Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one of his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.
Religious people aren’t supposed to fail, or suffer, or get arrested. They’re not supposed to hang out with vagrants, and criminals, and failures. Religious people are supposed to live good lives, surrounded by good people, doing good things. They’re supposed to have life all figured out, to be content, and to be filled with joy.
Jesus was beaten, dirtied, and was marched to his death with two criminals. While they walked along the way, the few disciples who had yet to abandon him must’ve lost all their hope; their Messiah was carrying a cross to the place called The Skull where he was to be crucified. Yet while the crowds screamed and threw their complaints into the air, Jesus calmly forged ahead with his eyes on the ground and the cross digging into his shoulder.
When they arrived on the hill, the guards nailed Jesus and the two thieves to their crosses and hung them in the air. The crowds must have grown larger the closer they came to the place and they hurled insults at the man in the air, ridiculing him for all that he had said and done. With the chaos erupting around him, Jesus bowed his head to speak with his Father: “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
In the entirety of the Christian year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the least attended services. Christmas Eve and Easter are big days in the life of the church because we celebrate the incarnation and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are all about death; “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
We don’t want to talk about death, we don’t want to talk about our own suffering, we don’t want to “bring other people down.”
One of the things that surprises me most about funerals is our inability to confront death. When I preside over services of death and resurrection I am tasked with talking about, and affirming, the one thing that most people are afraid of: death being real. The juxtaposition between a funeral and the reception afterwards is sometimes nauseating.
Here in the sanctuary we speak the truth about death, we begin the process of grieving, we talk about what the person did with their lives and we acknowledge the void we now feel. But then I go to a reception and everyone wants to talk about everything else: March Madness brackets, the latest movies, new restaurants, and children’s activities. I’m not saying that we need to wallow in the sadness of death, but it is clear that we want to avoid death because it stinks.
By the time Jesus made it to the cross, the disciples had all cleared out. They had abandoned him for the same reasons that we avoid death today, it is too frightening, too heavy, and too sad.
The people began to mock the messiah in the tree: “he saved others; let him save himself if he really is the Messiah!” The soldiers taunted him with sour wine and scream out: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” And above his head they hung a sign containing his conviction: “This is the King of the Jews.”
Verbal attacks kept pouring in from the ground, but the scene now moves to the air. One of the criminals rebuked Jesus: “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us!” But the other criminal spoke up, “we are getting what we deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus please remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
For the next three hours darkness came over the whole land and the temple curtain was town in two. Then Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And he died.
For a long time I always inserted myself into the story as the forgiven criminal. I believed that even at the end I would’ve understood what Jesus was doing. As I grew older I started seeing myself as one of the disciples who abandoned the Lord and was nowhere to be found. I recognized that my faith isn’t as strong as I would like it to be, and that I would’ve been more concerned with my safety than with Jesus on the cross. But now, now I see myself as one of the bystanders who was there on Palm Sunday screaming “Hosanna” and then quickly began to scream “crucify!” a few days laters.
We sinners are lousy and fall short of God’s glory. We avoid people who are not like us, we want to shy away from common criminals, we want our lives to be perfect, and organized, and clean, and comfortable. And more often than not we enjoy witnessing the suffering of others.
But there is no shade in the shadow of the cross.
It is vitally important for us to remember that Jesus Christ was executed as a criminal among criminals! His death was made real on a cross because it warned the people about crimes agains the state and it added shame, pain, and public ridicule.
From the cross Jesus had no anger, only peace. He did not save himself, instead he saved a criminal. He did not thrash about with frustration, instead he was filled with serenity. He did not doubt God’s presence, he only trusted and kept faith.
Death is messy and ugly. I have been in enough hospitals, and stood over enough caskets to know how frightening death can be. Jesus’ death was likewise ugly. It was filled with shame and embarrassment. How did this prophetic Messiah go from the crowds cheering his name to being killed on a cross? How did he go from having faithful disciples to spending his finals moments with two criminals?
Jesus’ crucifixion was dirty and shameful. Yet, the hardest thing to comprehend is his willingness to forgive. More than the physical suffering and his literal death, his forgiving spirit is what stops us in our tracks when we read these words from so long ago.
From the cross Jesus announces forgiveness – this is the heart of the Gospel, it is the crux of the story, and it is what we are called to do if we are to follow him.
Last year I asked us to look at the cross and live. I implored us to give thanks to God for dying in Christ on our behalf to save us. I handed out crosses so that we might ponder the kind of divine love that was made real for us. I asked us to look at the cross and live.
This year I want to ask us to look at the cross and forgive. If Jesus was willing to use some of his final breaths to forgive the crowds for betraying him and bringing him to the cross, why are we so unwilling to forgive? If Jesus was so filled with love, shouldn’t we do the same?
Being a Christian is messy, ugly, and frightening if we are willing to follow Jesus. If we really want to be like him, then we have to start by forgiving others, and forgiving ourselves.