March 28, 1999

WERE YOU THERE?

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me. Galatians 2:20

Malchus Luke 22:47‑51, John 18:1‑11

Malchus wakes up with a start.  He raises his right hand to his head.  Sure enough, the ear is still there.  Was everything last night just a dream?  Malchus yawns and rubs his eyes.  Then he looks down at the tunic lying on the floor.  He blinks and looks again.  Unbelievable!  The tunic is spattered with blood, like a butcher’s apron.  Again he touches his ear, very gingerly.  His eyes dart back to the bloodstained tunic.  So it really happened, after all.

Malchus remembers his boss, the high priest Caiaphas, telling him to go out into the darkness with a band of men.  This was the chance they’d been waiting for.  They were going to arrest the renegade rabbi from Nazareth secretly, when he was away from the mobs of followers who seemed crazy about him.  Some fellow named Judas who was apparently a disenchanted friend of this Jesus, knew where to find him.

So Malchus and the others followed Judas into the night.  Carrying swords and clubs and torches, they hurried silently through the valley and up the slope of the Mount of Olives to Gethsemane Grove.

Sure enough, they soon came upon a small group of a dozen men.  Judas hurried up to one of them and gave him a big hug.  That was the signal.  Malchus and the other moved in.  The man Judas was hugging said, “Who is it you want?”

They said, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

“I am he,” the man said.  Then the strangest thing happened.  Malchus and all the others lost their balance, and they all fell over backward at the same time.  Malchus scrambled to his feet just in time to hear Jesus say again, “Who is it you want?”

They said again, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

The man said, “I told you that I am he.  If you are looking for me,” he said, gesturing to the other eleven, “then let these men go.”

Malchus remembers stepping forward with several others to seize Jesus.  And that’s when it happened.  He remembers seeing a flash in the corner of his eye and ducking instinctively.  Too late.  His ear was hanging by a shred of skin, and his tunic was sprayed with blood.  The burly fellow with the sword was getting ready to finish Malchus off when Jesus stepped in and said, “No more of this, Peter!  Put your sword away!”

Malchus remembers doubling over in pain.  Then he felt someone touching his ear.  He lifted his head and found himself looking into the Nazarene’s face.  Suddenly the painful throbbing ceased.  The bleeding stopped.  His ear was perfectly fine again.  At that moment, the squad grabbed Jesus, and his eleven followers fled into the night.

Now here Malchus is the next morning, back in his room, with one bloody tunic, two healthy ears, and a lot of questions running through his mind.

What was it about the man from Nazareth that made the whole squad back off suddenly and fall to the ground?  How did he heal a shredded ear?  Why would he want to, when Malchus was there to harm him?  And since he had the power to do such things, why would he let himself be arrested?

I wonder if Malchus remembered the prophecy of Isaiah, “… by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

Barabbas Mark 15:6‑15

Barabbas is bracing himself.  He knows the penalty for insurrection and murder.  He’s watched more than one crucifixion.  It’s gruesome, and he’s always known his day might come.  That’s the chance Barabbas took when he became a terrorist.  But the possibility of being crucified was always just a distant thought; now it’s a dreadful certainty.  Barabbas is staring death in the face.  He’s locked in prison, with no way out, just waiting for the executioners to come.

Barabbas hears footsteps clicking on stone and then keys jangling at the door of his cell.  The door swings open, and rough hands yank him to his feet.  He finds himself hoping he can stifle his screams when they drive in the nails.  He wants to give the hated Romans as little satisfaction as possible.

As the soldiers lead Barabbas out of the darkness of his cell, he blinks and squints in the bright sunlight.  Then the impossible happens.  Someone is fumbling at his wrists and ankles.  The chains come off.  A gruff voice tells him he’s free to go.  He’s been granted unconditional pardon.

The strangest thing has happened.  Some harmless rabbi from Nazareth is being crucified on the garbage heap outside the city, even though no charge against him would stick.  And Barabbas, a known terrorist convicted of murder, finds himself alive and absolutely free.

The Bible says Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Galatians 3:13).  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21).  When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6‑8).

Simon of Cyrene Mark 15:21‑24

Simon’s pilgrimage is almost over.  The trip from Africa has been a long one.  He’s traveled all the way from Cyrene in Libya to Jerusalem to get in on the Passover festivities.  Coming up the road from the countryside on his way into the city, he runs into traffic jam, a gaper’s delay.  The road is clogged with people, and they all seem to be staring.  Then Simon sees what they’re staring at.

