Every year, before Easter, Christians call to remembrance the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s that time of year when the memory of the crucifixion of Jesus draws near. Holy Week is only one week away, so let us begin to reflect upon the circumstances that led to his martyrdom and its significance.
The Gospels tell the story of a man who spoke out strongly against injustice, and who rose up courageously in defense of the poor and for a more equitable and compassionate religion. When Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Passover, he confided in his twelve most loyal disciples a shocking prediction about the visit: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man” — that is, Jesus himself — “will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.” [Matt. 20:18-19].
This proved to be prophetic, and it was Jesus’s own actions that made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. For when Jesus went to Jerusalem, he didn’t go there as a mere visitor to the capital of Judea as one of the multitude of pilgrims and tourists, but as an agitator who would challenge the customs of the religious establishment and their exploitation of the people.
Upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus went to the Temple, where he caused quite a scene. In those days, much of the activity that went on at the Jewish Temple was the sacrificing of animals. People would buy cattle, sheep, and other animals, which the Hebrew priests would slaughter and burn on an altar. The smoke of burning flesh would rise up to God, who would enjoy the aroma and forgive the sins of those who had purchased the animals for sacrifice — or so the people believed, as encouraged by the priests and the businessmen who made tremendous profits from the practice.
Those businessmen actually sat in the public sections of the Temple and sold animals for religious sacrifice. Money piled up on their tables, representing the fear of a primitive vision of God that fueled this corrupt economy. According to an archaeological study, “the economic heart of the city [of Jerusalem] was its slaughtering operation.” The Talmud even reports that priests waded up to their knees in blood, and that over a million animals were slaughtered in one day.
What did Jesus think of these practices of the religion of his people? As we read in the Gospels, “In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’” [John 2:14-16]. For “‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘“My house will be called a house of prayer,” but you are making it “a den of robbers.”’ [Matt. 21:13, quoting Jer. 7:11].
Jesus seemed especially angered by the selling of doves, because these gentle birds represented the Holy Spirit and were generally sold to poor women, who couldn’t afford more extravagant sacrifices. Helpless people at the lowest rungs of the social ladder were being taken advantage of by the very people who should have instead been helping them — the leaders of religion.
As evidenced by the story in the Bible, the whole system of sacrificial religion offended Jesus, so he took direct action to oppose it — every aspect of it, including all kinds of animals in the Temple and the lucrative business of selling them to people seeking forgiveness and blessings from God. Based on his teachings recorded throughout the Gospels, we know that Jesus regarded God as our loving Parent, rather than as a bloodthirsty deity with a constant craving for the flesh of living beings burning on a religious altar to win God’s favor.
Less than one week after Jesus directly challenged the religious and economic system of the great city of Jerusalem, he was executed by the Roman government at the request of the Jewish priests. The whole system of society — both sacred and secular — swung into action to remove the cause of the disruption to their power, wealth, and prestige.
It takes great courage to stand up against the cultural norms of the time and place in which you live. It takes even more courage to stand up against people with lots of money, or the leaders of your religion, or the government which can punish you for disobedience. Jesus did all three. No wonder he swiftly faced the ultimate punishment that society can impose upon dissidents — the penalty of death.
Now it’s important to understand that Jesus experienced the very same fear and reluctance that anyone does when faced with the consequences of doing the right thing. Many Christians today tend to think of Jesus as some kind of cartoon hero, who was always self-confident and never despairing and afraid. But that’s just not so. The Bible tells us that on the night of his arrest, he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading with God, over and over again, that “this cup be taken from me” [Matt. 26:39] — the bitter cup of the torturous death on the cross that he rightly feared awaited him. In fact, Jesus was under so much psychological stress when contemplating the fate of crucifixion that as Luke’s Gospel reports, he even sweated blood, a sign of incredible mental agony [Luke 22:44].
