Sermon Palm Sunday 4.14.19 The Death of Jesus

Scripture Lesson: 1 Corinthians 2:1-2                                                                                    Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

To me, Christianity is based on one simple fact.  Yes, a fact.  Jesus was crucified.  Killed.  Dead.  A first century Palestinian Jewish teacher was put to death by the state.  Capital punishment.  As I said, for me, that is the central fact that is the basis for the Christian faith.  

What was crucifixion?  It was not just a random killing.  Jesus didn’t die by accident.  He wasn’t offed by one of his own.  He was killed by the state.  It was a government sanctioned sentence that was carried out by the civil authorities of the Roman Empire.  It was the worst form of death imaginable at the time.  It was a humiliation.  The memory of those crucified was deleted.  They were liquidated.  Obliterated.  People didn’t mention the names of those who were crucified it was so horrific.  This form of capital punishment was used widely by the Romans.  One ruler crucified several hundred people, another eighty.  After the death of Herod, around the time of the birth of Jesus, 2,000 Jews were crucified.  In the book, Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus Was Remembered, theologian and biblical scholar Arthur Dewey tells us, “For the most part, the Romans carried out this form of execution on lower classes (slaves, violent criminals, unruly elements), non-citizens, and traitors.  Serving as a political and military punishment, allegedly an effective deterrent, crucifixion was a very public display.” [p. 17]  The practice was ended by Constantine in the 4th century.  

We are given the impression that Jesus was considered a traitor against the Roman Empire or maybe an unruly element?  Somehow his message, his teaching, his activities were considered a threat to the stability of society.  I can’t imagine that Jesus was killed for healing people, or for giving them food, or for praying. So it must have been for challenging the power structures of his day; both the religious and civil authorities.  

Thus, Jesus was crucified.  That was not supposed to happen to a respected wisdom teacher, a rabbi, a sage.  Yet there it is.  The people are left to make meaning out of this death which is so shameful the person is intended to be forgotten, removed from memory, reduced to nothingness.  Yet this death was remembered because the people who were Jesus’ followers and those after them chose to make meaning out of this death in ways that served their circumstances and communities.  They dealt with this trauma by remembering, they recovered by making meaning out of this death, meaning that was powerful in their context.  Decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, Paul and the gospel writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each make meaning of this death for their particular communities and circumstances.  They use the cultural traditions of the hero’s death, the martyr, the memorial meal, and the tale of the suffering of the innocent one.  They address their contexts where some expected the end of days any time, some were facing persecution, some were still coming to terms with the crucifixion of 2,000 of their countrymen, and they were dealing with the razing of the Temple and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.  Each of those involved in making meaning of the death of Jesus was creating a story to meet the needs of their circumstances for their people.  As Dewey puts it, “The ancient writer was not interested in passing on ‘the facts’ but in determining what was meaningful for his community.” [p. 125]

It is interesting that for Paul the death of Jesus meant a whole shift in his understanding of God and thus his perception of reality.  Dewey tells us, “In accepting this shamed criminal the God of Israel had taken an outrageous step.  God had accepted the impure, the socially damned and disadvantaged.”  This was a big transformation in the imaging of God for Paul.  Now he saw that God was on the side of the marginalized, the victim, the outsider.  No more preferential treatment for the Jews alone in Paul’s view.  The crucifixion revealed a God who loves everyone. Dewey tells us, “Paul turned the social stigma of Jesus’ death into an opening for those who were shamed in the eyes of the people of Israel. . .  He turned a social and political liability into a conduit of benefit and hope.”   This is one example of how the people of the first century made meaning out of the death of Jesus.  They used interpretation, imagination, reflection, and creativity to find culturally fitting ways to redeem the death of Jesus.  

As I said at the beginning of this sermon, to me, the crucifixion of Jesus is the central fact that defines Christianity.  So, like the ancients, we face the challenge of how to make meaning out of this death in our context, in our circumstances, in our situation.  Jesus was crucified as a criminal.  Put to death by the state.  This innocent person whom we consider the fullest human embodiment of Divine Love. We are challenged to use our imagination, interpretation, reflection and creativity to make meaning out of this death for our day and time.  