Three men lugging stout wooden beams are being nudged along at swordpoint.  Headed for crucifixion, apparently.  One of them looks like he should be dead already.  His back is bloody, his face beaten to a pulp, his eyes swollen nearly shut.  Some sadist has even jammed a wreath of thorns into his scalp.  Simon feels disgusted.  This condemned man is probably riffraff, just like the other two.  No doubt the world will be better off without them, but there’s no need for such torture.

Simon shakes his head, then shrugs.  There’s nothing he can do about it.  He starts to move on.

Just then a rough hand grabs Simon’s shoulder and wheels him around.  A voice barks a gruff order.  Simon sees that the prisoner with the thorny wreath has collapsed and is lying pinned under his heavy cross.  He can’t carry it another step.  The soldiers want Simon to carry it.

Of all the people there, why him?  He hasn’t traveled all the way from Cyrene for this.  He’s must made the long journey to Jerusalem to be at the temple for a sacred feast, and he ends up lugging a cross away from the city, with an exhausted prisoner staggering along in front of him.  It’s not what he had in mind.

Simon of Cyrene has come to Jerusalem to meet God, and he’s found God‑‑not in a temple but on a cross.  And Simon’s life is never the same again.  The troublesome task forced upon him turns out to be the greatest privilege any man ever had.  The condemned stranger whose cross he carried turns out to be the living Lord.  Jesus, who dies on the cross, rises from the dead a few days later, and that crown of thorns becomes a crown of victory.

Later, Simon’s sons Alexander and Rufus become widely known as prominent Christians.  From listening to their father, they know that following Jesus isn’t always convenient or easy.  they know, better than most people do, the truth of Jesus’ words:

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)

Mary and John John 19:25‑27

Mother Mary’s ears have echoed for more than thirty years with the words: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35).  An old man named Simeon said that to her when her miracle baby was barely a week old, being dedicated at the temple.  Over the years, those words have come back to Mary time and again.  She has often wondered what could they could possibly mean.  Now she knows.  She hears her firstborn denounced as a criminal and sees him nailed to a cross.  Mary’s bewilderment and grief are agonizing beyond anything she’s ever imagined.

Beside her stands young John, weighed down by sorrow of his own.  Several years ago John left everything to follow the young rabbi Jesus.  He’s been awed by his miracles, transfixed by his teaching, and over the years, John and Jesus have become the closest of personal friends.  Oh, how they love each other!  And now this.  The friend who sticks closer than a brother is dying.

Jesus’ mother and his friend stand near the cross, both staring blankly at the dirt, their world in ruins.  And then the gentle voice they both love is speaking to them from the cross.  Mary lifts her head and gazes through her tears into the tender eyes of Jesus.  He nods toward John and says, “Dear woman, here is your son.”  Mary looks into John’s bloodshot eyes.  Then Jesus tells his friend, “Here is your mother.” And in that moment, the love Mary and John feel for Jesus becomes love for each other.

A few days later, their sorrow becomes joy when Jesus rises again.  Even so, they must let him go when he returns to his heavenly throne.  But Mary and John aren’t alone.  Jesus has given them each other so that they can love and support one another.  And by his Holy Spirit he continues to shed his love abroad in their hearts and in the hearts of all who believe in him.  Jesus has created a new family, where there is comfort for the grieving and companionship for the lonely. As John himself later writes, We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

Dying Criminal Luke 23:39‑43

The convicted criminal still can’t get over it.  Here he is in heaven, when all he deserved is hell.  His life was a waste, a total disaster.  Society would have been better off without him, and in the end it did get rid of him.  His crimes brought him to a well‑deserved end.  But here in heaven, nobody seems to remember any of that.

Amazing how it happened.  When they hoisted him up on his cross, he was so bitter at the fact that he was dying, and so racked with pain, that he lashed out at the closest thing to him, the man on the middle cross.  He was cursing Jesus right along with the other criminal, when suddenly it struck him: “God is real, and before long, I’ll be facing him.  I’m on this cross because I deserve it, but Jesus is innocent.”

And then, another thought: “Maybe, just maybe, this won’t be the end of Jesus.”  He wasn’t sure where that idea came from, but he found himself increasingly convinced of it.  He gasped, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”  That was all.  But somehow, it was enough.

A while later, Jesus was dead.  A soldier came walking over with a club in his hands.  The criminal heard a sickening crunch and felt new pain stabbing through his legs.  Then he realized the soldier had just shattered his leg bones with the club.  It was agony.  He couldn’t support his own weight.  He couldn’t breathe.  And then…

Paradise.  No more pain, just pleasure.  No more sorrow, just delight.  No more guilt, just acceptance.  Jesus is there too, no longer bloody and haggard, but radiant beyond description.  And the former criminal is with him in heaven forever.

