When I wrote my dissertation, one question I asked all the pastors and elders I interviewed concerned times when they had to bear a cross on behalf of the people of God. Interestingly, nearly every pastor and elder confirmed some story about a time when they had sacrificed for the good of the congregation. One pastor told of a time when his rapidly growing congregation had to build twice while he had children in college. Being the pastor, he felt he needed to both tithe and give generously to building campaigns. It was a long hard time.
One of the most meaningful to me was a pastor who led an inner city congregation in a declining area. He reached the conclusion that the only way to save the congregation was to move. Naturally, some of the families in the congregation, who had been in the church for generations, and whose parents and in some cases grandparents had built the existing church, were horrified at the idea. The Session voted to move. The pastor successfully moved the church into a growing area—but those opposed caused difficult problems for him during the rest of his ministry. A former Associate Pastor told me that this fine pastor grew old before his eyes during those years. This week at our Session meeting, I shared with the Session a couple of times that Kathy and I have had to suffer in order that a church might grow and prosper.
One of the most difficult things to get our arms around in the Bible is the cross. Why did Jesus have to die a terrible death? Why did Jesus say that if anyone wants to be my disciple, let him (or her) take up his or her cross and follow me? (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 23). Why does Paul say that he completes in his body the sufferings of Christ on behalf of the church? (Colossians 1:24).
The Way His Life Ended
This morning, we come to the mystery of the cross. I use the term “mystery” because no human words can fully comprehend what God was doing on the cross. No human wisdom can fully penetrate its meaning. As we shall see, the disciples and Paul struggled all the days of their lives to communicate to others the depth of God’s love—a love that, beyond all expectations, died for the human race. Here is how it happened:
It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. … At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. … Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last (Mark 15:25; 33-37).
A Long and Difficult Week
This Lenten season, we’ve been walking with Jesus through the last week of his life in this blog. Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, where we began our Journey to the Empty Tomb: with Jesus’ triumphal entrance into the City of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish faith. The crowds welcomed Jesus as if he were the long-awaited Messiah. This worried the leaders of the people. They were afraid of what the Romans would do if Jesus tried to lead a rebellion. They also feared a rebellion against the Temple religion of which they were the priests and legal interpreters. Even natural enemies, like the Pharisees, who believed in the resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees, who did not, were united in their dislike of the rabbi Jesus bar Joseph from the little village of Nazareth. They united in their attempts to trick him, turn the crowds and the Romans against him, and get rid of him.
From the beginning of the week, things got darker and darker for Jesus.
We don’t know exactly when or why Judas Iscariot decided to betray Jesus. The best guess is that Judas, like the other disciples, initially hoped that Jesus was the Messiah. He hoped that Jesus would get rid of the hated Romans and the corruption of Temple faith. Perhaps Judas was disappointed that Jesus was not doing more to avoid death and begin a rebellion.  Sometime during the week, perhaps late Wednesday or early Thursday, Judas must have contacted the Chief Priests or the Temple guards offering to betray Jesus. Similarly, Jesus knew something was up and suspected Judas (John 16:24). In any case, by the time of the last supper, Judas had decided to betray Jesus (Matthew 26:23; Mark 14:20; Luke 22:21; John 13:26).
Thursday night, the disciples celebrated a Passover meal together. At the meal, Jesus spoke of his body and blood that would be shed for his disciples (Mark 14:22-25). When he announced that one of the Twelve would betray him, he set off a competition as to who would be the most loyal. When Peter announced that he would never betray Jesus, Jesus foretold that he would indeed deny him three times (14:27-31). In the end, of course they all deserted him, even Peter.
After dinner, amid the gathering gloom, they went off to the Garden of Gethsemane, by which time Jesus clearly understood that he was about to be betrayed, suffer and die (Mark 14:32-42). While he was there praying, about midnight, Judas arrived with the Temple Guards, betrayed him, and he was arrested (14:43-52). Sure enough, just as he foretold, they all deserted him (14:50).
He was taken to the Sanhedrin, the highest court of the Jewish people, there, the High Priests, the teachers of the law, and the other leaders of the people tried him, and he was condemned to death (14:53-65). The entire affair was illegal—Jewish law forbade trials at night, and it must by now have been very early Friday morning. It was then that Peter denied, betrayed him, and fled (15:66-72). Jesus was left entirely alone, betrayed and abandoned.
While the Jews could convict Jesus of heresy, a crime punishable by death under their own law, it was not possible under Roman law for Jesus to be executed except by Roman command.  Therefore, very early in the morning, the Sanhedrin transferred Jesus to Pilate. He was taken across the city to where Pilate was and examined by him (Mark 15:1-5). Pilate suspected that Jesus was guilty of no capital offense under Roman law. This is why Pilate asked him if he was the King of the Jews (15:2). Jesus said nothing that could be used to execute him. Only if some violation of Roman law could be found could he be executed.
At some point, Pilate was reminded that it was his custom to to release a prisoner during the Passover celebration as a sign of goodwill (Mark 14:8). Perhaps, he felt certain that, if he offered the Jews a choice between a true criminal, Barabbas, and Jesus, the crowd would surely choose Jesus to be released. Pilate offered the crowd the choice, and to his utter surprise, the crowd chose Barabbas (15:11). His hands now tied, Pilate washed his hands of the whole terrible affair, and turned Jesus over to be crucified (15:15). First, He had Jesus flogged.
