The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment. (Luke 23:55-56)
Jesus died late, on a Friday afternoon. For Jews, sundown begins the new day – in this case, the Sabbath. Friday was quickly ending, and Saturday – the Sabbath day – was about to begin. Once the Sabbath began, work wasn’t permitted. Once the Sabbath began, the body of Jesus couldn’t be taken down from the cross – that would be work. The spices, perfumes, cloth needed to prepare Jesus for proper burial couldn’t be purchased on the Sabbath. The body couldn’t be prepared for burial – that, too, would be work. Neither could the body be entombed, because it would require Jesus to be carried to his final resting place – there’s no carrying on the Sabbath!
So, once Jesus was dead, and his death confirmed, there was pressure to take him down from the cross, as quickly as possible, and place him in a tomb. Jesus’ female followers watched where Jesus was taken. They needed to know the location of Jesus’ body, so they could return on Sunday, after the Sabbath, to properly prepare Jesus for burial. Until then, they waited.
On Sunday, the women would return to the tomb, find someone to move the stone blocking the entrance, unwrap the bloodied linens from Jesus’ dead body, wash away the dried blood, excrement and filth, anoint Jesus’ body with perfumes and spices, wrap it again in clean linen, and find someone to roll the stone back in place. It, undoubtedly, would have been a gruesome task to perform – handling and preparing the dead, mangled, bloodied body of Jesus for burial. But, they loved him, and they give him the dignity and honor he deserved.
But, please take note. There’s no anticipation of a resurrection. Jesus was dead. They watched him die. They saw him taken from the cross, and placed in a tomb. As far they knew, Jesus would stay dead, and dead people stay dead. In spite of Jesus’ repeated claims of rising again, no one seems to have remembered that when he died.
Jesus was dead. And with his death, all of their hopes for him, and what he would do, were dead with him.
Buried hope. Imagine the grief, the terrible sadness, the loss of hope.
We assume the same was true of the disciples. They’d scattered, in fear, when Jesus was arrested. We don’t know where they went. They were hiding, somewhere in fear. But, surely, by the end of Friday, they were aware of Jesus’ death and, like the women, their hopes for following Jesus were dead with him.
Later, on Sunday, after rising, Jesus encountered two of his followers on the road to Emmaus. One said to Jesus – not knowing to whom he was speaking – “We HAD hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21) Please note the past-tense, “we HAD hoped…” But, hope died on Friday, on a cross. Hope was gone, buried with Jesus… or, at least, that’s what they thought.
Have you ever lost hope? Ever had the rug pulled out from under you, and all you hoped for seems lost? Hopes for a long life, buried by unexpected illness and positive test results. Hopes for a fruitful career, buried by layoffs or down-sizing. Hopes for a happy marriage, buried by an unexpected divorce. Hopes of financial security, buried by an economic downturn. Hopes for the people you love, buried by bad choices, disappointments, and unfortunate circumstances. Hopes for a better world and a better future, buried by never-ending disappointments.
Hope is about possibility and potential. Hope dreams of preferred futures. Hope is about a better tomorrow. Hope inspires, motivates, sustains, challenges. Hope helps us to endure the daily challenges, obstacles, hurdles, and set-backs, as we believe something better is coming.
But, when hope is lost, what then? Where do you go? What do you do, when everything you’d hoped, and the one you’d hoped in, is dead and buried in a tomb? Sometimes, lost hope is worse than never hoping, at all.
Really, that was the point of crucifixion – to squash hope. Crucifixion was a public deterrent to hope. “Enemies of the state,” who defied Rome and inspired hopes of revolt, revolution, or independence were crucified in public places, with their crime was posted on a sign above their head.
Jesus was crucified, technically, for claiming to be the “King of the Jews,” which was a challenge to Roman rule. The Jewish leaders convinced Pilate that Jesus was an enemy of Rome. The point of Jesus’ crucifixion, and others, was to communicate, “This is what Rome does to anyone who steps out of line.” In other words, “Take a look at this man hanging on the cross. Don’t get your hopes up. This is what happens to Messiahs. This is what we’ll do to you.” Compliance was expected – required. Hope in anything else – or anyone else – wasn’t allowed, and would be crushed.
I recently read, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by James Cone, who draws parallels between the crucifixion of Jesus, and the lynchings inflicted upon African-Americans in this country. In the decades between the end of slavery and the passing of the Civil Rights Act, nearly 5000 African-American men and women were lynched, as acts of mob-violence, meant to suppress the advancement of black people in our country. By lynchings I mean public hangings, torture, burnings, for “alleged” crimes against white “culture.” By lynchings, I mean mob law, carried out by angry, hateful people, who couldn’t tolerate white and black equality. Unlike the cross, these were NOT legal executions. Yet, those in power didn’t allow “laws” to stop the mobs, turning blind eyes to the atrocities committed.
Cone writes, “The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2000 years. One is the universal symbol of the Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy.”
