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Posts Tagged ‘execution’

I recently picked up N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began. Admittedly, I loved it as soon as I read the title. I loved it even more after being pulled into the biblical storyline and enjoying Wright’s ability to pull me into the narrative. Here is an excerpt from the first page; “Another young leader had been brutally liquidated. This was the sort of thing that Rome did best. Caesar was on his throne. Death, as usual, had the last word. Except that in this case it didn’t…” He goes on “Something had happened that afternoon that had changed the world. That by six o’clock on that dark Friday evening the world was a different place.”

Crucifixion was intended to demonstrate who holds the power. And that the powerful were willing to use extreme pain, brutality and shame to make that message clear. Crucifixion was designed to stop a revolution in its tracks. Wright tells us that when Jesus told followers to carry their cross, they would not have heard this as a metaphor. In opposition to the worlds displays of power, the shame and horror became part of the meaning. The biblical storyline became clearer for the followers of Jesus.

The biblical storyline is not the only thing that helped shape the meaning of the crucifixion. There were already existing meanings of the cross as a death instrument that were influential. Wright gives three meanings for crucifixion in the first century. 1) The cross carries social meaning. Simply, we are superior and you are inferior. 2) The cross had political meaning. We are in charge here and you are not. 3) The cross had theological meaning. The gods of Rome and Caesar (son of a god) are more powerful than your gods. As Jesus hung on the cross, these meanings were heard loud and clear and appeared to be true.

Wright spends significant time talking about the themes and narratives that early Christians would have already had in their heads that allowed them to make sense of the crucifixion the way they did. We might ask, alongside Wright, “Why did they not see this as an end of a potential Jesus based revolution?” Instead they saw crucifixion as the beginning. The New Testament insists that when Jesus of Nazareth died, something happened that changed the world.

Early Christians started talking as if this shocking, scandalous execution launched a revolution.  They began to see this as the pivotal event in the story of God. In fact, this was the vital moment in all of human history. God had put his plan in operation – his plan to rescue the world. They saw the crucifixion as the inauguration of God’s plan. The early Christians insisted that followers of King Jesus became part of the difference. The New Testament, with the cross at its center, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. According to Wright, the first sign the revolution was underway was the resurrection.

Wright wants us to recognize the cross as more than allowing for personal salvation, more than a ticket to heaven. He does not deny personal meaning for individuals, but wants to be clear that the cross carries significant meaning for the wider world. Wright wants us to know that Jesus died so that we could become part of God’s plan to put the world right. Welcome to the revolution.

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“Father, Into Your Hand…” (Luke 23.46)

As in the first ‘word’ in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the Father again. We might remember that his very first words in the Gospel are about being in his Father’s house. So it may not surprise us that his final words prior to his death are about being taken into his Father’s hands. Jesus on the cross is consistent with the rest of Jesus’ life. Luke wants us to know that nothing, not even the cross, can stop Jesus from demonstrating the ways of God. He has already forgiven his executioners and made reservations for a criminal to enter paradise, now he commits his spirit to the Father.

We may find ourselves thinking of Psalm 31, especially the part where the psalmist says “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Jesus was saturated in the Psalms. The Psalms reveal some rugged emotional terrain. So does the cross. Jesus knows about rugged terrain. It should not surprise us that in challenging moments he reaches into the language of the psalms and adds “Father” before he goes on to quote “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Again, we should not be surprised. It was Jesus who taught us when we pray to say “Our Father…”

When we read this “word” we should not forget the connection between spirit and breath. We are reminded of a true gift from God. We do not possess our breath. We cannot hold it in or keep it. It is gift. Given again and again and again. We inhale, we exhale – gift.

Jesus gives his spirit willingly. Like the rabbi at his own funeral, he commits his life to God the Father. His spirit is not taken from him by those who put him on the cross. He gives it back to the One who gave it to him. He gave away what they thought they were taking from him. Admittedly, this is contrary to the visible evidence. From all appearances, Jesus had his breath taken from him. Meanwhile, Jesus is trusting that the Father is greater than the power of death.

This text reminds us of our dependence on the Father. Our spirit, our very breath is a gift from the Father and our lives are dependent on him. Perhaps we can think of many things we easily take for granted that in wiser moments we recognize as gift. We have been given much. Just look around. Look at your clothes, hands, feet. Breathe deep. Color, smell, taste – all gift. During Lent, we are reminded that following Jesus demands thankful, grateful spirits. May we give even those back to him.

Perhaps it is fitting to conclude with an observation. While many were hostile toward Jesus, Luke highlights that Simon carried the cross, the daughters of Jerusalem mourned for him, a criminal was welcomed into paradise, the centurion praised God, and Joseph was waiting for the kingdom. Some of these may have been aware of the conclusion of Psalm 31 “Be strong and let your heart take courage, All you who hope in the Lord.” We too follow Jesus into the emotional terrain of a hostile world. May we also “Be strong… take courage… and hope in the Lord.”

