Characters at the Cross

The Fourth reflection in a series, “Hope to See Us Through,” by the Rev. Terry Elsberry.

For Christians, the days after Palm Sunday, culminating with Good Friday, are the holiest of the year. Here for your contemplation are meditations based on some of those who were present at the crucifixion. May recalling their experiences draw us to a deeper appreciation of our Lord’s ultimate act of love for each one of us.

I

Barabbas

 When we consider Barabbas, we are confronted with unexpected ironies.

For one, although this is rarely known, his name was also Jesus. Jesus Barabbas. Two men by the name of Jesus were considered for crucifixion that day.

The irony runs deeper. His full name was Jesus Bar-Abbas. In the Aramaic language Bar means “son of,” while Abbas means father. He was the son of an earthly father, just like us. Jesus is the son of the heavenly Father. How many times in the Gospels we hear him referring to His heavenly father, His Abba. Jesus’ name in that sense, then, would also be Jesus Bar-Abbas

Two men. With the same name. Although we know that father for Jesus has very different implications than it does for Barabbas.

Two men with the same name. Yet how could they have been more different? Our Jesus: both human but also miraculously also divine. We call Him the Prince of Peace. He came to heal, to free, to deliver, to redeem.

The other Jesus, Barabbas, was a murderer. Barabbas was a revolutionary, a seditionist. He was a leader of a popular group of revolutionaries, dedicated to overthrowing the Roman dictators and seizing power for the Israelites. He had killed a man, but not from insanity, personal malice or to commit robbery. He had killed someone who was blocking Barabbas’ road to success. Success for him meant overthrowing existing institutions and taking political power immediately.

Jesus offered another pathway to power and success. He told them: “My kingdom is not of this world.”

But the people who asked Pilate to save Barabbas and crucify Jesus that day wanted worldly success. They wanted the kind of power they could experience tangibly, physically–not spiritually.

It’s a problem today. How many times do we come to Jesus with our needs, our wants, our crises, then forget about Him when things are going just fine? Like Barabbas, we want help now. Help we can see, feel, experience. And why not? We are, after all, physical creatures. Our needs are immediate.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about our immediate, here-and-now physical needs. He does. It’s just that He wants us to mature in our faith, adopt with Him a broader, a deeper, a more inclusive view of life. He wants us to see, with Him, our lives from a more spiritual vantage point.

As long as we’re stuck in the tyranny of the now, we’ll never fully appreciate the freedom, the joy and the fulfillment available to us when we see our lives through His eyes.

There’s another way you and I are like Barabbas. We aren’t murderers. But like him we have all sinned and fallen short. So the only perfect man who ever lived took our sin upon Himself. He died in our place. That’s why we can walk forgiven and free today.

There’s something haunting about Barabbas. Guilty. Headed for execution. Then suddenly, miraculously he’s freed. I wonder. Did he ever feel grateful to the other Jesus for dying in his place? Did he ever feel even a little guilty that this sinless man took his place. Probably not, given the kind of man Barabbas was. Driven. Opportunistic. Hard.

Yet I can’t help wondering. Maybe he had a breakthrough, a softening somewhere along the road of his life. I hope so. I hope that somehow, sometime Barabbas may have been able to feel gratitude for this remarkable gift. I hope that one day he was actually able to walk bathed in the light of life-transforming thankfulness for what Jesus did for him that day. I hope we can, too.

II

Jesus

It all boils down, finally, to love. That’s the only way we can understand it, the only way we can make sense of this whole incredible story, this drama of Good Friday.

Through the years people have said to me, “I don’t know what to do with Jesus.” They’re educated, most of them have been raised in church, although many no longer attend on a regular basis. Over and over I’ve heard it through the years: “I don’t know what to do about . . . I don’t know what to make of . . . I don’t know how to get my mind around . . . I’m not sure I believe in . . . Jesus.”

I wonder if at some deep, maybe even at an unconscious level, what these people are really saying is something like: “I can’t believe it, because it’s simply too good to be true.”

Here’s the story in outline:

God missed the kind of intimate relationship with people that He enjoyed before the sin of separation took place.

