He died. Just as any of us do. For some of the people standing there, it was a huge disappointment. No new era of reign of God appeared. Just one more human life snuffed out. Call him an itinerant preacher, or a prophet, he was just a part of the surplus population who came to an end. Granted, more tragically than most, but then most of the prophets did not come to cheerful ends either.
Of course, not everyone turning from the scene of the crucifixion had that reaction. There were those who had hindsight—which they say is always 20/20. Even the centurion, hardened by his years of service to Rome, a man who had seen much in the way of human suffering and tragedy, and who had dished out more than his share of it upon people—even he was able to see something different. It was not just his sense that a mistake had been made, or that there was a miscarriage of justice. Hardened though he may be, as he turned away from the horrific scene at Calvary, these words escaped his lips: surely he was the Son of God.
And of us, what thoughts press upon us as we turn away from Calvary this morning?
Do we think as some do that Jesus died in vain? After all hatred still seems to go on in the world. The message of love as agape has never really taken hold. The kingdom that Jesus preached does not appear to have reached its perfection. And if that is your reaction, then you must ask yourselves, “Have I grown indifferent to the message of the Gospel that I am not moved by our Lord’s sacrifice?” “Does it no longer move my heart, because it is just lost in the vast sea of instances of human beings’ inhumanity to one another.”
Or maybe it is that we ourselves are overwhelmed by a sense of horror that is conjoined with guilt and remorse. For, if you were raised with a certain understanding of the atonement, then you would understand that Jesus died for your sins and that is but a polite way of trying to work around the painful awareness that I caused this. I was the causative agent of his suffering and his death. I was the responsible one. It may have been a Roman soldier who did it in historical time, but I might just as well have been the one who plaited the crown of thorns and pressed it upon his head; I might just as well have been the one who took the nails and drove them into his hands and feet and plunged the spear into his side.
That is, of course the traditional way in which our Lord’s Passion is proclaimed. But when a person remains stuck with that sense of guilt and remorse, then ultimately, what is supposed to be redemptive, the sacrifice of Jesus, becomes instead itself an occasion of destructive sin. Because ultimately Calvary is not about what I did. It is about what God has done.
The classic teaching of the Church about the Passion of Jesus is that it is to be used to move us to a sense of thanksgiving. We are called to be thankful because of the many things that Jesus endured for us and for our sakes. It is hoped that our gratitude is the lever that helps us to change our lives and our attitudes towards one another. Having a profound sense of thanksgiving is the basis of spiritual renewal in Jesus Christ.
But lest we think too narcissistically about it, the Passion of Jesus is not solely about me. It is about the redemption of all that is broken in the world. It is the message that God’s grace can overcome all things in a world gone wrong and how it is that even in the midst of all that has gone wrong and descended into madness, that there is hope where there is the grace of God.