I once had an English teacher who quoted a famous writer to our class. Now I don’t know who the writer was! My Google search has turned up nothing, but I remember the quote: “You can never forgive the one you have injured.” We can never forgive the people we, ourselves, go and hurt.
Now of course, it’s not entirely true — if our power to forgive comes from the grace of God, then sure, we really can forgive those whom we have hurt. But the power in this statement is that it’s the opposite of what you’d expect, and yet. Whoever said this was onto something. There’s no way to forgive without hearing some of that forgiveness come back at you, so you can’t tell who said it and who’s echoing it, and what if we’re not even ready to hear forgiveness…
This afternoon we’re hearing the story of Jesus’ crucifixion from the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest of the Gospels and the writing style is crisp and to-the-point. We get none of the long, lovely speeches you’ll find in the Gospel of John. There’s no time for that! This means when the writer of Mark includes a detail in his storytelling, it is worth noticing.
One of these details is that the people were taunting Jesus in the hours leading up to his death. They were taunting him.
Of course, Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus sounds taunting. It’s Pilate’s job to question him and prod him for answers (which Jesus doesn’t give.)
Of course, the Roman soldiers taunt Jesus when they prepare him to be crucified. It’s a ritual they have down to a science. They know exactly how to twist the thorns into a crown, where to find a purple cloak to put on him as a joke. The way Mark tells it, you’ve got to believe, these soldiers have done this before. This kind of taunting is listed in their job description.
When Jesus was crucified and hanging on the cross, the passersby taunted him. They shook their heads and said, “Ha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days— why don’t you come down from the cross and save yourself?” And the chief priests and the scribes joined in.
Now Jesus gets executed along with two bandits. Mark includes the chilling detail that these thieves taunted Jesus too. Here they are dying together, and these men say, “Jesus, you think you’re the Messiah?! No wonder you’re on the cross. You can’t even save yourself.”
Oh you see. We blame the very person we are hurting! As though we can never forgive the one whom we have injured. And my God, my God. Why have you forsaken me…
Friends, this is the day when Christians around the world come together to remember the horror of the cross. The events of this day do not capture the wholeness of our faith. It would be a problem if you come to church today but then don’t come back on Sunday to hear how the story takes a turn. Today we have a chance to think about the cross before it turns into a sign of love. And this is important.
There is an impetus in modern Christianity to rush to the peaceful pleasant part, to praise Jesus for dying— as though the violence is somehow pleasing to God. You can hear this impetus in our favorite hymns:
“Oh that old rugged cross, so despised by the world, has a wondrous attraction for me. For the dear Lamb of God left his glory above to bear it to dark Calvary.”
“What wondrous love is this, Oh my soul, Oh my soul. What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul.”
With heart-wrenching affection, we Christians love Jesus for getting killed for us. Now there is power in taking a story of horror and reclaiming it, reshaping it into a story of redemption. But to miss the horror is a problem, especially because there is still horror in our world.
Those thieves were taunting Jesus: “You belong on the cross,” they said. “You can’t even save yourself.” What I’m wondering is whether we are taunting Jesus too. “You belong on the cross, Jesus. How else are you going to save us?” As though God wanted this to happen. As though God decided the cross was needed for grace. I know this is the story Christians have come to tell and believe in. It sounds deceptively simple, but it could be, there is much more to it.
If you are not sure this violence was God’s will, I can tell you, I’m not sure it was either. I invite us to take a few minutes on this worst day and be together in this uncertainty.
It really could be the case that God who so loved the world did not want this world to kill his son. It could be that God did not want to see her children massacred at school, forced to evacuate by stepping over the bodies of their friends. It could be that the LORD our God does not dream up wars or nudge us to build more prisons. There are acts of terror and violence that are not God’s will.
So we human people keep asking, “Then why did this have to happen!” And when that question gets spoken… there are no words.
I promise, there are no words you, or I, or anyone, can say that will make sense of horror. We can plead with God! We can taunt God or praise God, but when it’s us with Jesus on the cross, there are no words that will make this okay.
When Jesus was praying in the garden, he asked God to take this cup, “yet not what I want,” he said, “but what you want.” And God did not answer. When Jesus is brought before the Council, the first time the high priest questions him, he does not answer. The second time, he pronounces the name of God. When Jesus is hauled before Pilate, he refuses to answer him. And when all the people are taunting him —the soldiers, and the passersby, the thieves, and us too- Jesus does not explain why the cross makes sense.
Instead, the first thing he does is let the silence ring in the air so the words of the taunting and the prayers of those who stood at a distance rise up together. In the same still sky they spill into each other -taunting and pleading.
And the second thing Jesus does is sing. He remembers the song Psalm Twenty-two: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my roaring? O my God. I cry, but you do not answer.”
What happens when Jesus is singing is that his prayer turns in on itself so you can’t tell who is singing it and who is echoing it. Singing spills into singing like a choir singing a round where you can’t tell who started it. Jesus sings: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” And God sings back to us: “Why have you forsaken me?” Why have you forsaken me becomes why have you forsaken me… And what could we possibly say? There are no words.
All the earth and all the heavens go silent for a day. All that’s left ringing is the residue of taunting, but the scorn has gone stale, so it’s just pleading hanging in the air. Just pleading hanging on the cross. The word made flesh is dead.
There is a humming in the deep that fills the space where there are no words, as though God could make something out of this silence. As though the Holy Spirit could pour right into our torturing, taunting, human violence and turn it into life. Our sour scorn could become compassion. Our flailing fear could become love.
As though the silence that covers creation tomorrow is the hush before the Hallelujah that is still being knit together. One day we could hear the forgiveness we are still learning how to say.
And so it is. Today may our taunting go quiet. May our pleading, and our singing, and our silence give glory to our grieving God. Amen.