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Perspectives on the Cross: Above the Cross

April 16, 2006

Luke 24:13-48

After reading an article in an old Time magazine this week, my thoughts have been with the people of Sago, West Virginia. Perhaps you remember the entrapment of thirteen miners during the first week of January this year. The country focused its attention on this small town and waited to see if rescuers could save those men. A group of people gathered in a Baptist church where they sang hymns and held a prayer vigil, hoping the men would be found alive. Then late one evening, the report came from deep in the mine that rescuers had found one miner alive. Communication somehow was muddled. The news media, trying to beat deadlines for the paper the next morning, rushed to judgment and reported that all of the miners were alive. The report, of course, was erroneous. Twelve men had died, and only one had survived. The emotions in that town were like Easter Sunday turned upside down. The families were so filled with joy, thinking that their husbands, fathers, or brothers had all been found alive, only to have their hopes shattered once they discovered the deaths of twelve men. The son of one of the dead miners said, “We thought we had our miracle, but it was not to be.”

Death sometimes comes as a harsh intruder into our lives. At other times, it is slow in coming and seems like a gentle blessing. Our culture tries to sanitize death. We move people to the hospital so that they can die there instead of dying at home. We use artificial grass to disguise a freshly dug grave. We use euphemistic expressions, saying that a person has “passed away” instead of just saying a person died. St. Augustine said that when a child is born, we ought to look into the crib and immediately say, “He will never get over this. He will never get out of this alive.” The truth is that death is a reality. Death is a part of life for each one of us.

When Jesus died on the cross, he was “as dead as a doornail.” The Roman soldiers made sure of that because officials would have put them to death if their prisoner had not died. More often than not, soldiers broke a prisoner’s legs, causing the full body weight to rest on the thoracic cavity, the chest. Breaking the legs caused asphyxiation to occur more rapidly. When the soldiers came to Jesus, however, breaking his legs was not necessary. He was already dead; but just to make sure, soldiers stuck in his side a spear that apparently caught a kidney. Scripture says that water and blood flowed down from Jesus. I must again emphasize the important point that his life was over, that Jesus died on the cross.

We sometimes think that the Christian concept is one of immortality. I am well aware that the Apostle Paul uses that term twice in I Corinthians 15. The Christian faith is not a faith in immortality; it is a faith in resurrection. People die, and the power of the resurrection restores life, as in the case of Jesus.

The gospel accounts, to be frank, do not present the resurrection with joy and excitement, at least not at first. The emotions presented seem to correspond more to those of Halloween. People are concerned about and frightened by the appearance of a ghosts. People do not understand what they are seeing and experiencing. The disciples do not believe the women’s story about finding the tomb empty; and thinking they were speaking nonsense, Peter went there himself. Finding it empty and seeing the piece of linen that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body baffled Peter. He did not know what to make of it and was hesitant to make a rash judgment about his findings. Unlike the news media’s quick assumption that the miners in Sego, West Virginia, were alive, the gospel accounts offer no such impatience. The disciples know of Jesus’ death and burial, and they are very cautious to believe otherwise. Remember that Jesus himself had said he would conquer death, but somehow that just did not sink in with the disciples. They waited.

What is so amazing about the gospel accounts is that the empty tomb, the discarded shroud, and the missing body really do not matter. This is not the case of the missing body. What matters is that they begin to experience the risen Christ. According to Luke’s account, Cleopas and an unnamed companion are grieving deeply as they travel back to their home in the village of Emmaus. I like to think that perhaps the companion is the wife of Cleopas. As they grieve the death of someone they love, Jesus, a person they do not recognize joins them. They are astounded that this person does not seem to know about the state of affairs that have occurred in Jerusalem since Friday, so they recount the events and say rather wistfully, “We thought he was going to be the one. We thought he would be the Messiah.” Jesus opens the Scriptures and explains to them the many prophesies about the Messiah from the time of Moses and the prophets. I can only imagine that he spent a long time at Isaiah 53: “He was bruised for our iniquities, wounded for our transgressions. The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Jesus explains, but for those grieving travelers, it is head knowledge. When the group reaches Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion insist that Jesus come in and have a meal with them. Only when he breaks bread do they recognize him. “Didn’t our hearts burn within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scripture to us?” they said. That is the good kind of heartburn. “Our hearts burned within us.” The very moment they recognize him, Jesus disappears. They turn around and travel back to Jerusalem, seven miles away, to tell the disciples of their experience.

When they reach the disciples, now late on Sunday evening, they find that the disciples are buzzing with conversation as Peter tells about his own encounter with Jesus. Then, the Scripture says that the Lord Jesus appears among them. The disciples are overjoyed, but still surprised, stunned, and baffled. Jesus shows them the physical evidence: his hands, feet, and side; and as if to convince them further, he asks for something to eat. When they see him eat a piece of broiled fish, they know Jesus is alive. The meal is a confirmation that Jesus really has conquered death.

