They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
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. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.”
Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit during the series that you won’t agree with, and if (and when) that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we continue with The Death Penalty.
He was sitting with his friends when the police rushed in. Everything moved in a blur while tables were overturned, bodies were thrown to the floor, and he was placed under arrest. The journey to jail and to the courthouse was strangely quiet, but he kept his head down and his mouth shut. Others came and went, he received strange and knowing looks, and he wondered if any of his friends were arrested as well.
When they dragged him in front of the judge, the courtroom was packed and people kept screaming from the back. The judge waited for everyone to calm down and the whole proceeding came down to one question, “Did you do it?” The man replied, “If I tell you what happened, you won’t believe me, and if I ask you a question, you won’t answer.” Again the judge asked, “Did you do it?” And the man replied, “You say that I did.”
In response, the judge smacked his gavel onto the wood and declared, “What further testimony to do we need? We’ve heard it ourselves from his own lips.” And with that, the man was condemned to death.
The courtroom erupted into celebration as the gathered people shouted “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” What made everything worse was the fact that the dead-man walking recognized some of the people who were shouting for his death, but nothing could stop the inevitable.
Time passed, and eventually he found himself walking to his own demise; walking down death row. With every footstep he thought about what had led him to this, he thought about his family and friends that had abandoned him at the end, he thought about how this would be the last time he’d feel the ground beneath his feet.
The executioners were ready to begin the moment he arrived. They took off his clothes, and laid him down. Only then did he notice that two other men were about to be executed as well. Their faces held grave expressions of fear, guilt, and sorrow. But just like with the man, they were on a path that had only one outcome- death.
It was about noon when everything started moving quickly, and the man noticed that it was strangely turning dark outside. They strapped him down until he could barely breathe and then they stood back and waited. With each moment he felt his life slipping away, his chest heaved for air that ceased to fill his lungs, his vision went blurry, and then he died.
His name was Jesus and he was executed by the state.
Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life, and more often than not it comes down to this: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and we have it in the Old Testament in our Bibles.
The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and we still employ it for a number of reasons. To kill someone for committing a crime is the only way to guarantee they will never recommit the same crime. It works and functions as a deterrence to influence others to not commit the crime. It helps bring closure to a family who is grieving the loss of someone who was murdered. And it saves the state a lot of money from having to keep someone in prison year after year after year.
In the United States, there are roughly 3,000 people on death row right now, and the death penalty takes place primarily through lethal injections – a poison is injected into someone’s blood stream that brings a quick and painless death, but many states still let people choose between the electric chair and lethal injection. The state of Washington however, still uses a noose to kill those who have been convicted. Across the county at least 56% of Americans support the death penalty.
And the state of Virginia, where we live, has executed more prisoners than any other state.
So why are we talking about the Death Penalty in church? Why is this a controversy that we need to confront?
Because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.
The main reasons that people often sight to justify the death penalty can just as easily be argued from a different perspective. The death penalty often fails to work as a deterrence because in the south where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. The closure that families experience in the short-term is present, but in the long-term they tend to experience more guilt and depression in a response to another person’s death. It actually costs the state a lot more money to put someone to death because of the required appeals process and the amount of time and resources that it necessitates. And, this is a very important ‘and’, since 1976 about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell.
But all of the statistics and the facts, all of the psychology and the economics, are dwarfed by the fact that Christians still support the death penalty, even when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.
We Christians love our crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skin and we wear them around out necks, I even carry one over my shoulder all over Staunton every Good Friday. But we have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.
Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, then we’d be wearing nooses around our necks instead of crosses. If Jesus died 50 years ago, then we’d be bowing before an electric chair in the sanctuary instead of a cross. And if Jesus died today, then we’d hang up hypodermic needles in our living rooms instead of crosses.
The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injection of modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crime.
The fact that 1 in 9 death-row inmates have been exonerated should be enough to give us pause. The fact that the state has murdered innocent people just like Jesus was murdered should give the church reason to repent. But if that’s not enough, then maybe this is: With God nothing is impossible.
And I’ll admit, there are scriptures in the Old Testament that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Old Testament and the New Testament who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.
We like to think about Moses’ encountering the burning bush, we like to imagine Moses leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.
We like to think about David approaching Goliath on the battlefield, we like to imagine him dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one his soldiers to die so that he could sleep with his wife.
We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground by God on the road to Damascus, we like to imagine him writing letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered countless Christians before his conversion.
With God nothing is impossible.
That’s the beginning and the end of theology, that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the drink, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging out our nooses? Why do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we keep strapping them down for a lethal injection? Why do we keep hanging people on crosses?
The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. Mercy for an adulteress woman who was about to be stoned by the crowd, mercy for short tax collector who preyed on the poor, mercy for a criminal who hung on a cross right next to Jesus. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away without consequences, it doesn’t mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the justice system.
For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing the same crime. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can continue to take place without disrupting our daily lives.
But people are being murdered for murder.
Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” To retaliate murder for murder will only ever beget more violence, or as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.”
God sent his son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, not with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice. God sent his son to walk among us in order that we might catch glimpses of the kingdom. God in Christ ministered to the last, the least, and the lost, people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row. And God sent his son to carry death on his back to the top of a hill to die, so that we might live.
So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent true repentance and new life from taking place in those who have fallen prey to evil. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible. Amen.