A prayer from Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Thank you for the gift of life, Father God. There will come a day when I will meet you face-to-face. The One who gave me life and has numbered my days. As I take in each breath and exhale may I remember, by your grace, that my life is not my own. Just as Jesus gave His life up to save humanity, it is my desire to give my life in service and worship to you. In a world that invites me to worship and serve anything and everything but you, may I be fixed on the breath that you gave and remember the name of Jesus. Thank you, Jesus, for your Lordship and leadership. It is my desire to follow you unto my last breath.”

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“Father Forgive Them…” (Luke 23.34)

We know how difficult forgiveness can be. It is often easier to not forgive than to forgive. I suspect we sometimes wish there a limit on things we are expected to forgive. We may wish that transgressions of a certain severity are optional as to whether we forgive them or not. Surely that would make navigating this difficult territory much easier.

Jesus does not draw a line or give permission to not forgive anything. If anything is beyond forgiveness, killing the Son of God might qualify. Still, from the cross, during his own execution, Luke tells us that Jesus says “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. “ In fact, Luke suggests this is the first thing he said. Perhaps he wants us to know that this is more than an account about a Friday afternoon execution. We are about to witness the way God works. We are witnesses of grace. The drama of Good Friday is changed because of these words. This is a prayer that reaches into a corrupted world and changes everything.

This is just the radical sort of thing we have come to expect from Jesus. Perhaps we could interpret his statement something like this, “Before I am executed I want you to know I will not hold a grudge, I will not seek revenge, instead I forgive the organizers of this execution, I forgive those who will carry out the killing, I forgive all who mock and jeer and those who gamble for my clothes, I forgive you all.” This is the way Jesus is. Jesus does not keep score. Forgiveness may not be our natural move but it is always his next move.

Crowds called for his execution. Rulers and priests mocked him. Soldiers hit him. Still, Jesus prays that they will be forgiven. This is revolutionary. Yet this is what Jesus does. This is his move. If there were doubts before, we can be certain he meant it when he said we should forgive seventy times seven. We can be sure he was serious when he taught us to love our enemies. This forgiveness theme just will not stop. Jesus refuses to participate in the way the world does business. He refuses to play that game. Even from the cross, his next move is forgiveness. We are reminded that God is not saving all the good news for Easter Sunday.

Luke is writing for people removed from the ministry of Jesus, removed by geography and time. He writes for people who live outside the region where these things occurred. People who live years after these things took place. People like us. This is Good News no matter what side of the planet we live on and no matter what century we live in.

When reading this “word” from Jesus we can be sure God is serious about forgiveness and desires to forgive us. Yet, during Lent we also have in mind his desire that we follow him. Our text makes clear that following him means we do not have to carry around old hate or revenge strategies. God has no interest in these things. The cross makes it clear that there is a huge difference between the way the world works and the ways of God. We follow a God whose next move is always forgiveness.

Pastor Susan Vigliano adds the following prayer to this meditation: “Lord, would you show me the hidden places in my heart that are holding on to unforgiveness and bitterness? I know in my head that holding on to unforgiveness leads to death and I desire the life you offer. My heart still feels the pain. Please heal my heart and take my pain. You paid for the sin committed against me and for the sinful way in which I have held on to unforgiveness. I need you in order to forgive. I need your strength, power, love, and mercy to release this hurt into your hands. I am calling on you, Jesus and choosing your way that leads to life.”

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Early in the Gospel, Matthew opened the heavens, now he tears open the earth.  In the first instance, a voice from heaven announces that this is “my beloved son.”  In the second, a voice on earth (centurion) agrees.  At his birth, a new star in the heavens greeted the “King of the Jews” (2.2,9).  Should we be surprised that the earth would shake at his death?

Matthew’s report of the crucifixion interests all of us.  Mockers at the cross demand a sign.  Here is a sign and it is not a subtle one.  It is fascinating that as Jesus died the veil of the sanctuary is torn in two, the earth is shaking, the rocks are torn open, tombs were opened, bodies of the holy ones were raised and came out of the tombs and were visible to many.

The signs are both negative and positive.  The description is deliberately vague.  Raymond Brown says that Matthew is going for “atmosphere, not details.”  The power of God’s action, not the identity of who is raised, is the issue.  The cross has become part of the in-breaking of God’s power.  These are some of the things connected to this Friday afternoon execution.

We are fascinated by these things because of their unrealistic quality.  We read a text like this and may think of a zombie apocalypse.  We might like to make a movie or a television mini-series out of it.  We like to exercise our imagination.  Some of us might be shocked by this news.  We might find ourselves hoping to read an interview with Anna or Simeon, Zechariah or maybe John the Baptist.  But we are left with a matter of fact statement that Jesus died, there was an earthquake, and the dead rose from their graves. The centurion and his guards were frightened by it.

Why does Matthew share this?  What does he want this text to do to readers?  Matthew may want readers to rethink reality and who is in control.  Those who were making decisions and taking action that day thought they were the ones in control.  Matthew suggests they should not be so sure.  The plan to stop the Jesus movement is not working.  Those who are certain they know the way the world works are wrong.  For example, as Jesus dies, others who were dead begin coming back to life.  Matthew wants us to know that God is willing to work in very dramatic fashion.  Matthew wants us to know that God is capable of extraordinary signs.  A new order has been set in motion.  Things that have never happened before are taking place.

Witnesses of the crucifixion were left with no choice but to know that more happened on that Friday afternoon than just a criminal execution.  When we find ourselves wondering what happened at the cross, the answer is more than we imagined.  There are cosmic implications going on here.  This was no ordinary execution.

A Look at the Cross reminds us that limits are something of our design.  God is in the business of the impossible and willing to go to extravagant measures to get our attention.

A prayer of response from Pastor of Prayer Susan Vigliano; “Father, like those who witnessed the crucifixion of Christ, I too often think that I know the way the world works, or should work.  I pray today that you would shake the ground in my soul until all the places that need new life are awakened to the hope that is in Christ.  I pray that the weight of the Cross would be brought to bear on my own soul.”

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When we talk about the cross of Jesus, we are talking about history’s most famous execution. The historian Tacitus tells us “Christus… suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.”  At the same time, the cross is a reminder that God was serious about His relationship with people and willing to go to extravagant measures to get His people back.  This presents us with a paradox.  On the one hand, we have a first century means of shameful, violent criminal execution.  On the other, we have a symbol of God’s extravagant sacrifice for us.  In our discussion about the cross we cannot overlook that it is a violent story.  We cannot overlook that it is a love story.  It is scandalous and glorious.  The cross is a shocking part of our story.  Still, we believe that the cross makes a difference.  Here and now.

Yet, the cross cannot be separated from the first century socio-politico-religious scene.  Politics and religion were mixed and ideas of a Messiah were viewed as threatening to the status quo.  That is to say, the teaching of Jesus threatened the rulers of the day.  This becomes important because the ministry of Jesus, including his death on a cross, must make sense in its historical context.  There is danger in removing the cross from the Jesus story.  If we can disconnect the cross from the rest of the Jesus story, we can easily disconnect it from our own story as well.  The fact is, we keep trying to convince ourselves that our stories are something of our own design, but the bible keeps bringing God into them.  That is what is happening when Jesus is executed.  People are acting as if they are in control, then one Friday afternoon Jesus shows up on a cross and everything changes.

The Gospels would have us believe that the cross, along with the birth, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus, is the pivot point of history.  You and I are participants in a great story of cosmic implications.  Who expected a first century execution to have this kind of impact?  Who expected so much to happen on a Friday afternoon?

Some things are obvious.  The scene is called the place of the skull.  Priests are mocking and soldiers were dividing the clothes of one being executed.  Two revolutionaries were being put to death.  So was Jesus of Nazareth, crucified for being King of the Jews.  This is not the kind of place one expects to find God.  Yet, that is exactly what the Gospels tell us is happening here.  Civilians and authorities are caught by surprise and recognize that more is taking place than any of them expected.

It is easy to picture your hometown, your alma mater, or your grandmother’s house as part of your story.  It is more difficult to picture the cross as part of your story.  Yet, that is what the Gospels insist on.  We take a relational view of the cross.  How would we interact with one another without the cross?  How would we interact with enemies?  What would we think about God?  Yet, God shows up on a cross and everything changes.  Our relationship with God changes.  Our relationship with one another changes.  Our relationship with outsiders changes.  Because of what happened on the cross we can be loving, giving, and forgiving.  When viewed in a relational way, we realize that the cross will continue to threaten the status quo.  Following one who was executed by the state may put you at risk.

The cross is a reminder that the world is not ok as it is.  That is why God will go to such great lengths to save us.  This is important, for without the cross our message is no different from other messages out there.  A serious view of the cross will shape our behavior in ways that are different than the ways others conduct business and spread their message.  There is no Christianity without the cross.  We are forever connected to what happened there.  It is a pivot point in our history.  The world changed on a Friday afternoon at a place known as the skull.  Whatever we may think about the cross, we cannot deny the way it is connected to our own story.  We cannot separate ourselves or deny the implications it has for us.  We cannot pretend that we are simply onlookers – we are participants.

A Look at the Cross reminds us that we are part of a larger story than we ever imagined.  This is a story of cosmic implications.

Pastor of Prayer Susan Vigliano adds the following prayer to the above meditation “Lord, I invite you to challenge my status quo with the Cross of Christ this first week of Lent.  There are places in my heart and life that I wish to apply the power of the Cross more fully.  Please search me and test me to show me the places of brokenness, pain, and unforgiveness that need your touch.  In this season of Lent I want to know and experience the meaning of your Cross in my life in deeper ways.”

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