however, let me comment on a few other aspects of this part of the story.

            There is, first of all, Simon of Cyrene, who is compelled to carry the cross.  We really know nothing about Simon, which is probably a good thing.  Just as we might see ourselves at the table of the Last Supper, in the garden of Gethsemane, in the gathering of chief priests and elders, or in the crowd at Pilate’s palace, we can also see ourselves here.  Simon is the first to fulfill the command of Jesus – If any want to follow me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

            Then, there is Golgotha – the place of the Skull.  This could mean that the place was shaped like a skull, or it could mean that, because it was a place where the Romans commonly carried out crucifixions, there were many skulls lying about, or it could be both.  Whatever it is, when they arrive, the crucifixion is carried out quickly, with little detail provided regarding the act or the suffering it affects.

            Following Jesus’ last breath on the cross, there is the tearing of the temple curtain.  This is symbolic of the end of the temple as the only place where God is worshipped and revealed.

            In addition to this, Matthew alone adds the breaking of rocks and the opening of graves.  I have always thought of this as a bit bizarre – resurrected people emerging from their graves, strolling about Jerusalem, when Sunday morning comes.  But it fits with the belief in the resurrection of the just at the Messianic Age.  And it locates the beginning of this age with Jesus’ death.

            After he dies, Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for the body.  Matthew describes Joseph as a rich man and a disciple.  Joseph’s request is granted and he lays Jesus in his own tomb, a new one cut out of the rock, and he rolls a great stone to close the entrance.

            Finally, after Jesus is laid in the tomb, Matthew reports that the chief priests and Pharisees go to Pilate with a request for armed guards at the tomb.  On the one hand, this is a sign that the religious leaders are still working in opposition to God’s plan.  On the other hand, it also means that they have been paying attention, that even if the disciples don’t remember, they remember what Jesus has said – that he would not only die, but that on the third day he would be raised.

 

            Let us now turn to Psalm 22 and the scene at the cross.  Of course, Jesus recites the opening line from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Some scholars believe that he likely would have recited the entire psalm.  Even if he didn’t, simply quoting the first line would evoke for those present then and for those who have heard since the entire psalm.

            There are taunts and threats throughout the psalm – “Scorned by all and despised by the people…”  “Young bulls encircle me, strong bulls surround me.  They open wide their jaws…”  “Packs of dogs close me in and gangs of evil doers surround me…”

            There are particular details that are reflected – “They pierce my hands and my feet.  I can count all my bones…They divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing.”

            There is the mocking – “He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him if he delights in him.”

            There is even a vague reference to those who arise from their graves – “To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship.”

            There is the cry of abandonment at the beginning, but there are also expressions of trust and, at the end, there is the voice of hope – “My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s forever…”

            All of these themes are present at the cross.  The most important is, I believe, the mocking that takes the form of temptation.

            The crucifixion itself is a kind of mock coronation.  There are two attendants – the seats on his right and on his left that James and John requested.  And there is the sign affixed to the cross.  A sign was customarily placed on the cross announcing the particular crime for which the criminal was dying.  To refer to Jesus on the cross as “The King of the Jews” was a scandal, an offense to Jews, who could only think of the glory of David on the throne as their king.  And it was a sign of contempt by the Romans.  Jesus is a rebel, a menace to the public order.  His crucifixion is a warning to any dreamers who might long for freedom.

            Then come the passersby, the religious leaders, and even the bandits all saying, “If you really are who you claim to be, then save yourself.  Come down from the cross now and we will believe in you!”  This taunting becomes temptation, the same temptation in the wilderness – “If you are the Son of God…”  But this is not a question of what Jesus can do.  It is a question of what Jesus chooses to do.

 

            Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, is the self-told story of its title character.  Jayber Crow begins his life in a small town in Kentucky.  He is soon bereft of his parents and, not long after, death also takes his care-taking aunt and uncle.  Having no one else, he is sent to an orphanage, where he believes he may have a call to preach.  He wins a scholarship to a college and seminary.  But he abandons that path because he has too many questions, questions he confides to one of his professors – “If Jesus said for us to love our enemies…how can it ever be right to kill our enemies?  And if He said not to pray in public, how come we’re all the time praying in public?  And if Jesus’ own prayer in the garden wasn’t granted, what is there for us to pray, except ‘thy will be done,’ which there’s no use praying because it will be done anyhow?”  These are questions that will not allow him to preach faithfully, but they are questions that will stay with him nonetheless, his professor advises, even into the next life.

            So, Jayber leaves seminary, sets off on his own and becomes a barber.  Eventually he returns and takes up residence in the town he left.  After many years, he comes to this reflection on the death of Jesus:

 

Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave.  And why not otherwise?  Wouldn’t it have put fine comical expressions on the faces of the scribes and the chief priests and the soldiers if at that moment He had come down in power and glory?  Why didn’t He do it? Why hasn’t He done it at any one of the thousand good times between then and now?

            I knew the answer.  I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it.  He didn’t, He hasn’t, because from the moment He did, He would be absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves.  Even those who hated Him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in him then.  From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.

            And so, I thought, He must forbear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures.  Those who wish to see Him must see Him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world. (p. 295)

 

            Jesus does not come down from the cross, whether our demand is made in derision or desperation.  Jesus does not come down from the cross, because, otherwise, we would be bound to him by power, and not by love.  For Jesus does all things out of love and through love and for love.

            That is why the Roman soldier can stand at his cross and there offer the confession that is both the first, true confession, and the final, ultimate confession of faith in Jesus – “Truly, this man was God’s Son.”