14 April 2017
Text: John 18:1-19:42
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
In the Good Friday detailed account of our Lord’s arrest, trial, flogging, crucifixion, death, and burial, very little is said about the crucifixion itself. St. John writes: “He went out bearing His own cross, to the place of a skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified Him, and with Him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.”
There are no other details about the crucifixion itself.
And yet, the cross is central to the church: to salvation, to the faith, to the liturgy, to the doctrine, and even to the history of mankind and of all creation. The death of the Lord upon the cross is the pinnacle of the entire Bible: the fulfillment of prophecy, the culmination of the Divine plan and will, the one great atonement to restore the universe to its right existence after mankind’s tragic fall into sin and death.
The cross is the very expression of Jesus in His Kingdom, the reason why the King was born in the flesh, the purpose for which He came into the world. The cross is where the Lord bears full witness to the truth: the truth that God loves His creation and will stop at nothing to save and redeem sinful men.
The cross is the entrance to the kingdom of heaven.
Our Lord said that to follow Him, we must all take up our own cross. For no disciple is above his Master. We follow Jesus, dear friends. That means we follow Him by gathering where He is to be found, hearing His Words, following in His footsteps – even to the place of a skull, the place of death, the place that is called “Golgotha.”
For in this fallen world, there are many crosses. We are all to bear our own, and to help our brothers and sisters in their burdens. And this is unnatural for us fallen men. We all seek to avoid pain and run to pleasure. But Jesus says that to follow Him means to bear the cross. That is because bearing the cross is an act of love and an act of faith: love, because the Lord suffered for the sake of our sins, and faith, because we trust that our suffering is part of a Divine plan from which will come good, just as His cross is – even though we cannot see the meaning behind our own crosses.
On this Good Friday in which we are saved by the cross, we do well to consider our own crosses and how we are bearing them. Are we embittered or angry? Are we jealous of others? Are we enraged at God? Do we see our own suffering as cosmic meaninglessness? Do we find ways to avoid our crosses and seek our own pleasure – even at the expense of others?
The cross is the most beloved symbol in the Christian faith, and that is true for a very good reason. Without the cross, we remain in our sins. Without the cross, our suffering is truly in vain. Without the cross, there is no love for us, to us, or by us. But in the cross of Jesus, we have love, life, victory, hope, communion with God, and strength to face our own crosses. This is not to say that bearing the cross is easy. This is not to say the old slogan that “God won’t give you what you can’t handle.” But rather, God has given us His Son, in love for us, so that we might conquer death and the grave, and ultimately, the crosses that we suffer are conquered in eternity. We may not be able to handle our crosses, but Christ has, does, and will until He returns in glory.
The cross did not stop with our Lord’s execution on Good Friday. All of the apostles suffered because of their confession and their preaching of Christ and Him crucified. All but one of the twelve were themselves executed, and some of them by literal crucifixion. The earliest days of the church saw cruelty beyond imagining, and no Christian was exempt: not the very old, nor the very young. Not the pregnant woman, nor the invalid. Because of the cross of Jesus and the faith given to them by water and the Word, they, our martyred brothers and sisters, were willing to bear their own crosses, even unto death, as a living testimony of the Lord’s cross.
This past Sunday, Palm Sunday, 49 Christians were killed in Egypt during their worship service. While waving palms and singing “Hosannas”, they were martyred for the sake of Christ. They were called to bear an enormous cross with no warning. Our beloved martyred brothers and sisters include a little girl barely old enough to walk, and a young altar boy vested and serving at the altar.
There is a recent video for all the world to see of Arab Christians whose church was recently bombed. The people are standing around the ruins and saying the Nicene Creed together in Arabic. They are bearing the burden of a weighty cross, and there is no end in sight to their suffering. And yet they confess the Creed.
Our sister in Christ, Asia Bibi, for whom we have been praying for many years, has just passed her seventh Good Friday bearing the cross of living in a cruel dungeon, separated from her husband and children, for the sake of her Christian confession.
For many people around the world, our Lord’s command to “take up your cross” is much more than putting money in a plate and getting up early on Sunday. The Lord calls us not to go to church, but to be the church. Five days ago marked the 72nd anniversary of the martyrdom of Lutheran theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose book “The Cost of Discipleship” ponders the meaning of bearing the cross. He writes: “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world…. When Christ calls a man, He bids Him to come and die.”
Confessing Christ in this country will not likely get you killed, but it could very well cost you your life’s savings, your business, your house, and everything you have accumulated in a life of hard work, simply for following your conscience as a Christian. Again, American brothers and sisters in Christ who have had to pay this price to follow Jesus did not ask for this cross, and they were not warned. But they bore it when it came.
You may be passed over for a promotion at work or may get a bad grade in school because of your Christian confession. You may be ostracized and mocked by people you thought were your dear friends. You may be disowned by your family. You may be confronted and asked questions out of the blue by people with power over you, and your life will radically change based on that one answer that you give in that one moment. Will we bear our crosses if and when that time comes?
Dear friends, by our own strength, we would all certainly fall. But in Christ’s cross we glory, because in Him we can do all things. He comes to you as a sacrifice, the Lamb of God, who pays your admission to eternity, the ransom for your own resurrected body that will never see decay. He offers His body and blood to the Father, and He shares it with you this very day in the Holy Sacrament.
We bear the cross because we know what is coming next. We endure this Friday that pains us to call “Good,” because we know the “very good” that is to come Sunday morning. We pray for strength to bear our own crosses, for He has born the cross for us.
Let us keep vigil with the body of the crucified Christ, dear brothers and sisters. Let us keep watch at the cemetery. Until Sunday. Until the Lord’s return. Until eternity. Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.