He tried to draw His people back by giving them a way to live that would make them sufficiently holy to be in intimate relationship with Him. That way was The Ten Commandments. Doesn’t seem that hard. But God’s people couldn’t do it. They couldn’t live up to the requirements. They failed.

Finally, the Father sent His own Son from heaven to take on human form, to die for our sins—which had separated us from Him. So He came. He who knew no sin took on our sin. He died this ghastly, shameful death for us, in our place. So that now we can once again enjoy up-close, totally intimate, oneness with God.

So why is that so hard to imagine? Maybe because we’re embarrassed that someone would love us so much? I’m sure there’s not a single solution for all those who carry the problem of Jesus. But love is central.

Otherwise why would God come down to earth and saddle Himself with the limitations of a man? Why would He let Himself experience birth and growth, eating and drinking, weariness, sadness, grief, tears, false accusations, the trial, the exquisite torture of the cross? Why go through it all? For love. Human nature is so small a thing in the eternal horizon, why put Himself through such agony? For love’s sake, that’s why.

He wanted us back. He wants to be our best friend. He wants us to want Him—not for what He can do for us. He wants us to want Him for Himself.

Sometimes we spend all this time trying to understand it, when all we really have to do is let ourselves feel the love.

III

Simon of Cyrene

Simon was a successful truck farmer who had come to the great city at the busiest time of the year. He came to sell the wares he could transport, but also to contract with marketers and inn keepers to provide them with fruits and vegetables over the year ahead.

He came to help himself, not someone else.

He was busy, headed for an appointment with a potentially lucrative client when he got caught in the crowd lining the streets. A crucifixion. What an interruption. He cast desperately about for a way through, around, any way to get through the crowd clotting the street. But he could see no way out of it. He was stuck. Likely he was too preoccupied to even notice—or care about–the misery of the three men laboring under the intolerable load of the wooden crosses they were dragging up the hill. It was the ultimate insult of this ghastly, barbaric Roman tradition, crucifixion. They made you carry your own means of execution. It would be like a condemned man made to carry the electric chair.

Simon was no doubt feverishly, angrily looking this way and that, captive to his frustration, when the soldier hit him on the shoulder.

“You,” the Roman cried. “Here. Carry this cross.”

The only thing worse for Simon than getting detained was getting completely side-tracked. “Carry the cross? Now I’ll never get there.”

But there was no use arguing. It was another item on the dread Romans’ interminable list of laws for the subject Jews: if a Roman asked you to do something, you dropped whatever you were doing and did it.

So Simon took Jesus’ cross. Only then did he see the man. The sweating, bleeding young Galilean with His back flayed from beating. He looked nearly dead already. Simon took the cross. Jesus collapsed, tried to pull Himself back up. So they went up the hill, Simon carrying the cross, the soldier dragging Jesus.

And so to the top. To Golgotha. They called it the Skull.

Simon started out that day frustrated because he couldn’t cross another appointment off his list. He ended up helping the Lord of life and the savior of His soul.

I’m so goal-oriented, sometimes it’s hard to rein myself in when I get some kind of interruption. My first instinct can be something like, “Go away. I’m busy.”

My second instinct: if this person needs my help, nothing I’m doing is more important than that.

You see, it’s as true for us as it was for Simon: to help others is to help the Lord.

IV

Roman Soldier

This centurion was one rough character. Still young, he’d seen a lot of battle, a lot of bloodshed. He’d killed his share of men fighting to spread the empire into the savage wildernesses of Gaul and even Britain.

This posting was different. No excitement. No proving your manhood. No adventure. No heroic stories to tell. Just helping Pilate the governor keep down wild-eyed rabble-rousers like Barabbas who were forever trying to take back control for the Jews. They were a strange lot, these Jews. With their infernal babble about One God and their insane obsession with keeping a list of silly rules. Plus it was hot here. And dusty. And he missed Rome. His only hope was that he’d show himself approved to the point that he might finally be sent home.