The cross was used by Rome to suppress the hopes of conquered people, by publicly shaming anyone challenging the status quo. In the same way, lynchings were meant to squash the hopes of African-Americans, believing they deserved the same rights, laws, education, and opportunities as white Americans. Both represent evil efforts, intended to bury the possibility of change. Both the cross and the lynching tree were meant to bury hope.
And, yet, many African-Americans saw the similarity of the cross and the lynching tree. They saw God transform the cross into a symbol of hope and victory, because of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. If Rome’s crosses couldn’t bury hope, maybe American racism, enacted in the lynchings of innocent men and women, wouldn’t have the final word either. Faith, in the African-American community, in the cross of Christ and the power of God to transform evil, and the promise of a just kingdom, provided much-needed hope in the face of lynchings, racism and systemic oppression, eventually giving birth to the Civil Rights movement.
Thus, Dr. Martin Luther King said, “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a Great Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”
Cone writes, “It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor.”
Friends, who are we more like? The hopeless women, watching Jesus placed in a tomb, with their hopes buried with him? Or, the black men and women of this country who, finding inspiration in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, refused to lose hope? Is the cross a place of crushed hope, OR the source of God-given hope?
Madeline L’Engle writes, “All the evil that humans have ever conceived or done is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal to the sea.”
I fear, too many of us, lose hope too easily. We’re so spoiled. When things aren’t going our way; when we face momentary set-backs and disappointments; when we’re impatient; when we feel cheated; when we forget how privileged most of us are; we lose hope. Few of us have or will ever endure what Jesus and his followers endured, or what oppressed minorities have or do endure, yet we believe we deserve so much more. Do we even have a right to complain, much less give up hope?
And, what do we hope for? Is our hope purely personal – for a blessed, pain-free life and a free ticket to heaven? Or, does OUR hope extend to those who need a reason to hope, more than we do? Or are the problems of this world just too big for us, so we settle for small, self-serving hopes? Or, do we hope at all?
I wonder how often we give up hope, too soon, too easily, with far too little faith.
Just as God wasn’t done with Jesus on Good Friday, he isn’t done with you, or me, or this world, either. And, God won’t stop until his kingdom purposes are accomplished.
Pope Francis writes, “Never yield to discouragement. Do not lose trust. Do not allow your hope to be extinguished.”
Anne Lamott writes, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
But, friends, hope in the cross of Jesus was never meant to be a passive, self-serving hope, waiting for Jesus fix everything, and make everything turn out the way we want, which so often has very little to do with the Kingdom of God. As civil rights leaders found hope in the cross, they turned that hope into kingdom action and sacrifice, for the sake of the greater good. Often, white religious leaders told black civil rights leaders to slow down, to be patient. But, as their black brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters suffered under unjust Jim Crow laws and the constant threat of lynchings, they refused to be patient. Inspired by Jesus’ cross and the power of God, they demanded change, fought for change, sacrificed for change, suffered for change, and never lost hope for change.
Likewise, in the face of persecutions and martyrdom, the early Christians found renewed hope in the cross of Christ, and remembered Jesus saying, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” (Matthew 16:24-27)
Just as the lynching tree was a real, literal threat to civil rights activists, just as an assassin’s bullet ended Martin Luther’s King’s life, just as a cross ended Jesus’ life, just as many early Christians were martyred for their faith in Christ, how could the early Christians NOT understand Jesus’ words to mean carrying a literal cross? How can we understand it to mean anything less? Jesus calls us to live as he lived, to speak as he spoke, to advance the Kingdom of God, to fight oppression, to help the needy, even if it means taking up crosses to do so, and possibly even dying as he died.
In the words of Dr. King, “Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.” The problem with many is, we just want the crown, and expect to Jesus to deal with the cross. Jesus never gave us that option.
The hopes of the first disciples were buried on Good Friday, because they didn’t know what God was about to do. But, we do.
Friends, every year, year after year, Holy Week and Easter comes and goes. We come to services. We retell the stories. Then, we bury it away, until the next year, and we keep on living the same exact same lives we always have, with the same values and lifestyles as the world, often with no significant hope for anything to change at all. Meanwhile, so much is so contrary to the Kingdom of God, to God’s will, to the very reasons Jesus came and died.
How can we hear this story without it changing us? How can we hear this message without doing something?
Where is the hope of the cross? It’s meant to be found in us; in the followers of the crucified and risen Christ, as he works in and through us. Jesus didn’t die for us to have safe and secure lives. Jesus died to demonstrate a different way of living, in his footsteps. There’s still oppression in this world, and violence, inequality, victimization, poverty, racism, war, and injustice. There are still so many hurting, suffering, hopeless people. Masses of people have no idea who Jesus is, or what he did. Countless hopes and dreams have been crushed. All of the many reasons Jesus came, still exist.
What are we going to do about it? Is the hope of the cross just for my personal gain, or yours? Or, is the hope of the cross found in you and me, as we take up our crosses, for the sake of the world?
Cone writes, “The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This is the faith of the abused and scandalized people – the loser and the down and out.”
If there’s any hope to be found in the cross, it must be in the lives of the men and women, inspired by Christ to take up our crosses, and follow in him.
If not, what was the point?