+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
We gather again this night to hear the story of our Lord’s final hours. We hear of his brutal torture by the whole cohort of Roman soldiers, possibly as many as six hundred strong. We hear of the mockery to which they subjected him when they clothed him in crude military dress, gave him a crown of thorns and a limp reed for a scepter, and knelt before him while parodying the greeting that rang in the emperor’s ears wherever he went: Hail! Hail! Hail, king of the Jews! We hear the derision from those who passed by, using his own words and his position of utter powerlessness to ridicule him. He saved others! He cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel? Come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him! We hear his last words from the cross before he gave up his spirit: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? We hear of the tremors that rent the earth, the temple curtain, and the disbelief of those who had nailed him to the tree. We hear of his burial in a brand new tomb, and of the women who kept watch over his grave until the guards arrived.
Whether you’re hearing this story for the first time or rehearing it for the hundredth time, it is a truly remarkable narrative. Matthew includes so many little details that give us pause and help us to find something new and powerful in the tale, like the fact that Simon Peter – the chief disciple who recognized Jesus as the Christ and vowed never to leave him – is nowhere to be found, and so the one who was called to pick up the cross and follow Jesus is replaced by a stranger with the same name. Or the fact that Jesus was crucified between two bandits who may have been Galilean revolutionaries from the same gang of rebels as Barabbas, the one who was released by Pontius Pilate at the urging of the religious authorities and the crowds who gathered for Jesus’ trial. If that’s the case, then Jesus, the Son of God the Father was likely crucified in the place of Jesus Barabbas, whose name also means “Son of the Father”. Or this strange scene, recorded only in Matthew, of the graves of the faithful dead being opened, so that God’s power over death might be shown forth by their sharing in Christ’s resurrection on the third day.
On its own, this is an incredibly moving story, both in its broad sweep and in those seemingly small details that open up new worlds of meaning. But as Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other important theologians in our tradition have stressed throughout the years, what makes this story even more compelling is the act of pondering what it means for you and me and for the world. Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus lays out his mission, his purpose for being born among us, living among us, and dying at our hands: The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28, NRSV). The goal of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection was not to be glorified for his own sake, to be remembered as a powerful preacher and teacher and healer, but so that our relationship with God, broken by our human propensity to live for ourselves, to injure and demean others, and to ignore our Creator, might be renewed and restored. The events of this day happened for you and for me, a thought that surely inspires profound and heartfelt gratitude in each of us.
But what happened on the God-forsaken hill called Golgotha outside the city walls was even bigger than you and me. Paul later writes that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. (2 Corinthians 5:19) The Lord who taught his disciples of God’s care for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air hung on the cross to restore the whole creation to God – everything that has ever been made, that exists now, and that will ever exist.
This is love, brothers and sisters; love so deep, so wide, so high, that it encompasses all things, seen and unseen. We gather this night to remember the cost of that love, and to give thanks for the amazing grace that has found us all in Jesus and kept us in communion with God the Father. We gather to pray for God’s grace to continue to come to us, to inspire us to acts of greater love and service to others, and to make the light of the Gospel known throughout the world. In closing this evening’s reflection, I’d like to leave you with these words, part of a fifth-century hymn about Christ’s life, death, and rising for us:
Because for our sake you tasted gall, may the Enemy’s bitterness be killed in us.
Because for our sake you drank sour wine, may what is weak in us be strengthened.
Because for our sake you were spat upon, may we be bathed in the dew of immortality.
Because for our sake you were struck with a rod, may we receive shelter in the last.
Because for our sake you accepted a crown of thorns, may we that love you be crowned with garlands that never can fade.
Because for our sake you were wrapped in a shroud, may we be clothed in your all-enfolding strength.
Because you were laid in the new grave and the tomb, may we receive renewal of body and soul.
Because you rose and returned to life, may we be brought to life again.
[Early Christian Prayers, ed. A. Hamman, trans. by W. Mitchell (Longmans, Green, and Co.: 1961)]