I read this week that in 6 AD (or CE, as scholars say), 2000 people in Galilee were crucified as punishment for an uprising. That’s the entire population of Hebron. Or Waterford and Greenwood combined. But I suspect the Romans would not have chosen to annihilate one Galilean town and left all the others untouched. That wasn’t the way they did things. No, they would make sure every little town and village witnessed the brutality, to keep them under control. This was the way Rome kept the “peace”—by scaring everyone into submission.
In 6 AD, Jesus would have been a child, and he would have seen what crucifixion does to a body. As a child, it would have made a lasting impact on him. That was the point, after all—sear the image into their little brains and they will be too afraid to try to revolt when they grow up.
Or at least that was the theory. We know that uprisings continued—and were punished—for at least another 65 years, until the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Rome’s attempt to control through fear was not as successful as they might have hoped. Such tactics seldom are.
Peter and the other disciples had probably witnessed those executions, too. If not those, then others. We sometimes forget that crucifixion was not unique to Jesus. It was Rome’s execution of choice for another three centuries, until it was dropped after the conversion of Constantine. The point is, they all knew too well what happens to someone who is nailed to a cross. It’s ugly. It’s torture.
No one would willingly choose it.
We enter into the Gospel reading today just after Peter has made his declaration to Jesus, ‘You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ The “then” of today’s reading refers back to that. Peter has made his statement, Jesus believes they are starting to understand, and therefore he can begin to teach them the hard truth of what that means. It’s not going to be glory and triumph. It’s going to be humiliation, torture and death.
And Peter’s having none of it. I suspect his brain just stopped processing speech as soon as he heard the word “killed” and didn’t hear the promise of resurrection. It’s a natural response, to refuse to grant those words the power of being true. I can imagine Peter shaking his head, “no, no, no, no, NO.” No. This is not the way this is supposed to work. No. I don’t want to lose you, Jesus. No. You cannot possibly be speaking of your own death.
And notice, Jesus hasn’t even mentioned crosses yet. Jesus names religious authorities as the ones who will reject him. If they condemned him to death, it would be stoning. Still a horrible way to die.
But not crucifixion.
Are you getting what I’m saying? NOBODY chooses crucifixion.
But that is what Jesus tells them they must do, to be his follower. They must “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow.” Pick it up. Willingly. As my hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote after reflecting on this passage, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
We have turned the phrase “my cross to bear” into something else. We use it to describe those times when we are presented with difficult circumstances—chronic illness, difficult spouse, problematic child—and we figure out how to bear the burden of them because we don’t see any other option.
That is not what Jesus is saying.
Jesus is saying that the only way they can break free from the oppression of the cross is by denying its power to keep them afraid. If they know the consequences of following Jesus and follow him anyway, the punishment loses its power. Maybe not right away. Maybe it will take three centuries, but the power of Christ’s love will prevail over the forces of violence and destruction.
I have been so moved by the young people of Parkland, FL, who have decided to stand up and say, “Enough.” Who have decided to speak for the light rather than continue to cower in the darkness. Thank God for them. My hopes and prayers are that they will make a difference—maybe not immediately, but in the decades to come, as they and their peers across the country come of age, may they steer this country in a different direction.
But in the meantime, I just need to tell you the story of one of those students. You won’t see his name among the lists of those speaking at those rallies. You may not have seen his story at all.
Anthony Borges is a fifteen year old who put himself in the way of danger to protect his classmates. When the shooter came to his room, he held the door shut—even after he was shot five times. He chose the pain for himself in order to prevent it from reaching others. He did not let his fear keep him from loving others. I have no idea if he would describe himself as a Christian. But I do believe Jesus would claim him as his own.
I’m not suggesting we all need to be riddled with bullets to be followers of Jesus. At least, not literal ones. But we do need to take the risk to stand up, to speak the truth, to challenge the status quo and say, “This is not right.” To have the courage to say, “This is not what God wants for us.” To be brave enough to face the consequences of standing up to those who hold onto power through violence and intimidation.
And the good news is—we have heard the part that Peter didn’t. We know that the Crucifixion did not get the last word. To quote Bishop Barbara Harris, we are Resurrection people in a Good Friday world. Yes, this is Lent and I’m probably not supposed to go there yet. But this world is in desperate need of the message of good news. There is hope beyond despair. There is life beyond death. It’s not an easy journey. We need Lent to remind us that the path goes through the cross. We can’t claim the victory of the empty tomb without acknowledging that it had once been filled. We have to acknowledge the days without the Alle—-oops, not supposed to say it now. Days without the word of celebration. Days when our journey with Jesus seems very bleak and hopeless. But may we march through this Good Friday world with this as our drumbeat:
We are Resurrection people.
We are Resurrection people.
We are Resurrection people.