A Terrible End
By this time, Jesus had been flogged, and his back was probably torn to pieces (Mark 15:15). He had been awake more than twenty-four hours and was tired. He was also probably weak from hunger, not having eaten since the night before. He was publically humiliated: the soldiers mocked him (15:16-50). As was the custom, Jesus carried the cross upon which he was to be crucified, or at least the crossbar of the cross, through the center of the city, down what we call the Way of Tears (Via Delarosa). He was so weak that a visitor to the city, Simon of Cyrene, was asked to carry the cross part of the way to Golgotha, the place of the skull, just outside the city gates. There, he was crucified.
The soldiers, now making fun of the Jews generally, put a sign above his head, “The King of the Jews.” This was intended, probably, to send a message to any other Messianic pretender and also to humiliate the Priests, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, and all those who conspired to put him there (Mark 15:25). Somewhere in the afternoon, before dark and the beginning of the Passover, Jesus cried out to God, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:33-34). It was a quote from Psalm 22—an invocation of faith and hope as well as a sign of dereliction. A few moments later he cried out one last time and died (15:37).
As darkness came, Joseph of Arimathea took down his body, got permission from Pilate to bury him, and placed him in a tomb (Mark 15:12-47). Jesus had died in the most unimaginably painful and humiliating way: almost naked, exposed, treated as a criminal, outside the city, deserted by everyone. This was not the way the Messiah was supposed to die.
An Amazing Love
At the time, no one understood what had happened. His disciples were scattered. Those who remained in Jerusalem were in fear of their lives. A few women were willing to anoint the body after Passover (Mark 15:47-16:1). Years later, the Apostle Paul described the event as beyond human imagination. Here is what he says in First Corinthians:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (I Cor. 1:18-25).
We human beings simply do not have words or intellectual categories to describe what happened on the Cross. Virtue should be rewarded, not punished. Love should be victorious, not end up dying on a cross. Wisdom should prevail, not be destroyed. How are we to even begin to understand this?
Paul takes the position that we can never understand the cross on the basis of human wisdom. No secular person, no “Greek,” can understand a god who would give himself up on a cross for the sins of the world. No “Jew,” a religious person who believes that wisdom should be rewarded with long life and riches, can understand the cross. No religion that proclaims, “Love your friends and punish your enemies” can understand what happened on the cross. No worldly wisdom that proclaims “Do unto others before they do unto you” can understand the cross. Only those who can perceive a love so much greater than human love at work that it cannot hardly be imagined or understood can understand the cross. It is just as hard to understand today as it was 2000 years ago.
The Meaning of Holy Week
Next week is Holy Week. All the events that we talked about in this blog since early February occurred in one week. All the events that we have spoken of today occurred in one day: next Thursday evening through next Friday evening. It is the most important week of human history.
On Sunday, a charismatic Rabbi entered the city of Jerusalem, and everyone hoped they would see the arrival of their expected Messiah. The next Sunday, a few women announced to a disbelieving world that the charismatic rabbi was the Risen Son of God. In between, he was persecuted, died, and was buried.
His cross has become the symbol of the religion he founded, because his followers see in that cross a disclosure of the very being of God—sheer, unconditional, unimaginable, self-giving love. And, against all worldly wisdom, we have committed ourselves to becoming people transformed by this very love. In truth and in fact, the cross cannot be understood except by those who have walked as disciples with the One who suffered and died upon it. 
There is no understanding the the deepest mysteries of human life until the cross and empty tomb become the center of our vision of the world—a world created for freedom, hopeless lost to sin, redeemed by a loving God in a way no one could possibly have foreseen. In the words of John Polkinghorne:
He is not a spectator, but a fellow-sufferer, who has himself absorbed the full force of evil. In the lonely figure hanging in the darkness and dereliction of Calvary, the Christian believes that he sees God opening his arms to embrace the bitterness of the strange world he has made. The God revealed in the vulnerability of the incarnation and in the vulnerability of creation are one. He is the crucified God, whose paradoxical power is perfected in weakness, whose self-chosen symbol is the King reigning from the gallows. 
As I put it in Path of Life, on the Cross we see revealed the truth that God not only reigns in glory over his creation, but paradoxically, suffers the travail of its finitude, incompleteness, sin, and suffering. In the end, Christians believe that the One Greater than Wisdom came and in his coming moves our thinking and understanding to a new level. At the cross we come to understand that God does not stand outside our human suffering. Instead, in Christ God is a fellow sufferer with each human being who suffers for whatever reason. This is the kind of Messiah God intended for us. 
I began this series of meditations with the observation that Protestants move too quickly from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—from victorious entrance to Jerusalem to victory over the grave. This can lead to a kind of triumphalism in which we expect as disciples to go from victory to victory with Jesus. This creates an unbalanced and unrealistic Christian faith. It forgets the cost of victory, which is death, a death on a cross. It is a cost believers have had to pay from time to time throughout history that others may live and prosper. This week is a time to celebrate, but ours should be a solemn celebration. This week we remember the cost of our peace with God.
 One of the possible explanations is that Judas expected Jesus to declare his Messiahship and begin a rebellion. When it seemed that he was going to bumble along and get himself arrested and killed, he changed sides.
 See, James Stalker, The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1983), 18-25. It is from this source that I refer when saying that a night trial was not legal and that the Jews could not execute Jesus. This was possible only under Roman law.
 See, Leslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986). Those who know of my years at seminary know that no one book has been more important in my thinking about Jesus and the Church, and no writer more important than Leslie Newbigin. He was the most important person and writer in the development of my thinking about the church, about how to minister to our culture, and about a Christian response to secular ideology.
 John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 1989), 79.
 G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 192. I have rephrased the ending of this chapter for this blog.
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