When a person died on a Roman cross he or she did not die of the wounds. He or she did not typically die of exposure. A person on a Roman cross typically died of asphyxiation. Once your legs and arms failed to the point where they would no longer hold you up, you collapsed into yourself and you could no longer breathe.
It’s not the worst way to die. But it is a bad way to die. It was meant to be. Crucifixion was not capital punishment in the way we think of it today. It was a humiliation, a horror, a spectacle. It was meant to show people: we can do this to you and you can’t stop us. It was a kind of political theater. Suffering for show. Suffering for control. Suffering to send a message.
Suffering is an unavoidable part of life. In the original sense, to suffer meant to be the object of someone or something else’s action. If you grew up with the King James Bible you heard Jesus telling his disciples “suffer the little children to come unto me.” Meaning, allow them. Let it happen. “Suffer me not to be separated from thee,” you may have prayed. Do not allow this to happen to me.
The opposite of suffering was action. And no one can be acting all the time. Unless you are God, to exist is to suffer. Things will happen to you that you cannot control. You will be hungry. You will be tired. You will get hot in the summer and cold in the winter. You will crave things. You will be lonely. You will be bored. You will stub your toe. You will get sick. You will die.
All of this is suffering. Suffering cannot be avoided. You can train yourself to go without food or sleep for longer than most people. You can master your cravings. You can learn to endure heat and cold without complaint. You can overcome loneliness and boredom. But only to a point. And you will still stub your toe. You will still get sick. You will still die. You will suffer.
Suffering is inevitable. Cruelty is different. Cruelty is a human choice. Cruelty makes use of our susceptibility to suffer and turns it into a weapon. Anyone can get hungry so you deny people food. Everyone gets tired so you deprive people of sleep. Anyone can get hot or cold so you put them in a room with no ventilation or heat. Everyone loves someone so you threaten them. Everyone can experience pain so you inflict it. Everyone gets sick so you deprive them of medical care. Everyone depends on their breath so you hang them up until they squeeze it out of themselves.
On Good Friday we are brought face to face with two hard truths. First, our God suffered. He wept. He thirsted. He died. He was human and so he suffered, with us and for us.
Second, humanity showed cruelty to God. We dehumanized him. Stripped him. Inflicted gratuitous pain on him to make a point.
These two hard facts are at the inescapable center of our faith. For the whole season of Lent I have been answering the question “What are we doing here?” Each week I’ve been answering with one of the seven “holy possessions” of the church identified by Martin Luther. We hear the word of God. We baptize. We receive the sacrament of the altar. We confess sins and receive forgiveness. We set apart pastors to do this work. We offer praise and thanksgiving to God in worship. The seventh and final possession of the church, according to Luther, was “the holy cross.” That is, suffering. You will recognize the church in the world, Luther insisted, because it suffers. The church wants to be like Christ, her head and savior, and for that she will be made to suffer like Christ.
This means that we can never look at human suffering as the world looks at it. And it means that we can never justify human cruelty as the world enacts it. We can never rationalize it or accept it. Because in every suffering face we see the face of our Lord. And in every violated body we see the body of our Lord.
In the story we hear tonight, there are paths of escape for Jesus. He could command a legion of angels to come to his rescue. He could throw back the guards with his words. He could win Pilate over with persuasive words about truth. He could vanish, fight, overpower.
But he does none of those things. He accepts the suffering. He accepts the cruelty. He stands as the great wave of fate and fury crashes onto him. He goes where his people are: in hunger and thirst, heat and cold, loneliness and boredom, sickness and pain. He embraces us in it. He bears it.
And forever after, there he is. As the author of Revelation says: the lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world. There is no other justice, there is no other righteousness, there is no other action that counts before God, in the end, the way this horrible Friday does. He acts and he suffers. He loves them to the end and he is placed in a tomb. He strives on Friday and he rests on the Sabbath. He thirsts and he gives his own blood to a dying world. He hungers and he feeds the world with his body. He finishes the work of salvation and he speaks it forth into the whole creation. His breath is crushed out of his body and he gives his Spirit to his church in every time and place. He submits to an unjust torment and he conquers.
This is our Savior. This is he who has made us part of his broken body. This is he who dies so that we may live. Amen.
God's Work. Our hands.