Maybe there is some inspiration for us in the case of Emmett Till, the young man from Chicago who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955.  After his body was found in the Tallahatchie River, it was taken back to Chicago for burial.  His mother insisted on seeing the brutalized body of her son: the odor, the huge tongue protruding from his mouth, the right eyeball laying on his cheek, the left eyeball gone altogether, the broken nose, the top of his head split open, a bullet hole near the temple. [p. 71]  Then, she insisted that the casket be open for viewing for the funeral.  Thousands of people saw that mangled face and head and that vision was a pivotal moment in the emerging civil rights movement in this country.  

Emmett’s mother, Mamie, tells us, “I knew that I could talk for the rest of my life about what happened to my baby, I could explain it in great detail, I could describe what I saw laid out there on that slab at A.A. Rayner’s place [the funeral home], one piece, one inch, one body part at a time.  I could do all of that and people would still not get the full impact. . . They had to see what I had seen.  The whole nation had to bear witness to this.  I knew that if they walked by that casket, if people opened the pages of Jet magazine or the Chicago Defender, if other people could see it with their own eyes, then together we would find a way to express what we had see.” [p.72-73] 

In the book The Blood of Emmett Till, Timothy Tyson shares the courage of Emmet’s mother:  “‘I had no idea how I could make it through,’ Mamie recalled. ‘But I knew that I had to do it.  And I knew that it wasn’t going to get any easier as we prepared for what was ahead.’  Now that she had the world’s attention, she had to decide what to do with it.  As she looked into the glass-enclosed coffin, she knew that a political and spiritual struggle lay ahead to make her son’s death meaningful in ways that his life hadn’t had time to be.”  [p. 74]  This was in intentional effort to make meaning out of the death of this child; meaning for that time and those circumstances.  “From this tragedy,” Tyson tells us, “large, diverse numbers of people organized a movement that grew to transform a nation, not sufficiently but certainly meaningfully.” [p. 202]

As we think about the death of Jesus, crucified over 2,000 years ago, we as Christians are confronted with the challenge of how we will make meaning of his death today.   What meaning do we need from the death of Jesus to help us deal with the death of innocents today?  People dying at the hands of the state, whether through war, or police brutality, or abuse in prison, or policies that leave people too poor to take care of themselves, or environmental problems that lead to death through storms or toxins in the water and air, or deaths of children in government care in our communities and at our border?  What about refugees and journalists and other innocent victims dying here and around the world?  How does Jesus’ death help us to confront the death of innocents in our midst?  That is what we must ask ourselves as we remember the death of Jesus, the central fact of our faith.  

You can have Christianity without heaven.  You can have Christianity without hell.  You can have Christianity without Jesus being God.  You can have Christianity without a virgin birth.  You can have Christianity without a stable in Bethlehem.  You can have Christianity without the literal resurrection of the body of Jesus.  But you can’t have Christianity without the crucifixion of Jesus.  That is the core fact that we have as the basis of our religion.  How do we make meaning out of that heinous, humiliating death at the hands of the state?  This is the question that faces us.  

In his retelling of the story of the death of Emmett Till and it’s aftermath, Timothy Tyson draws this conclusion:  “Emmett Till’s death was an extreme example of the logic of America’s national racial caste system.  To look beneath the surface of these facts is to ask ourselves what our relationship is today to the legacies of that caste system – legacies that still end the lives of young African Americans for no reason other than the color of their American skin and the content of our national character.  Recall that [writer William] Faulkner, asked to comment on the Till case when he was sober, responded, ‘If we in America have reached the point in our desperate culture where we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive and probably won’t.’  Ask yourself whether America’s predicament is really so different now.”  [p. 209]  Thus ends Tyson’s reflection on Emmett Till.  

We desperately need to seek meaning in the death of Jesus for our time and our context so that it speaks a word of hope and new life for us.   Facing the continued ravages of racism and other oppressions, facing obscene economic injustice, facing toxic tribalism and globalization, facing the collapse of the eco system on Earth as we know it, facing the challenges presented by technology and genetic engineering, facing the neglect of children and elders, what meaning can we find for our day in the death of Jesus?  We must make meaning that will transform our reality so that we find a way to value the lives of all human beings, treat Creation with reverence and respect, and prevent the suffering and death of innocents today especially children.  May the ancients be our inspiration in this holy work of imagination and faith.  Amen.  

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

Author: Rev. Wells

Pastor of Lakewood United Church of Christ since 1991. Graduate of Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary of New York.

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