It’s Good Friday. The long road to Calvary has reached its awful climax and all we can do is watch in horror as the kingdoms of the world go to war with the Kingdom of God, as those who want Jesus dead unleash their most brutal, terrifying weapon.
Crucifixion was barbaric and brutal and slow – the word ‘excruciating’ means ‘to torture on a cross”. Its primary purpose wasn’t just to kill – after all, there are far more efficient ways to get rid of an enemy – but to humiliate, to horrify, to send a message. Crucifixion was all about communicating power – that’s why the Romans crucified rebels and revolutionaries, as the ultimate deterrent, as a means of stamping their authority on the world.
This didn’t originate with Rome. It’s said that, when Alexander the Great besieged Tyre, he crucified 2,000 of the city’s inhabitants, nailing them to crosses lined up across a beach. Woe betide anyone who crossed Alexander.
It’s no surprise then that Jesus was crucified. The Romans and the Temple authorities recognised the world-shaking challenge of his teachings, perhaps more than we do. After all, if we take Jesus at his word then everything must change, the status quo must be rejected, abandoned, cast aside as meaningless in the light if God’s holiness, love and grace. To some this is recognised as hope and salvation; to others it’s a threat to be overcome, a blasphemy that needs to be crushed.
And so those who perceived this threat engineered not just Jesus’s execution, but his utter humiliation and his irrevocable defeat. He was scourged and mocked and beaten, paraded to Calvary so weak that a random member of the crowd was drafted in to carrying his cross. And that very cross alluded to more than just physical death, it implied that Jesus would be rejected and cursed by God in accordance with the law of Moses.
Look at this scene again. Everything here speaks of defeat and death; even geography proclaims that Jesus is doomed as he stumbles towards Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. Jesus is defeated, both physically and spiritually. This is the end.
And yet there are glimmers of truth here, breaking through in moments and mockery and realisation that, in the upside down world of Easter, feel prophetic. The ‘thief’ on the cross – more rightly understood as a revolutionary – realises, at the last moment, the futility of his actions and aligns himself with Jesus. The sign above the cross and the crown of thorns may be mockeries but they’re also true.
And the centurion who sees something that makes him proclaim that this is the Son of God? He becomes a symbol of God’s triumph on the cross; the power structures and the tools of intimidation used by this world aren’t just defeated, they’re transformed.
Crucifixion was one of empire’s greatest weapons. But we no longer fear the cross, we see it as a symbol of hope and salvation. We don’t commemorate Good Friday as the end, but as part of a transforming, resurrecting cycle that climaxes a couple of days later with a garden and an empty tomb. The power of death and hell, of evil and compromise and oppression is shattered at the very moment they appeared to have won.
But first there were the nails, the spears, the jeering troops. We can be resurrected, but often with pain and never without change. God’s grace costs us nothing, but that’s not to say a price wasn’t paid. The pain of Good Friday was real.
And yet Sunday is still on the way.