Sermon from August 1: Eyes on the Cross

Eyes on the Cross
Pentecost X; August 1, 2021
Luke 23:32-49

Not long ago I told you of the Lutheran woman who said to me that when the preacher was doing a bad job she could look at the Cross in the front of her church and still get a sermon. What sort of sermon did she get? I wonder. When you look at the Cross, what do you see?

Upon the cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess:
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.[1]

In the Lutheran church where the woman grew up, the Cross probably did have the figure of Jesus on it. Likewise in Episcopal churches. Our Calvinist churches tend to have a plain Cross because of our traditional hostility to images, pictures, and statues.

Whether we see the figure of Jesus on the Cross with our eyes or with the mind’s eye, what do we see? And how about the various characters around Jesus’ Cross in Luke 23; what do they see?

At the base of the Cross, making sure no one comes along to release Jesus before he is dead, are the soldiers. These men, probably young and from somewhere else in the Empire, were part of the detachment in Jerusalem to help keep order during the hectic days of Passover. They have crucified people before; they knew how to pound the nails and tie the ropes; they knew how to inflict pain without it being personal: just doing their job. I imagine that as they looked at Jesus they saw a criminal, perhaps not an ordinary criminal, since the sign describing his crime read, “This is the King of the Jews.” So he styled himself as King, they figured, and that made him an enemy of the State. More Jewish scum, a rebel: they saw him as having organized opposition to Rome and therefore ground under the heel of Rome, all for the sake of public order.

While the soldiers kept an eye on things and played at dice, conversing with one another, there were some people a few steps away at the base of the Cross. Crucifixions were always done by major roads, so as many people as possible could see the wrath of Rome against all who dared oppose her, so a number of folks would come and go during the hours Jesus hung on the Cross. Perhaps some stayed the whole time. They were there to mock him. That was part of the process: crucifixion was intended to be not only painful and fatal, but also humiliating. What did they see? They saw an imposter. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, God’s chosen one!” We heard people say he was the Messiah; we heard he healed lepers and gave vision to the blind and even raised a little girl from the dead! Maybe it’s all a lie. The Messiah is supposed to lead a revolution, to turn the world upside down; he’s not supposed to be executed. He’s an imposter!

There were two criminals executed with Jesus; that’s why our bell tower has three crosses and why you usually see three crosses together. They turned their heads as best they could and looked at Jesus, as all three hung there, dying. One of them saw a Messiah of sorts, but clearly powerless; he raised a large group of followers, could he not free them all from their crosses? But the other one somehow saw a King. “Jesus, remember me,” he said, “When you come into your kingdom.” Even though he sees this “King” hanging on a Cross, his only crown one made of thorns, only the sign over his head announcing his kingship, he somehow believes that somehow, someday Jesus would rule a kingdom. “Remember me,” he pleads. Whatever you may think of me and of my crime, remember me.

With the soldiers is a centurion, a soldier who commanded approximately 100 troops. Part of his job was to ensure the death of the condemned. This centurion somehow was moved by what he saw. What touched him? Was it Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”? Was it the way the sky turned dark for the last few hours? Why did he suddenly cry, “This was a just man!”? Some traditions remember him as Longinus, the world’s first Christian. Unlike the others right at the base of the Cross, he didn’t see Jewish scum, an imposter, or even a king: he saw Jesus, a just, innocent, righteous man.

I mentioned those who came by to mock Jesus, to scorn him, make fun of him. There were others, too, who were simply present. Every time something important is happening, there are those who participate, those who are there to heckle, and those who are there for the show. Executions used to be public; that was intended as a deterrence. And so there were a lot of people around who were there simply to watch, simply to see what was going on. They were there for the show. They were neither participants nor hecklers; they were spectators. But they too were moved; after Jesus died and the Centurion made his cry, they beat their breasts as they returned home. They knew something terrible had just happened. But they didn’t know what it was.

Then there were the others, whom Luke calls “the women who had followed him from Galilee.” They knew what had happened: the death of their Lord. They had traveled with him; you thought it was just Jesus and his twelve male apostles, didn’t you? Luke mentioned these women all the way back in chapter 8 (1-3). They had financial resources and paid most of Jesus’ expenses over the years. They stuck with him, even to this moment, when they saw him die.

And even though they saw him die, they were not finished with him. I didn’t read the rest of the chapter to you, but it’s there. These women saw where Jesus was buried, and after the Sabbath rest they would go there with the intention of caring properly for his body. These were the ones who received the grand surprise: they were not the only ones not finished with Jesus. God wasn’t finished with him either.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Elizabeth Cecilia Douglas Clephane,“Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” #216 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 1868.