Today was a day like many others. There were so many insurgents being executed these days. These three men hanging in the blistering sun now were no different from the rest. Stupid maniacs. Why couldn’t they learn to bow the knee to the inevitable? Rome was supreme, would be forever.

The only consolation was a little sour wine and gambling. They were casting lots for the Galilean’s robe—unusual thing, this robe, seemed to be sewn without any seams. They were casting lots and making course jokes and exchanging stories of their years in the front lines and more recent encounters in local bars when the day took a sudden turn.

It was only three o’clock. But the sky went completely dark. It went black. Black as a moonless night. Blacker than a normal dark night. Suddenly the man Jesus gave a great cry and died. At that moment, a gale force wind came roaring up from the valley. A crack like a thousand cannons sounded, and an earthquake split the rock under their feet and shot through the city and on to the mountains beyond.

Then the centurion flung down the dice and gripped the robe. His face was transformed as if by some force beyond his control and he shouted with such force he could be heard above the gale: “Surely this man WAS the Son of God!”

It was the most important words that soldier ever uttered. The reality of what he’d seen, of what he suddenly instinctively knew to be truth stayed with him for the rest of his life. From that moment, he was a changed man. All his values and impulses were changed because he had been given the knowledge of the ages, the fulcrum on which human history hinges, which is that yes! Jesus IS the Son of God!

It’s a life-changer, that knowledge. And it’s for us, too.

V

A Thief

It was done deliberately. They deliberately crucified Jesus between two known criminals. They did it to cap the humiliation, to show the crowds that He was as lowly as any petty thief. So much for his talk of being King of the Jews.

And yet what the Sanhedrin, the high priests and the establishment threatened by Jesus’ popularity and remarkable personal authority could not understand was just how much greater His power was than theirs. Jesus was outside on a hill dying the tortured, public death they’d devised for him. They were in their hall of power rubbing their hands with glee, congratulating each other, raising their glasses to their success.

But Jesus died on the cross that day not because they had the power to kill Him, but because He gave them that power.

And now, even though He’s nearly dead He shows Himself powerful in another way. He shows His power to forgive.

One thief heaps scorn on Jesus, cries: “If you’re who you say you are, save yourself and us.”

But you can see the other thief is of a different cut. He rebukes the scoffer: “Don’t you fear God?” he asks. “For we are under the same sentence as Jesus. But we deserve to die and He doesn’t.” Then he says, “Jesus, will you please remember me when you come into your kingdom?”

And Jesus says, “This is the truth: I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise.”

What an interchange. Three dying men. One unrepentant, angry, bitter to the end. One who sees His need for a Savior. And the third, Jesus, who forgives Him.

The High Priest may be able to send men to their death. But he can’t forgive sins. Only God can do that. And so we know, don’t we, that the repentant thief wakes up in heaven. Forgiven. This lowly thief rises on angel wings from the cross to glory, from brutal death to everlasting life. Before the day is over, he’ll be hearing the choruses of heaven singing, he’ll hear the voice of the beloved speaking words of hope, words of ultimate triumph, words for this forgiven sinner: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.” And the thief’s groans of anguish become shouts of praise. And he is alive forevermore.

If the reason for our faith is love, the throbbing, beating, pounding heart of what it means to be a Christian is forgiveness.

In the early church, men and women were not allowed to take Holy Communion if they bore un-forgiveness toward another.

Is there anyone you haven’t forgiven? Is there any sliver of unforgiveness, any grudge (no matter how small), any bit of bitterness in you today?

If in your heart, the answer is yes, now is the time to get rid of it. Give all, give any grain of un-forgiveness to God. Give that un-forgiveness to Him. I know how hard it can be. I’ve been desperately hurt, ruthlessly betrayed in my life. But God has helped me forgive, and He is here today to help you. Ask Him to help you forgive, and He will. Be shed of un-forgiveness once and for all.

Because it’s the greatest of all barriers between us and Him.

And He’s here to help us forgive. As He has forgiven us.

VI

John

Jesus died on the one day in history that saw night twice. The darkness fell at mid day because the heavens wept. And He died not in the dignity of privacy. He died a public spectacle with people who were not worthy of Him standing around mocking Him and jeering at Him and making fun of Him.