We have moved through the last days of Jesus in the sermon series Perspectives on the Cross. In our first session, entitled “The Cross Ahead,” we looked at Jesus’ steadfastness and determination as he anticipated the events ahead of him. He knew that traveling to Jerusalem was necessary because this was God’s plan for him. We considered the way Jewish religious leaders and Roman political leaders acted in collusion to bring about this trumped-up charge against Jesus and carry out a kind of kangaroo court to convict and execute an innocent man in the sermon “Behind the Cross.” Last Sunday in the message “Before the Cross,” we examined how the adulation of Jesus on Palm Sunday quickly changed to the crowd’s cries of “Crucify him!” on Friday. Another sermon in the series considered the viewpoints of two thieves on either side of Jesus. They, too, received a sentence of crucifixion. They heard the death rattle. They heard him breathe his last breath. They heard that excruciating cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Good Friday’s message considered the perspective of those beneath the cross: Simon of Cyrene, the Roman soldiers, the women who followed, others who knew him well, and a centurion who proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of God.

Today, our perspective is entitled “Above the Cross.” We must also consider how God must view this event. We often think of God as being aloof, transcendent, and devoid of feeling and emotion. We think of God as being in heaven, up there. So often, I have heard people speak about the events of Good Friday and Jesus’ Aramaic cry of pain, “Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani.” Some claim that, in that moment, God turned His back on Jesus. His cry is certainly forsaken, but I believe he is repeating David’s cry from Psalm 22. I do not believe for a minute that God turned His back on His Son. I tend to believe as James Russell Lowell wrote, “God is standing in the shadows, keeping watch o’er all His own.” God is not just the God up there; God is also right here. He is not just transcendent; He is also imminent. It is the reason we proclaim at Christmastime, “Emmanuel, God with us.” On the day of Christ’s death, God’s perspective was up-close and personal. This was not just the son of Mary who was at the foot of the cross; this was the Son of God, flattened out against the timbers.

On Good Friday, I told about a personal experience that was very real to me. I would like to share it with you today. For a number of years, the church I served previously had a very large production at Easter, a passion play. Bruce Cash, a pharmacist who is married to my youngest sister, was to play the part of Jesus. He has a body build that reminds us very much of the way our Lord must have looked. About Christmastime, he started letting his beard grow in preparation for the play. One day as I was walking in the drugstore where he works, a customer coming out the door looked at me and commented, “It gives me a very weird feeling having Jesus fill my prescriptions.”

Clare and I went to almost every presentation of the passion play, not only because I was on the church staff but also because we had children in the drama. Our son Scott played the part of a little boy for several years, and our son Erik played a Roman centurion. As part of Erik’s role, he climbed the ladder up to the cross, put Bruce on his shoulders, and climbed back down the ladder. I had built the ladder he used out of logs, lashed together with Boy Scout lashes. When I watched Erik, who was about 6’2” and weighed about 250 pounds climb the ladder that I had made, I wondered if my lashings would hold. I think I cried every performance I saw my brother-in-law on the cross in that crucifixion scene.

I did not tell the congregation on Good Friday something I wanted to save for today. One year when the curtains opened for the crucifixion scene, I was stunned. I saw, as usual, the three crosses, one representing the cross of Jesus and two representing the crosses of the thieves crucified with Jesus. Then I realized that our son Mike was hanging on one of the crosses designated for a thief. During that year’s performances, he had been working as a stagehand behind the scenes, and no one in the audience had ever seen him on stage. On this particular night, the person who was to play the part of one thief could not attend. Mike had taken his part. When the curtain opened, I saw my son hanging on a cross.

The person who died on the cross is not just a stranger, not just someone from out of town. The disciples knew very well the person who died on the cross. They had traveled with Jesus for three years. The women who had followed also knew him very well. When you look at the cross and see somebody you know and love, it is a very different experience. God saw His Son on a cross. Was He aloof? Was He devoid of feeling? God certainly did not turn His back on Jesus. Seeing His Son dying on the cross broke His heart. Of course, God knew this was going to happen; this was His plan. Even so, this perspective from above allows us to see a heavenly Father who feels pain. Like Paul Harvey, He knows the rest of the story. He knows that the cross is not the final word.

Most theologians agree that if it had not been for the resurrection, Christianity would have never survived past the first century. Christianity would not have survived the intense persecution the Romans inflicted on believers. Because of the resurrection, Christians came to understand that death is not the last word. Yes, Jesus died on the cross a very real death; but through this death, he conquered death forever and made it possible for us to face the great difficulties of life.

For some of you, this Easter has not been easy. Some here today are experiencing fresh grief. You have lost someone you love, or you have had some other difficulty in your life. A diagnosis has scared some of you to death. You are facing the possibility of your own death. We sing, “Because He lives I can face tomorrow; Because He lives all fear is gone; Because I know He holds the future And life is worth the living just because He lives.”

The message of Easter is that God so loved the world, God so loved you, that He gave His only begotten Son that if you would just believe in Him, your death would not be the end of your life. It will be a real death to be sure, but it will be a transition to life eternal. Life eternal begins now. You do not have to wait until you die to start experiencing life with an eternal quality. Having that eternal life makes all the difference.

The rescuers found next to one of the dead miners a note scribbled on a piece of paper. During his last moments, Martin Toler wrote, “It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep. Tell everybody I love them, and I will see them all in heaven.” Martin Toler was a Christian.

The power of a resurrection faith conquers death so that when we come to that great divide, we do not have to be afraid. We know with great assurance of the life beyond. Do you have that assurance? Is the living Christ a part of your experience? If not, could I invite you to accept him, to believe that he died on the cross to conquer death? He conquered death through the resurrection. If you believe in him, you will have eternal life, beginning now. That is the message of Easter, and that is the good news, the gospel truth. We invite you to respond to whatever God is laying on your heart as we sing together our hymn of invitation, “The Old Rugged Cross.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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