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One of the central beliefs of Christianity--if not THE central belief of Christianity--is that Jesus of Nazareth, the person upon whom our religious faith is based, was both fully human and fully divine. Now, that's easier to say than to understand.
Sometimes it's a stretch for us to understand how the incarnation of God--God in the flesh--can truly be. If Jesus was fully divine, did he REALLY experience all the human emotions?
And if he was fully human, with the usual human shortcomings, how could he REALLY be God, as we might like to imagine God to be?
Well, maybe all this is asking a bit much. And besides, I couldn't possibly cover all of this subject in a few minutes this morning anyway. But there is a moment in Jesus life--at the time of his death--when I believe that we begin to see the humanity and divinity come together, when we do see them at the same time, and that is at the moment before Christ's death on the cross.
In the twenty-third chapter of the gospel according to Luke, beginning with the thirty-third verse, we read, "When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left."
Of course, those who were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus thought of HIM as a criminal. And at this time, in the eyes of the executioners, Jesus has sunk to the lowest level of humanity. And we know that he has been flogged and stripped of his clothes.
We might even say that he has been stripped of his humanity. Crucifixion was not only a punishment, but also an embarrassment to the one being executed. One being crucified was on display and being tortured to death. He was, in fact, being treated as LESS than human.
So it really should not be too difficult to figure out why only a tiny handful of his followers were hanging around.
Of course, they were probably fearful that the same thing would happen to them; but consider their state of mind for watching this: if they had come to believe that Jesus was the Son of God, what must it have been like for them to witness him being treated like something less that human?
Could they CONTINUE to believe in his divinity?
But a remarkable thing happens in this moment of degradation. "Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing."
And how would someone who is merely HUMAN react in a situation like this? Nails have been driven through Jesus hands and feet, and he is HANGING by those nails. He is BLEEDING to death. He is suffering the trauma of shock to his system.
And still he says, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And the irony of that statement is that the one who is being tortured to death is the one who is in control.
Jesus, the divine Christ, KNOWS what is happening and KNOWS what the implications of this event are. But those at the foot of cross who are gambling to divide up his clothing, as if he were already dead, don't have a clue.
Jesus was indeed suffering severe pain in dying on the cross, as any human would. But because he WAS fully divine, he, not his executioners, was in charge of that event, just as God is ultimately in charge of our lives.
"And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!"
The word "scoff" doesn't show up very often in our everyday conversation. But we might say that they "laughed" at him, that they "ridiculed" him, that they "made fun" of him. But they are in fact PROVING what Jesus has just said: "they do not know what they are doing." Of course, he saved others. He gave sight to the blind, he made the lame to walk, he cured leprosy, he even raised the dead.
But Jesus role as the Messiah offered a different KIND of salvation. It was not merely a salvation of the physical body, although he offered that to many; but more importantly, to anyone who would listen and had ears to hear, his true salvation was the salvation of the soul. And divine salvation works in ways that mere humans cannot fully comprehend, especially those humans who executed Jesus.
"The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself." There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
Now consider how TRAPPED these leaders and these soldiers are in their earthly material culture. Consider how TRAPPED they are by their understanding of what a Messiah, a King, should be. Messiahs and Kings, so far as they were concerned, were supposed to wield earthly power. Indeed, in the gospel according the John, in the thirty-sixth verse of the eighteenth chapter, Jesus told Pilate, "My kingdom is not from this world.
If my kingdom WERE from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews."
And if Jesus were ONLY fully human, but not divine, his kingdom WOULD have been from this world. But BECAUSE he is both human and divine, he's hanging from that cross and his executioners are taunting him. And no one fought to KEEP him from the cross.
We've all heard the proclamation that "Jesus died for us." And the whole theory of what is called "substitutionary atonement" is based on the notion that Jesus died IN OUR PLACE. That Jesus, who was without sin, took on the sins of the world. But I prefer another understanding of those words that "Jesus died for us." I prefer to think that Jesus died AS AN EXAMPLE to us. Now, I don't mean that we should all be martyrs. I don't even know that I have the courage to be a martyr.
But I think we need to examine, and understand, the attitude with which Jesus lived his life and died his death. It was an attitude of the SPIRIT, not of the material world. What was important to him, as a human, was his spiritual calling.
And when the spiritual world meets the material world, each is playing by a different set of rules.
When the spiritual world of Jesus met the material world of his executioners, of COURSE they would laugh at him and make fun of him; because they could not UNDERSTAND him. They could not understand a spiritual Messiah and a spiritual king. And according to the rules of the material world, they were winning this contest. But according the the rules of the spiritual world, they had already lost and did not know it.
And only the resurrection could prove that to them.
How often are we tempted by the earthly material world? How often do we see where we might have a short-term earthly gain, but only at the cost of our spiritual values?
For example, how often would we prefer reduced taxes to feeding hungry children or providing housing to the homeless?
"One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!"
Now, we have to wonder about this criminal. Is he taunting Jesus like the leaders and the soldiers? Or is he hoping that MAYBE Jesus CAN save him? And what is HIS understanding of the role of a Messiah? What is HIS understanding of salvation?
I suspect that he would like to have his PHYSICAL life saved. He'd like to be down off that cross. But he probably figures there's not much chance of that.
No, I imagine that this fellow figures that if he must die a miserable death, he's going to heap misery on the fellow next to him by unloading ridicule on him.
But there is a third cross, a third man dying. And he is quite unlike the first criminal.
"But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?"
This criminal is taking death seriously; and he is rebuking the other for taking it lightly. It is as if he were telling him, "Those folks down on the ground may be able to get away with taunting Jesus, because they're not being put to death.
“But YOU are up here WITH him; YOU face the same imminent mortal end. How is it that you can RIDICULE him?"
"Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?"
You know, that applies to all of us. We may not be on the cross, but we are all mere mortals, and we will all end this earthly life. And in that sense, ALL HUMANITY is under the same sentence. In the way that we treat others, do WE fear God?
But that second criminal has more to say, and this is powerful:
"And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong."
Now, there are a couple of things going on in that statement. For one thing, there is a confession: "we are getting what we deserve." This criminal views his crucifixion as an act of justice.
He may not have been a socially wonderful person, but he is an honest one; he admits what he is, and he accepts his punishment.
But with his recognition of the justice of his execution we also hear recognition of the injustice of the execution of Jesus: "this man has done nothing wrong."
I don't know about you, but I know that I am too often guilty of taking perverse pleasure in the misfortunes of certain others. If my life can't be perfect, then my misery loves company. But this criminal has risen ABOVE such pettiness: "this man has done nothing wrong."
How often in OUR lives have we been able to say, "I deserved what I got, but he or she did nothing to deserve his or her misfortune." How often can WE confess our sins and NOT stand in condemnation of others?
"Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
Look really close at what that criminal is asking: "remember me." Nothing special. But look at the context: "when you come into your kingdom." This criminal, somehow, KNOWS the kind of Messiah, the kind of king, that Jesus is. He KNOWS that there is divinity in Jesus and that his ultimate mission is spiritual and not earthly. And he probably also knows that, like us, he really doesn't DESERVE to ask for anything. In fact, he confesses as much. But still, he makes that one last request.
And then, that remarkable response: "today you will be with me." It is as if to say, "your request has ALREADY been granted."
I like to think that prayer is like that. That when we are honest with God about our lives; that when we confess objectively who we are, that God is immediately with us and we with him, that in that moment we have a foretaste of eternity.
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