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On The Cross

Sermon by Pastor Dave Collins


The Gospel of John was written down some 60 years after the resurrection in response to a heresy, a false belief, a deception that was spreading in the Church that taught that Jesus wasn’t really a human being. It was dangerous because of the implication, which was that Jesus wasn’t really human because the material world didn’t really matter, which meant that your choices didn’t really matter…other people didn’t really matter.

This heresy is alive and well today. Not well. Sick. This heresy is alive and sick and spreading today. You can see it in the world, though most don’t take it very seriously. You can see it in billionaires who wonder aloud in their tweets if this world is just a simulation. You can read it in books that teach you can manifest your best life through your thoughts. You can read it in every business plan that threatens environmental, or humanitarian disaster to achieve a 2% return for the stockholder.

But we in the church are guilty of entertaining this heresy every Holy Week in our theology and in our practice in the way that we preach the Cross, and in the ideas that we allow to tickle our ears about it.

I’m talking about the preaching of cheap grace. Churches like ours (and we’re not as guilty as some, but we still bear our share) have taught a version of cheap grace that goes like this: You are such a sinner that you don’t know up from down, or good from bad, that God sent his only Son to pay the penalty for that sin, so that you can be with him forever. All you have to do is say you’re sorry and believe that Jesus died for you, and…here’s where the heresy really clicks in… that’s it. Wash, rinse, repeat.

You can be as mean as you want, so long as you’re mean to the right people, which means of course, the wrong people. You can spend your money however you like, so long as you give us some so we can tell more people that nothing they do matters, so long as they cried in church once, and say they believe.

That heresy comes to a head at the cross. And if you don’t see it, it’s because I’m not explaining it right, not because it’s not there.

So let’s look at John’s account of the cross. Let’s look at what he emphasizes and what he doesn’t.

We pick up with John in 19:16. Jesus has been condemned to death by crucifixion. He has been beaten and mocked. Now he is going to die.

John 19:16-22 NRSV

So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

The first thing we need to see here is what John doesn’t emphasize. He doesn’t emphasize Jesus’ pain. He doesn’t underline his suffering.

Dale Bruner points out that “A crucifixion cannot be described less dramatically. No gory details, no screams, nor any emotive prose at all…The absence of histrionics impresses.”

Then he puts in parentheses that (Mel Gibson should take notes).

There is nothing wrong with having an emotional appeal at the cross. There’s nothing wrong with tears on this day. But too often in the church today…that’s where it ends. That’s the point. For too many, a connection with God in worship means that you cried. Or it means that you felt guilty. But the problem there is that emotional manipulation is a skill that one can have.

You know that! You’ve met people. Heck you’re related to some of them.

But John doesn’t do that. Let’s go on to find out why.

19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

Pilate was the imperial governor of Jerusalem. Israel was a conquered people at the time, and so when the ministerial association of Jerusalem decided to have Jesus killed, they had to go through Pilate.

That’s what they did. They paid off one of Jesus’ disciples to lead them to him, had a trial in the middle of the night, and then woke Pilate up, who did put in a solid effort to get Jesus released, but ultimately washed his hands of the whole matter.

Pilate had a conversation with the incarnate Word, maybe one of the only conversations he had in recent memory where someone wasn’t trying to get something from him, or tell him what he wanted to hear. You can tell it in the text that gets to him a little. The politician comes close to having an actual feeling. John says that he tried to release him, but like so many before and after him, he was just a cog in the machine called the banality of evil.

It’s just my job.

I’m just following orders.

What can one man really do?

So he shows his contempt (probably) for the whole proceeding, or maybe his budding, defiant faith (possibly) by having this sign made. But the crazy part is that it’s a really good condensation of the gospel. So good, that it might just be the first written gospel account! How funny is that? The gospel according to Pilate, in just seven words (Eight in English).

20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.

Bruner, again, “The Cross speaks in tongues the moment it is planted. The Gospel according to Pilate is no sooner preached than it becomes immediately missionary, reaching out to the religious world that spoke Hebrew (in the Aramaic dialect), to the secular-political world that spoke Latin, and to the intellectual-commercial world that spoke Greek.”

21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’”

22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”

It sounds a lot like the scriptural preface, “It is written” doesn’t it? I think it’s supposed to. And it helps us see more about the heresy John’s community was struggling against, and that we are too.

You see, when the spiritual is all that matters. When we believe that we are meant to know the truth through our feeling of certainty, that feeling that “I just know”, we are on the path to heresy of Gnosticism. And down that road, and a lot of you are already there, you believe whatever your tribe says. The wrapper becomes much more important than the content. The brand, the delivery, the markers, the emotions, what have you. For Gnostics, they become what determines the truth.

But look at this verse! Possibly the first scripture written