Last night we met here to encounter our lord in humility and in service. We remembered his death and his risen life. Tonight we strip away humility and service, and we simply find our Lord in shame and in death. There is nothing good about Christ’s death from a simple, historical perspective. Crucifixion is a horrible way to die. It usually took days of your own body weight slowly strangling you—and you died naked and in public, for all to see. You died slowly in the hot sun; you died slowly in the cold night; and, in any case, you died making a statement: that the people who did this to you would do it anyone else who crossed them. James Cone has rightly said that the crucifixion is a lynching. It was a brutal act of terror and torture. According to both ancient sensibilities and our own, there can be nothing redeeming in such a death. The people who were crucified were rebels, murderers, bandits, thieves. They are the kind of people who end up in the electric chair or receive lethal injections. Jesus himself, it seems, was mocked by the people. It is the problem with making big promises and being popular—everyone hates you when you don’t deliver. Crucifixion is a horrible death. So why did God allow Jesus to die? Why did Jesus, if the thinking of our tradition is true, willingly and freely receive such a death? What could God want in that?
I have a two-year-old daughter now, and every day I think of how fragile and precious she is. She thinks she is indestructible, at least until she falls off a chair or hears the dog bark. But when I hold her as she cries, or comfort her when she is scared, in my arms I feel something that can easily die. I feel a person who is small, fragile, at risk. I know she is strong in her own toddler way—but I still remember that when she was baby I could feel her heart as it fluttered against her rib cage, and that I can feel her breathe against me. I am not the only father who feels this way. You don’t even have to be a father to feel this way. You just have to be a human being who connects with a child to feel that way. And yet we are a species that kills our children.
And not just by sarin gas. We kill them as we kill ourselves: through smog and pollution, through economic systems which see four famines devasting the planet but store tons of grain on old defunct runways. We kill them in drone strikes authorized by democratically elected presidents, in bombing by the same, and in explosive devices and suicide bombings authorized and executed by terrorists. We allow them to be killed because they are trying to enter our countries to escape death in their own country. We kill them by constraining them to a few city blocks and abandon them into the hands of drug lords. We kill them by taking away their hope in life, and so they turn to the diseases of despair to fill, and ultimately end their days. Everywhere, every day, our children starve, suffer, and die, just as every day, everywhere, human beings starve, suffer, and die. That’s our world.
When we tell the story of Jesus death, we are telling the story of our own death, which is happening even now, even on this night, in this room. We are telling the story of how Jesus came to take on our own death. This is the death the world wreaks on its own—the death of man’s inhumanity to man. Jesus dies as many humans do—not just the death of one individual person, but the death of a person in world that kills in many ways. In his death, Jesus offers to God all these ways of dying.
In a sense, Jesus offers to God the best of what we have. One way of thinking of the human presence in this world is that we are the best killers nature has ever produced. It is a gift we give to one another, and to everything on this planet. In his humanity, Jesus offers the gift of death to God on the cross, and with it the gift of injustice and cruelty, of greed and exploitation, the gift of that incessant and gnawing and ravenous tyrant, sin. And God accepted it and in return, has given life.
And in this way, God has conquered death. By his death, Christ Jesus has destroyed death. He has given all of its ravening power to God, who in return has given all of us life. The cross, which once was terror and torture, is now the tree that gives life to the world. It is the mark we receive at Baptism, when our deaths are made part of Christ’s death, and Christ’s risen life is given to us.
So, we live in this wasting world as people growing into life. And that is why we can always have hope. Death’s rule has been vanquished. Even though we are fragile creatures, easily taken down by a bacteria or a virus, even as we clash and gnash at one another, still all these powers do not have the victory. That victory belongs alone to God, the giver of life, who raised Christ from the dead, and whose life we all have encountered. We have felt life stirring, and it has brought us here. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack