Naming “The Cross” a shadow of the spiritual life should come as a surprise to no one. The cross, is emblematic not only of Jesus’ faithfulness that led him to willingly suffer for the sake of all of creation, but the cross is also emblematic of the suffering in this world and God’s seeming absence in the midst of it. As we walk through the shadow of the cross this morning, our focus will not be on the crosses we bear or experience in our spiritual lives, but we will focus on Christ’s time in the shadows of the spiritual life while he endured his time on the cross. On the cross Jesus experienced physical pain, abandonment, betrayal, derision, insolence, jeering, humiliation, mockery, suffering, and ultimately death. But through it, even prior to Christ’s resurrection, the shadow of Jesus’ crucifixion lead to radical transformation in those who witnessed Jesus’ death.
Luke 22 closes with Jesus’ arrest while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter’s gut-wrenching denial of Christ, and Jesus’ examination by the religious council. Following the council’s determination that Jesus has blasphemed God by not denying their claims that he has said he was the Son of God, they send him to be examined and condemned to death by Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea. Luke then dedicates the entirety of the twenty-third chapter to recounting the details of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate who, despite the desires and the best efforts of the religious council, can “find no legal basis for action against this man” (Luke 23:4). Upon learning that Jesus is from Galilee he happily sends him along to Herod, the Jewish man whom the Romans had established as a provincial ruler of Galilee. Herod, Luke tells us, happened to be visiting Jerusalem and was “very glad to see Jesus, for he had heard about Jesus and had wanted to see him for some time. He was hoping to see Jesus perform some sign” (Luke 23:8). But Jesus provided no entertainment for Herod, and after some time of being accused by representatives of the religious council who accompanied Jesus to Herod, and after being mocked by some of Herod’s deployment of soldiers, Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate after finding no fault with Jesus.
Pilate now exams Jesus a second time and comes to a similar finding that despite the accusations of the religious council Pilate says, “I have questioned him…and found nothing in this man’s conduct that provides a legal basis for the charges you have brought against him…he’s done nothing that deserves death” (Luke 23:14-15). The religious council, now getting worried that their plan to have the Romans execute Jesus for political sedition will not come to pass, change their tactics. Instead of seeking to use their influence to have Jesus convicted of treason against Rome, they instead request the release of a different Jewish prisoner, Barabbas. Stirred up by the religious council the crowd (that had gathered to witness and be entertained by Jesus’ trial) begins to shout for the release of Barabbas and for Jesus’ crucifixion. Finally, Pilate relents and “hands Jesus over to their will” (23:25). Jesus will be executed by crucifixion, a common means of death in the Roman Empire for political opponents of Rome who were found guilty of sedition, treason, and seeking to lead revolution.
Jesus then is publicly paraded from Pilates’ chambers in the city center of Jerusalem to the outskirts of town where his cross will be erected and Jesus nailed to it. He is crucified next to two other political prisoners and as he hangs on the cross Jesus experiences mocking and derision by those around him — one of the criminals, the leaders from the religious council, and those in the crowd. Mocking Jesus they said, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one” (23:35). Jesus’ humiliation while on the cross continued at the hands of the Roman soldiers who, while Jesus suffered the agony of slowly suffocating on the cross, taunted him by shoving in his face sponges soaked in rancid sour wine, and joined the crowd’s mocking saying, “if you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself” (23:36).
As Jesus’ death nears, Luke recounts that it was accompanied by strange natural phenomenon; the sun becomes obscured by shadow and darkness at noon and the curtain in the temple is torn in two, right down the middle. Then, after spending forty-four verses describing in agonizing details the prelude to Jesus death, in one simple verse Luke recounts Jesus’ death, “Crying out in a loud voice, Jesus said, ‘Father, into your hands I entrust my life.’ After he said this, he breathed for the last time” (23:46). The brevity of Luke’s description is jarring; it is almost as if by choosing simplicity in style, Luke chooses to emphasize the shocking, world altering nature of Jesus’ death. No words can sufficiently or adequately describe what has happened.
But in this moment when stillness hangs thick in the air and the derision, mocking, and jeering of the religious leaders, crowds, and soldiers and the weeping and wailing of Jesus’ followers has turned to deafening silence, in this moment seemingly the darkest shadow this world has ever known (both figuratively and literally, recall the noon-time sun has been obscured by the shadow of darkness) out of the shadow of crucifixion emerges light — the light of transformation. In verses 47 and 48 Luke recounts the immediate response of those who witnessed Jesus’ death, “When the centurion saw what happened, he praised God, saying, ‘It’s really true: this man was righteous.’ All the crowds who had come together to see this event returned to their homes beating their chests after seeing what had happened” (23:47-48).
