Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spat on him.
Those who passed by hurled insults at him.
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice … “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom
In some ways the story we have heard is an unremarkable, one could even say an everyday one. The killing of innocent people by armed men in troubled parts of the world is common. I read this week about a man in Kano, Nigeria who was killed by the security forces, apparently only because he was a devout Muslim in an area where the Islamist terror group Boko Haram was active.
In Syria the torture and execution of activists but also of random members of the population of rebellious areas has been widely and reliably reported. At least 20 governments have carried out the death sentence within the last two years and there are many more places where local warlords kill with impunity.
If we think about a regime like that of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or about the brutal military dictatorships in Chile or Argentina during the 1970s we will remember that forms of execution designed to cause suffering and terror did not disappear from the world with the fall of Rome or the end of the middle ages.
The dreadful things done to Jesus are not unique or even all that unusual.
Neither is it all that uncommon for people to be subjected to this kind of thing because of what they say or believe. The last person executed for blasphemy in Britain was a 20 year old student hung in Edinburgh in 1697 for unguarded words but as we speak Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, a convert from Islam to Christianity, is in prison facing sentence of death under Iranian laws against apostasy and evangelism. If one had the stomach for it it would be easy to spend a little time assembling long lists of people killed horribly either because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time or because they said or did something that upset somebody with the power of life and death.
So why do we remember Jesus? Why is his death on the cross the one we talk about rather than that of the thousands crucified during the siege of Jerusalem thirty or so years later?
Is it because of his willingness to die, his obedience and self-sacrifice in facing the end he so clearly saw coming? This is part of it. The story of his night in the Garden of Gethsemane praying to be spared but ultimately submitting to the will of God is an immensely moving one, but still not unique.
Some years ago I read a book of letters written from prison by German Christians who had been arrested by the Nazis for their various acts of resistance. These obscure and unknown heroes showed a calm acceptance of their fate that I found hard to comprehend. Many of them had been tortured and all were to be killed but their letters spoke only of love and duty, of their following of God’s way. They have remained in my mind and in my heart as testimony to the power of faith but it is not them but Jesus we recall today.
We remember Jesus’ death because, to quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death”. He died for us and in dying set us free. His was not a heroic failure. His death was neither a stoic acceptance of injustice nor even a noble gesture of defiance. It was an act that changed everything, forever.
I don’t claim to understand how this works, how Jesus’ death can change things for us. It is a great mystery and beyond my capabilities to grasp in thought or turn into words but I know it is connected to who Jesus was and is. Jesus, uniquely, is and was both a man and God the Son. On that cross God took death into God’s own being. God died. Jesus the man died too but Jesus wasn’t and isn’t two separate persons, one human and one divine, but a single person who is both divine and human. God died.
The Bible teaches us that death and sin belong together, that death is the wages of sin. That’s another thing I can’t claim to understand but feel to be deeply, vitally, true. Death and sin can’t be separated. We are sinners and we die and these two facts are somehow one, are somehow THE one thing. And God died, died on a cross, died in pain, died in abandonment and despair: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
That’s why this one awful story is the one we tell. That’s why this one dreadful death is the one we are baptised into. This death is unique, this death is the willing death of God, this death is the death to end death, for each and every one of us. Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God, went to the cross willingly, went to it for each of us, went to free us from sin and from death.
Next Sunday we will be beyond Good Friday, beyond the desolation of Holy Saturday when a dead Christ is absent from the world. Next Sunday we will celebrate the new, the resurrected life beyond the cross. For the next week we prepare ourselves for that celebration by remembering that it came at a cost, that it comes at a cost, that resurrection requires death, that to rise with Christ we must die with Christ, losing our old life to rise into the new.