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1 Peter 3:18).  God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

Centurion Matthew 27:50‑54

Doing crucifixions: it’s one of the hardest things about being a soldier.  The first one is always the hardest.  Pounding nails into another person’s body, seeing the naked flesh and the oozing blood, hearing those first shrieks of pain followed by groans and the buzzing of flies, waiting hours for someone to die of slow suffocation if he doesn’t bleed to death first‑‑the first time you take part in a crucifixion, it turns your stomach.  But after doing a few, you get used to it.  Most of the time, you don’t really know the people you crucify.  When you’re a soldier, you’ve got your orders, and you do what you’re told.

But this crucifixion is different.  In all his years as a soldier, the centurion has never seen anything like it.  At nine o’clock the soldiers are about to nail this man Jesus to a cross.  They offer him wine mixed with myrrh to dope him up and ease the pain, but he turns it down.  Seems he’d rather suffer the worst with a clear head than take the easy way out.  The soldiers strip him naked, spread him out, drive spikes into his wrists and heels, hoist him up‑‑and what does he say?  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  There’s something unearthly about him.

Then at noon everything turns dark. and it stays dark for three solid hours.  The sun is nowhere to be seen.  Around three o’clock, after six hours of hanging there, when you’d expect him to have no energy left, Jesus suddenly shouts in a loud, triumphant voice, “It is finished!”  It’s like he’s in control somehow, and he decides when enough is enough.  Then quietly he says:  “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  The moment he says that, he dies.

That’s when the earthquake hits.  It’s like God himself is reacting.  People staggering, rocks shattering‑‑almost like his death has shifted the structure of the entire universe.  The centurion’s mouth opens in astonishment.  What sort of person was this Jesus?  Surely this man was the Son of God!

“But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).

Joseph and Nicodemus John 19:38‑42

Joseph of Arimathea has been waiting eagerly for the kingdom of God.  He’s believed in Jesus for some time, though he’s tried to keep it a secret because he’s afraid of some very powerful people.  If it becomes known that he believes in the rabbi from Nazareth, Joseph might lose his prominent position in the ruling council, and his very life might be in danger.

Ironically, though, the more grim Jesus’ situation becomes, the less Joseph tries to hide his loyalty.  When Jesus comes to trial, Joseph begins to show his true colors by refusing to support the council’s verdict against Jesus (Luke 23:50‑51).  And at the cross, Joseph comes right out into the open.  It’s risky to identify with Jesus in any way, but when Joseph sees that Jesus is dead, he goes boldly to Pilate and asks for Jesus’ body (Mark 15:43).

The same is true of Nicodemus.  When Jesus first becomes widely know, Nicodemus doesn’t want to be seen talking with him, so he visits Jesus under the cover of night (John 3:2).  Later, though, when some of his fellow Pharisees are saying bad things about Jesus, Nicodemus gets just a little bolder and says, “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?”  And finally, at the cross, Nicodemus is willing to stand up and be counted.  He’s there to help Joseph take Jesus’ body down from the cross.  Come what may, they are going to give this Messenger of God’s kingdom a decent burial.

It might be dangerous, it’s certainly not a good career move for two Council members, but Joseph and Nicodemus have played it safe long enough. Time to step forward.  No more of this secret admirer business.  Better to die with Jesus, if it comes to that, than keep living a lie with their phony cronies.  Strange, isn’t it, how it’s not in Jesus’ miracles but in his death that they finally find the courage and resolve to overcome their fears and side with Jesus

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

Were You There?

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  We’ve been looking at the death of Jesus through the eyes of some people the Bible tells us were there.  Were you there?  Are you there?

You are there when you believe that Jesus died to make you right with God.  God’s Holy Spirit takes over your life and connects you to Christ, and through faith you’re caught up into the death of Jesus.  With Jesus you die to sin; with him you rise to new life.  The apostle Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24‑25).

You are there whenever you take the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  By his Spirit Jesus is present in the Supper. As you eat bread and drink wine, your soul feasts on the body and blood of Christ.  Scripture says, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving … a participation in the blood of Christ?  And is not the bread … a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).

You are there whenever you endure with grace the pain of a broken and sinful world and make personal sacrifices out of love for God and others.  The Bible says, “The sufferings of Christ overflow into our lives” (2 Corinthians 1:5), and we experience “the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).

When the Holy Spirit moves you to become a Christian, you are there at the cross through a faith that unites you with Jesus, you are there through the holy sacrament, and you are there through the sufferings and sacrifices in your own life.

Is your life centered on the cross of Christ?  Were you there when they crucified my Lord?  Can you say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20)

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.