The centurion broke the silence and praised God and declared Jesus righteous! The centurion, a Roman solider, who just minutes before had been taunting Jesus by shoving putrid wine in his face and verbally abusing Jesus. On the lips of one who had just previously mocked and derided Jesus, we now have Jesus’ Messianic identity confirmed. Similarly, the crowds, who up until this point have not only mocked Jesus and jeered him, but also watched his slow and agonizing death as a form of entertainment, as if they were binge watching their favorite show on Netflix, now seem to awaken from their blood-thirsty and savage stupor and beat their chests in an act of confession and repentance.
The cross, God’s means of grace and transformation, in less than one minute following Jesus’ death, has enacted that very thing; less than sixty seconds after Jesus entered the shadow of death on the cross, the light of transformation, grace, and new life is already dawning. Witness the transformation. Before the crucifixion the soldiers said, “if you really are the King of the Jews, save yourself” (23:37). Here not only was Jesus’ Messianic identity being mocked but there was no act of belief or confession of faith, the soldiers mocked Jesus as being insane and delusional (much as we would ridicule someone today whom we met that claimed to be the Son of God) and certainly did not believe Jesus’ claims about his identity. But immediately following Jesus’ death, the same Roman soldier who mocked Jesus’ messianic identity now confirms it, “it’s really true, this man was righteous” (23:47).
In using the word, “righteous.” the centurion is using one of Luke’s favorite descriptors of the Kingdom of God and of God’s action in the world. To be righteous means to be just, to be just in the Gospel of Luke means to be acting in full accordance with God’s ways and will on the earth; in short, in the Gospel of Luke justice and righteous means the representation of God’s Kingdom on earth. After having witnessed Jesus die, a man who just mocked Jesus for his claim of being God’s Son and bearing God’s Kingdom into the world now admits that initially he was wrong and, after having seen Jesus’ death on the cross, this Roman soldier is now convinced that Jesus is the presence of God’s Kingdom; this is a Messianic identifier. Here, the Roman soldier identifies Jesus as the Christ. But it is way more profound than merely identifying an objective reality, not only does the Roman Soldier identify Jesus as God’s Son, but he, upon identifying and recognizing Jesus as such, “praises God” (23:47). His encounter with Jesus has led him into an act of worship. Again, this is symbolic in Luke’s Gospel. Throughout the Gospel of Luke whenever people recognize and identify Jesus’ Messianic identity because of Jesus’ miraculous power they always “praise God.” This is significant for Luke because those who have received transformation from Jesus, by first choosing to “praise God,” recognize and positively identify from where and from whom Jesus has come. Jesus’ power is not ordinary and it is not of this world. Jesus power comes from God who sent Jesus into this world to proclaim and manifest the Kingdom of God. When people praise God because of their encounters with Jesus they are declaring that Jesus has come from God.
There, at the foot of the cross on which Jesus’ newly dead body still hangs, one Roman soldier’s heart and life has now radically changed. But he is not alone. Luke shares with us that there was not a single person who did not experience transformation, the radical reordering of her or his life, as a result of witnessing Jesus’ faithfulness at his death. For if one Roman man praises God and declared Jesus righteous, “all the crowd who had come together to see this event returned to their homes beating their chests after seeing what had happened” (23:48). There was not a single person for whom the witnessing of Jesus’ death did not lead to an act of repentance — for that is what it means to beat your chest. To beat one’s chest was a sign of confession and repentance; it was an acknowledgement of personal sin and fault committed against God and others and it represented both sorrow, grief, and regret at committing sin as well as a desire to atone for sin. As the crowd stared at Jesus’ lifeless body on the cross, and as they witnessed the gentle and faithful way Jesus embraced and accepted his death, the crowd realized its complicity in Jesus’ death. The crowd recognized the depth of their sin in their bloodthirsty voyeurism and they recalled with shame their mocking words, but most importantly they remembered Jesus and the way he acted in death.
Throughout the Gospel of Luke Jesus’ very life was a sign of God’s love, grace, inclusion, and power — simply by being alive, talking, walking, healing — Jesus showed people who God was and what God was like. In Jesus’ death he did the very same thing. St. Francis famously said, “preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words.” Jesus preached the Gospel in his manner of death. In dying, Jesus never stopped proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God. In dying, Jesus revealed to the crowd how much they were beloved by God. And that is what the crowd remembered as they walked home in the silent aftermath of Jesus’ death. The crowds had seen the face of God, but it took Jesus’ suffering death on the cross for them to finally realize it. After having finally realized whom they had encountered and how they had responded to him, the men and women in the crowd “beat their chests,” confessed their sin, and changed their hearts and lives; they finally heard and responded to Jesus’ Good News.