Heb 4:14-16; 5:7-9
Death has been very much with us these past weeks, at least at a distance… and if we were paying attention to the news reports. The crash of the Germanwings plane has been etched indelibly into our thoughts… And while it is not unusual for Christians to find themselves under duress somewhere in the world much if not almost all the time, the pace of martyrdom has quickened very noticeably in recent weeks, even days – and not only of Christians but also of Jews and Muslims. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is when innocents are killed for their faith by someone who professes the same faith.
The death toll of the Christian university students at Garissa University College in Kenya is now estimated to be 147. Thousands of other Christians have in recent months been driven from their homes, beaten, kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Nigeria, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and India, many of them mere children.
Martyrdom is more a reality today than it was during the first centuries of the Common Era. We find that appalling and scary, but we should not find it surprising. Jesus told us it would be like that. In fact, he said, “unless you take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.” [Mk 8:34, Mat 10:38, Lk 14:27]
And that is why we are here today, this afternoon, in this place – to present ourselves anew at this terrible event, the torture and execution of Jesus of Nazareth, an unjust, merciless martyrdom that in the plan and, we believe, the loving wisdom of God, brought life and hope to a desperate world.
A popular and influential approach to the story of Jesus, one of the great Courses, begins with an overview of all the stories of the ancient world in which divinities became human, were incarnate. But that is to misunderstand completely the meaning of the story of Jesus and especially the significance of his passion and death. As Raymond Brown and John Meier have shown, there are NO parallels between the Incarnation of Jesus and the myths of gods in human form, and nothing like them in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus or its significance for us today. And not only us but the world.
When he became one of us, he became all of us. The essential difference is that in taking on the stature of a slave, the lowest of the low, scraping the bottom of that barrel, he undertook the meanest, lowest, most humiliating death imaginable. In John’s opening gospel hymn, the world became flesh, sarx, he says in Greek – not just a body, but quite literally “meat” or “muscle,” the way people referred to a slave or a beggar.
So in Christ, no death is without meaning, no one’s death is insignificant. All have been taken up into the death of Jesus, all hallowed and consecrated, offered to God, redeemed, and ultimately joined in Resurrection. But that is yet to come. Here we pause, we marvel, and we pray as we behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. Come, let us adore him. More than that: let us take up our cross and follow him. Then we will know who we are. And Jesus, too, will recognize us and lift us up. Come you blessed of my Father. You now belong to the Kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world. [Mat 25:34]