Despite all this, Jesus didn’t try to escape, but bravely faced the consequences of his righteous yet controversial actions. In so doing, he set a powerful example for millions of martyrs who would come after him. Throughout history, many people have willingly endured discrimination, imprisonment, torture, or even the ultimate sacrifice of death for their Christian faith, or for values and principles that are consistent with the ministry and teachings of Jesus. And although some are called to the ultimate act of martyrdom, you don’t have to die to sacrifice your life for Christ. You can be a living sacrifice.
Indeed, Jesus came to teach us that living a life of conscience is a far greater and more meaningful sacrifice than any bloody offering to God on an altar. What can we do to stand with Christ and walk with God in our lives? How can we help to carry the burden of the struggle, to show the world the power of holiness in the midst of corruption?
According to the Gospels, there was a man named Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus carry his cross to the place of crucifixion. Criminals who were condemned to be crucified actually had to carry their own cross through the streets of Jerusalem to the mount of Calvary outside the city walls, as crowds of onlookers watched and taunted them. Because Jesus had been flogged and beaten so severely, he was exhausted and needed help, unable to carry the cross alone. Simon of Cyrene appears only in a few Bible verses, but the symbolic nature of his assistance to Jesus has been noted in Christian traditions that have grown up about him.
Every year, around this time of year, to help me reflect on Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross, I watch the movie The Passion of the Christ. Although some people have criticized the movie for being too gory, overemphasizing the horrific torture of Jesus to an almost lurid degree, what else could we expect from a Mel Gibson flick? His movies are notorious for graphic depictions of violence and the glorification of suffering heroes — and let’s face it, Jesus Christ is pretty much the ultimate example of that kind of character. Jesus was, in fact, tortured to death. Roman flogging was designed to tear out chunks of your flesh. Crucifixion was incredibly painful and was a public spectacle intended to terrify people and thus to deter crime.
In The Passion of the Christ, Simon of Cyrene gets extended screen time as a much more significant character than the brief mention of him in the Bible itself. I think that was a wise decision by director Mel Gibson. In Gibson’s portrayal, Simon begins his journey with Jesus as a random bystander who is ordered by a Roman soldier to help the bloody and battered criminal carry his cross to the place of execution. At first, Simon protests, but when it becomes clear that he has no choice but to carry the cross, he makes an announcement to the crowd that is profoundly ironic in its inaccuracy. “All right,” he says, “but remember, I’m an innocent man, forced to carry the cross of a condemned man.”
Simon grudgingly shoulders the cross and looks at Jesus with disdain. But then, he resigns himself to walk beside Jesus on the road to Golgotha, where the criminal would finally be executed. As they walk the long and winding road and carry the cross together, Simon sees how some people revere Jesus as a holy man while others abuse him, and he gradually gains respect for the man who had perhaps been unjustly condemned. When Jesus, drenched in blood, stumbles and falls to the ground yet again and people begin kicking him, Simon finds himself filled with outrage at the cruelty and injustice. He courageously stands up and calls for it to stop. “I don’t care what you do to me!” he shouts to the Roman soldiers, demanding that the incessant abuse of Jesus should cease.
By the time they reach the hill of crucifixion, Simon of Cyrene has been totally transformed, and is in awe of the Lord Jesus Christ. According to Christian tradition, he became the father of two important missionaries in the early church.
How can we be changed by making sacrifices in our lives, taking up the cross with Christ? What can we do to participate in the sanctifying act of carrying the cross and walking beside Jesus, helping God to bear the burden of righteousness in our world?
There are many examples of things that are wrong in our society today. There always are, in every place and time. What are we willing to do about it? Are we willing to risk our comfort, our livelihood — perhaps even our freedom, or in some parts of the world, our lives — to stand up against the corrupt ideologies and practices of government, religion, or business, as Jesus did?
Doing such things takes courage. It could make you unpopular. It could make your life more difficult. But it could also make you more like Christ — and that’s our ultimate goal as Christians.
Next week, as we walk onward on the road to Calvary, we’ll continue exploring the theme of holy sacrifice with a sermon on “The Incredible Power of the Cross.” In the meantime, I hope you’ll reflect on what sacrifices you’re willing to make to do what’s right.
Watch on video (starting at 8:23):