Many of you are probably sick and tired of hearing about the shooting in Orlando, Florida. You’ve heard all the arguments about Islamic terrorism; the acceptance of gays and lesbians, and the calls for gun control. You’ve heard the same pundits say the same things that they said after Sandy Hook and San Bernardino. You’ve probably heard several religious leaders rush in to speak and offer their thoughts, prayers, and assertions of what we should do. You’ve heard crickets from me. I’ve been silent, and you may wonder why.
I have become more and more convinced that we do ourselves a deep disservice by failing to take the time to reflect and think about things that happen and what we say in response to those things. I have become more and more convinced that the 24 hour news cycle and the need to control the narrative have actually done more harm than good. Instead of allowing fear, anger and grief to subside and clear thought to occur, our comments are instead governed by fear, anger, and grief. You might ask, “What’s so bad about that?” I respond, “How many times have you done something in anger that you later regretted?” Odds are, the answer is not a pretty one.
And so, I hope that this morning, I will not be speaking in anger, or grief, or fear. I hope I am speaking with love, compassion, and hope. I hope that I am speaking the truth in love and am neither a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. I hope that I can speak at a level much deeper than guns or sexuality or religion. I hope that I can dig down and address the level of the human heart–the level where hatred arises and where massacres get their grounding.
For it is my sincere belief that if you have trouble understanding why someone had enough hatred to kill 50 people and wound 50 others, then I would submit that you neither understand human history; human nature; or what lies in the deep recesses of your own heart. For the human story is full of violence, hatred, and murder–even and especially toward the innocent.
The Christian narrative is not shy about confronting this reality. In fact, addressing violence and hatred are woven into the fabric of Jesus’ story–particularly His death. For Jesus was a victim of such hatred and such violence.
We pick up this morning in Mark chapter 15 right after Pontius Pilate has had Jesus flogged and handed over to be crucified. We must take just a moment to understand now what is happening to Jesus. We know He is innocent. We know Pilate has condemned Jesus to save his job. We know the crowd is blood-thirsty because they feel like Jesus has betrayed them and given them false hope. Pilate begins the blood letting through flogging.
Roman flogging was violent and nasty. If you have seen Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ”, you have gotten a visual image of what such flogging was like. The Romans would take a whip composed of several leather straps. Embedded in these straps were pieces of bone or metal, and then this was used to whip a prisoner all over his or her body. Pieces of flesh would be ripped from the person. Oftentimes bone was exposed. The front and back of the body were flogged sometimes resulting in a person’s guts becoming exposed. I would apologize for the visual images, but I want you to see and know the extent of the cruelty that Jesus faced. I want you to know the pain that he endured at the hands of fellow humans. He was bound. He was naked. He was helpless. He had committed no crime, and yet, he was brutally beaten and had his flesh ripped open by this flogging. And this was just the beginning of His humiliation.
After the flogging, Pilate handed Jesus over to the Roman soldiers, and they all took turns mocking Him. They placed a purple robe over him. They placed a crown of thorns upon his head. They mocked Him and struck Him. They made fun of the claim that he was King of the Jews. He looked like no king. He acted like no king. He was no king to them. They took a reed and hit him up beside the head with it, driving the thorns deeper into his skull. Blood ran freely down Jesus’ face. Then, they spit upon Him. They knelt before Him and said, “Hail, king of the Jews!” Of course both of these actions were mockery. The spitting was an imitation of the kisses they would give the emperor. Their statement “Hail, king of the Jews!” was an imitation of the “Hail Caesar!” they would proclaim to their real king. They had no respect; no compassion; only hatred and animosity toward Jesus. After they had had their fun, they took off the purple robe. Understand that the blood from the flogging would have coagulated on this robe, so when they ripped it off, it would have caused severe pain and the blood to begin flowing once again. This is humanity at its worse.
Then, they put the cross-bar on Jesus’ back and made him carry it toward Golgatha. Understand this: Jesus has had no sleep. He has been flogged and has lost copious amounts of blood. He hasn’t eaten. He is tired, wounded beyond belief, and weak. He is now expected to carry a 30 or 40 pound piece of wood on his bloody, beaten back raked by bone, metal, and leather. This is complete and utter cruelty.
He heads to Calvary. He isn’t going to make it. He is too tired. Too weary. Too weak. The walk carrying the cross-bar will kill him, but that would deprive everyone of seeing Jesus die humiliated. The Roman escort calls upon a bystander–Simon of Cyrene father of Rufus and Alexander to carry the cross for Jesus. Mark probably includes these names because these folks were well known in the early church and were witnesses to these things. Mark is saying, “If you want to know whether or not this is true, ask them.” Simon carries Jesus’ cross for Him, and they arrive at Calvary where one more indignation will be heaped upon Jesus.