He was dying for them and for their sins and they thought it was funny. Human nature at its worst sent Jesus to His death and laughed while He died.

I wonder how many times we miss the holy things of life because we’re moving too fast, or are too self-absorbed, or simply too busy to recognize them? Lord, gives us grace, please, to see you when you are present with us, when you have something you want us to see.

He died a public shame, without anyone even to wipe his brow or hold His hand. Those who would have done those things were huddled at the foot of the cross. His mother. Some women who had followed Him these years and followed Him now to the end. And John. The youngest of the disciples. Little more than a boy. All the others—big, strong, brave, older men of commerce, men of the world, all the others stayed away. Why? For fear they too might be arrested and themselves executed for being His followers? Or because they couldn’t stand to look upon their teacher’s agony? Or …? We don’t know. We’ll never know why all the others deserted Him. But we knew who did not. We remember after twenty centuries the handful who stayed with Him, who would never desert Him.

A few women. His mother. John, whose name has come down to us as not only John but as John the beloved.

Tradition tells us that Jesus had a special affection for this youngest of his followers. One reason may be because they were first cousins. John was the son of Mary’s sister. Another reason may be because John was young but also had the kind of personality that was more open than most to receive Jesus’ teachings.

Looking back on my life and career, I wish I’d asked more questions of my mentors. I was always so busy trying to prove I was up to the job, always worked so hard trying to do as good a job as possible, that I now see I missed out on some learning opportunities. If only I’d asked more questions, maybe I’d be a better man today.

We don’t know, but maybe John was the kind of disciple who wasn’t too proud to ask. I love it when younger ministers ask me questions. Why? Because I think I know so much? No. Because I do believe I’ve picked up some things along the way that are worth passing on.

Then there’s the possibility that Jesus and John simply had compatible personalities. Maybe their personalities just clicked. They hit it off. They enjoyed being together. I can see them laughing and joking around as we men like to do.

I can see John, in agony of spirit, as he watches his dearest friend, his teacher, his mentor dying before his eyes and he can do nothing to help ease the pain.

But he can do something going forward. From the cross, Jesus asks John to take care of Mary, Jesus’ mother, John’s aunt. And so he will. The house still stands in Turkey where she lived out her life under young John’s care.

Even in death, Jesus was teaching. Teaching us how to care for others, how to think of them more than we think of ourselves.

I like John, stand in awe of such a man as this.

He can teach us forever and still we’ll not be at the end of all He has for us to learn.

VII

Joseph of Arimathea

The whole thing began in a garden and now it ends in a garden. Our ancient tradition paints for us a wondrous picture of human life springing forth in the most beautiful of gardens. Now the whole story seems to be concluding in another garden.

Joseph of Arimathea has kindly given his own tomb for the final resting place of the young teacher. Joseph is a member of the establishment, wealthy, high up in the Jewish hierarchy. He’s so exalted he’s not afraid of the high priests and the others. He doesn’t care if they’re angry with him or mistrust him or wish him ill. He loved Jesus in life. The only way left for Joseph to show his love now is by giving Him his tomb.

Just as we began with two men named Jesus, so we conclude now not only with two gardens but also with two men named Joseph. It was a man named Joseph that God chose to raise His son and care for him. Another Joseph now cares for Him in death.

The more you study God and the things of God, the more you come to see the remarkable symmetry of God’ plan and working both in history and in our lives. He is the Creator, which means that He’s also creative. All good things come from Him, all useful, positive, beautiful works of creation spring from Him.

So we should not be surprised that here we have another Joseph.

Any more than we should be surprised–having seen his love in action in countless ways in all the epochs between Eden and now—any more than we should be surprised that because of His great love, Joseph’s garden is not the garden of endings only. In a few day’s short time it will become the garden of new beginnings. For Jesus. For the human race. For you and me. Forever.

And the man crouching over there behind the spreading, greening tree. Do you see him? Can you see who it is? Yes, it’s him. It’s Barabbas.