Reading John 3.13–17
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Always eager to improve your general knowledge, I thought I’d start with a spot of history.
In the first century before Christ the Jewish people had their own independent state until, that is, they were conquered by the Romans in 63BC and became just another bit of the Roman Empire.
They could have kept their heads down and waited for the winds of change to blow in their direction. Some of them did just that but tension and unrest were often in the air.
Finally there was a full scale rebellion – in 66AD – which was brutally and thoroughly crushed by the Roman war machine.
You might have imagined that that would be that – no more rebellion. But no, the Jewish people came back for more a few decades later and instigated another rebellion in 132AD under the leadership of a certain Simon Bar Kochba. This rebellion was crushed three years later.
By this time – about 100 years after Jesus’ crucifixion – Jews and Christians were pretty much totally at loggerheads. They had drifted apart. Don’t forget that Christianity started out as a form of Judaism. Jesus and his disciples would have considered themselves simply to be devout Jews, not the first fruits of a new religion.
Bar Kochba himself took a very uncompromising, not to say violent, line towards Christians. He probably thought of himself as the Messiah and the Christians already had a Messiah, so that certainly didn’t endear them to his heart.
But there seems to have been another, more fundamental reason why Jews and Christians had drifted apart to the extent that bar Kochba felt free to persecute and kill Christians. That reason was the cross. The cross was proof that Christians were hopelessly and dangerously misguided.
For Jews the Messiah was going to be a political figure who would defeat Israel’s enemies and establish an extended period of just and peaceful rule, probably subjugating a few other nations in the process. Triumph, political and military, was the watchword that would define his career.
They certainly weren’t expecting a Messiah who had no political power whatsoever, who would be betrayed, who would be deserted by his followers and who would die a shameful death.
Perhaps the clinching piece of evidence against Jesus was a phrase from the book of Deuteronomy: anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.
For most Jews those words from Deuteronomy were proof that Jesus could not possibly be the Messiah. You’ll remember that St Paul said that the cross was a stumbling block for Jews – and that was why.
Jews of course aren’t the only people who have found the idea of the Messiah and the Son of God dying on a cross to be nonsensical. Many non-Jews have thought the same over the centuries. And they still do.
Now, I won’t go into the gruesome details. Suffice it to say that crucifixion is an especially horrific method of execution. Crucifixion was mainly used for slaves and enemies of the state. It was considered by the Romans to be an ignominious and disgraceful way to die – which is why they were more than happy to inflict it on people so often.
The sheer horror of crucifixion isn’t something that most of us give much thought to. For one thing crucifixion is now a very rare form of punishment so we’re just not familiar with it. And for another, the cross has become a kind of universal symbol for the Christian faith – almost a logo – divorced from the horrific reality.
I’d guess that what people find most strange about Jesus nowadays is not so much the way he died as the way he lived.
They find it perverse that Jesus should have been born in a stable and lain in a manger, that he was a common or garden carpenter by trade, that he felt no need to improve his career prospects, that he had nowhere to lay his head, that he had no money, that he didn’t want money, that he didn’t seek after political power or its trappings, that he didn’t seek after social status or its trappings, that he saw himself as a servant of others, that he was prepared to die for something so intangible as the kingdom of God, that he was apparently such a failure, that when the crunch came, he didn’t even try to defend himself. Not most people’s idea of the good life.
As for loving your enemies, turning the other cheek and the other awkward things he taught, many people think that all that’s just weird.
And yet, the way he lived, what he taught and how he died are all of a piece. They connect with each other. They speak with one voice. He told his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. Jesus took up his own cross literally and the way he lived gives us a clue as to how we too can take up the cross in our own lives.
We may legitimately hope that we may never suffer anything remotely like actual crucifixion. But that doesn’t mean that the way of the cross is something that we can legitimately hope to avoid. If we follow Jesus’ example and his teaching, the way of the cross is the path that we will unavoidably be treading.
So what can the way of the cross mean for us? To put it very roughly, it means transcending our own self-centeredness and our hungry egos. And it seems to me that we can only manage to transcend our own egotism and all its empty promises of status, popularity, power, money and so on, if we can replace those promises with something even better and more enticing.
And that something better is the love of God. Those empty promises are just substitutes for the love of God anyway. So it’s about the love of God towards us becoming so real for us that we reflect it back to God and on to others. We simply cease to be all that interested in our egos – or even in ourselves.
And how do we do that, you might say? Well, we certainly can’t force ourselves to experience God’s love. That’s not how it works. We need to allow God to love us.
And how do we do that, you might say again? It’s unwise to be too dogmatic about it. The Holy Spirit works in an infinite variety of ways and deals with us as individuals. But, basically, spending time with God, resting in his presence, just being there, making prayer the very centre of our lives – well, let’s just say that that’s a pretty good place to start. It may feel sometimes like nothing is happening, but time spent with God always leads to a greater awareness of his love for us and for all his creation – and away from self-centeredness.