N.T. Wright, biblical scholar says this:
The cross was a political symbol long before it became a religious symbol. Pilate knew the crowds knew, the chief priests knew, and Jesus knew, what it meant. It was the ultimate symbol of Roman power. It said, “We are in charge here, and this is what happens when people get in our way.” They had crucified thousands of rebel Jews when Jesus was a boy in Galilee. They would crucify thousands more when they took Jerusalem in AD70–so many they got bored, and experimented with hanging people up in different positions and attitudes until they ran out of wood. And in between those two devastating repressions of revolts they crucified lots of people for a variety of reasons, often on small pretexts. Polite Romans didn’t even mention the word “crucifixion” or “cross”. The reality was so brutal, ugly and repellant.
This is what Jesus is nailed to. It carried an even worse meaning for the Jews. William Lane writes in his commentary:
The public exposure of an executed person branded him as one cursed by God, in accordance with the provision of Deuteronomy 21:23: “for he is accursed of God who hangs on a tree.” These words were applied equally to one who was crucified. When the chief priests and the crowd demanded death by crucifixion for Jesus they expressed the conviction that he must take his last breath on the cross as one “accursed by God.”
And those standing watching the proceedings treated Jesus as if He were accursed by God. They mocked Him. They used the sayings of the false witnesses against Him. They dressed their words in piety, “If he comes down from the cross, then we will believe in him.” And then the piece de resistance, “He saved others, but He cannot save Himself.” And there is a bitter truth in that statement–a bitter truth indeed.
Walter Liefield says this about that statement, “Their statement ‘he can’t save himself’ is both false and true. In the sense they meant it–he does not have the power–it is false. But in a profound sense, if Jesus was to fulfill his messianic mission, he could not save himself. His death was necessary for man’s redemption.”
For it is on the cross that the God immanent is redeeming the world. It is on the cross that the God immanent is working to change the hearts of men so that they turn from violence and hatred. It is on the cross that the God immanent is showing a love beyond measure–a love which is intended to melt even the hardest heart. It is on the cross that the God immanent confronts violence and hatred and dehumanization and responds with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
The question becomes how does this happen? How does Jesus’ actions on the cross lead us to have changed hearts?
Let’s consider the issue of hate crimes and the cruelty of mass murder. What causes such things? Is it religious ideology and firmly held convictions? No. The Amish are some of the strictest religious adherents in the world, and they don’t kill anyone. Just having firm convictions will not lead you to kill someone. Is it access to weapons? Again, no. Some of the areas with the highest concentrations of weapons have the lowest instances of murder and crime. Is it viewing another’s actions as wrong that causes mass murder? Again, no. We categorically call other people’s actions as wrong all the time, but we do not generally go around killing another person because we disagree with them. None of these things grasp the reality. The reality is what Timothy Keller calls the slippery slope of the heart.
For you see, in the slippery slope of the heart what happens is that I look at another person and see what they are doing. I judge them as wrong, AND I feel morally or ethically superior to the other. I feel like I am a better person; a stronger intellectual; in a higher plane of spiritual or moral thought. As I look at the other person with this air of superiority, I begin to caricature the other people. I only emphasize their flaws. I make blanket statements that do not encapsulate the entirety of the person. Once I begin this caricature process, the other person or group becomes less than human. They become less than me. They deserve punishment or to be silenced or even to be killed. What leads people to murder people in mass is a heart condition where someone feels morally superior to another.
The Orlando shooter felt morally superior to the folks he killed. The Sanhedrin felt morally superior to Jesus. The Romans felt morally superior to Jesus and to the thousands of other Jews that they crucified. Once they felt this, it was not long before each of these was able to dehumanize and then treat the other as less than human committing atrocity after atrocity after atrocity.
And each of us believes at some level we are morally superior than others. Each of us at some level believes our particular position on given issues are right. Each of us believes that if everyone just believed as we believed and did what we did then the world would turn out okay. Each of us is apt to point the finger at others as the ones who need to change and conform because, by God, we are the ones who have it right. And the answer is not to throw right and wrong out the window. The answer is not to throw truth claims out the window. For heaven’s sake. If we did that, then we would never be able to judge mass murder as wrong!! Think about that!!!
The answer lies at the heart of the Gospel. The answer lies at the heart of why Jesus could not save Himself. The answer is that we are all moral failures. The answer is that we are all morally inferior. As St. Paul put it, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And we cannot save ourselves. If we could save ourselves, then we would have a reason to boast. We would have a reason to feel morally superior. But we are saved only and solely by God’s grace. We are saved only and solely by God’s love poured out by Jesus on the cross for sinners. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
If we are all morally inferior, and if we are all saved by sheer grace and by no actions of our own, then we absolutely cannot caricature another person. We absolutely cannot dehumanize another person. We share intimately with others the same condition. We share intimately with others the same salvation. We are all sinners. We are all saints. The dividing line is that there are those who have not come to the realization of the Gospel. There are those who do not know their brokenness and so they feel morally superior. There are those who do not know they are loved and so all they feel is self-loathing. It is our job as those who have met our dying Savior hanging on that cross to lead others to Him. It is our job to lead others to the God incarnate who will humble them and reveal to them their sin and then who will embrace them with nail scarred hands. And when this occurs, their hearts, hopefully like ours, will be transformed. Their self-righteousness will leave. Their views of others will change, and hatred will cease. Simply telling another person to stop hating will not change anything. Getting others to Jesus will. Amen.