By Dr. Paul DUmas
The Phoenix is pleased to feature a Good Friday message by Dr. Paul Dumas,
a missionary and theologian in Utica. This contribution is scripted aurally, punctuated as a spoken address.
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The old Negro spiritual asks the question feelingly, with due passion and devotion, bringing us face-to-face with the drama of Passion Week and mysteries surrounding Jesus’ final days on earth. The testimony of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection is central to the message of the New Testament, occupying no less than a third of the Gospels. The Scriptures invite us to consider the nature of Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice. And so, as Good Friday is now upon us, it’s appropriate to ask, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
Were you among those who arrested and tried and tortured Jesus of Nazareth? Were you there? There anywhere in the crowd?
It was “a mixed multitude” that day in Jerusalem. “Hosanna!” they cried, as Jesus entered the city gates. “Hosanna in the highest!” “Hosanna!” – “Salvation has come!” as the word means in the original language: “Hosanna” – “ Behold, ‘The Answer to Prayer’ is upon us!” “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes to us in the Name of the Lord!” they shouted. And they laid palm branches down, and spread out their garments to pave the way for the King to enter the Holy City of Jerusalem – in direct fulfilment of the Messianic prophesy foretold hundreds of years before, as recorded in Zechariah 9:9.
But the human heart is profoundly fickle. And within days they were saying: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Within days they went from cheering to jeering. “Were you there amongst them?”
As they witnessed the events of the next few day, the perspectives of each and every one of those who were there were stretched to the limits, and beyond. Even those closest to Him – His mother and His brothers, or His half-brothers and sisters – even Jesus’ closest disciples didn’t know what to make of the outcome as they watched “the Messiah” (as they thought He was, the Promised Savior of the world), hang between heaven and earth. “Were you there?”
Pilate was there. He was the Procurator, the governor, Rome’s official representative in the
backwater of the Empire called Judea. Pilate had always been on the lookout for sedition. He had to take seriously, very seriously any charges of revolution. He could neither dismiss nor regard lightly any charges of insurrection. And so Pilate considered very carefully the charges levelled against Jesus. But truthfully he didn’t find enough evidence against the itinerant preacher from Nazareth to give Jesus even so much as a reprimand, let alone the sentence of death, by crucifixion.
Pilate, it seems, was convinced that Jesus was not guilty, that He was not deserving of death. He tried to dissuade the religious leaders from carrying out this injustice, but what could he do? The religious leaders could be a real problem after all. They could float a rumor back to Rome that he was soft on sedition, that he was easy on revolutionaries – and just like that, his political career would be over! He only did what you have to do sometimes, in situations like this: he compromised. He turned his back on what he knew to be the truth in order to protect himself. Yes, Pilate was there ~ as one who compromised.
The soldiers were there. Oh, the soldiers were just “following orders.” What else could they do? They had sworn allegiance to Caesar, and if Caesar had assigned them to crucifixion detail so be it! They were simply doing their duty. Rome, after all, was the greatest empire the world had ever known! Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it had guaranteed more justice to more people than any nation in history. And so they were glad to do their patriotic duty. But they couldn’t have felt good about it in the quiet corners of their hearts. Not in the deep recesses of conscience.
How do you deal with those inner voices of accusation? How do you quiet a troubled conscience? How do you quell the Voice of the Holy Spirit? One way to do it is to pull yourself up, by pushing other people down. In other words, the way that you deal with a grizzly situation like this, is, you try to convince yourself that, this Jesus really deserves what He’s getting! And so, you mock Him, you scorn Him. You side with the devil – and accuse Jesus ~ unjustly.
But when you let even a part of yourself play the animal you become an animal. This is why blind obedience oftentimes leads to cruelty. As we have seen in places like Nazi Germany, or in Viet Nam at My Lai, or in Uganda, or in Rwanda, or in Iraq and Iran. The soldiers were there – at least some of them were there – as those who gave way to the animal within ~ as those who were cruel. As those who were bullies. As those who tried to silence the dictates of their conscience in the darkness of a terrible moment.
The religious leaders were there. Well, of course the religious leaders were there! They were the ones who’d pressed charges against Jesus! The ones who leveraged their power and even demanded of Pilate, their governor. The religious leaders were certain of what God would want. After all, they were theologians, they’d devoted their whole lives to the study of the Law. “Now, just who was this itinerant preacher – coming to teach strange doctrines?!” “Why, Jesus could lead the people astray from the truth! The people, after all, had to be protected.” “How dare this Jesus of Nazareth challenge their, authority!” The common people, well, they could be deceived! But they, of course – they as experts in the things of God – well, they wouldn’t be deceived! No. The cause of God needed to be protected, was deserving of their unreserved devotion. And too, as their High Priest had just prophesied: “It was ‘expedient’ for one man to die” for the good of their nation. Yes, the religious leaders were there ~ in all of their self-righteousness.
The criminals were there. Two others were being crucified with Jesus. By their own admission the criminals were guilty. They deserved their punishment. Caught. Prosecuted. Guilty. Deserving of public humiliation, according to the law of the State. One of the criminals vented his bitterness on the only One who didn’t deserve to be there. Guilt often does that: it deflects attention away from itself – projects one’s own issues onto other people. But the other criminal saw something in this Jesus ~ something that he wanted to be a part of! And so, he pled for mercy.
The criminals were there, in their exposed guilt. And in their desperation. And in expression of their fears. And also – at least in the case of one – in the expressions of his hope, and of his faith! Faith, it should be noted, which was pinned on the words, on the promises of the One Who hung between them. On the One that hung between them – even as He also hung between heaven and earth ~ as He hung between their fates: between them and Paradise, between them and perdition.
Pilate. And the soldiers. And the religious leaders. And the criminals. None of these had had a relationship with Jesus prior to His arrest and trial and crucifixion. But there were others there: others who’d been considered as the very closest friends of Jesus.
The women were there. They had followed the horrific procession to Golgotha to “the place of The Skull,” a refuge heap outside the gates of the Holy City. As the Bible tells us, the women were there “at a distance,” watching from afar. But at least the women were there. As is often the case, the women showed more courage than the men did. Oh, the men, the men were ready to be up front, to “be in charge” when everything was going well. But when things got bleak, where were they? The women stayed with Jesus at least ~ stuck just as close to Him as they could. But now they didn’t know what to do. They were overwhelmed by this event. They’d placed all of their hopes and dreams in this Jesus, and now where was He? On a cross! Dying! Writhing in agony, suffering before their very eyes! Had they been wrong? What would happen to them? What should they do? What could they do? How were they to understand these things? Yes, the women were there – the women were there bewildered ~ crippled by a sense of helplessness.
And Jesus’ other disciples were there: the men. At least they were there present for His arrest. At least they were there on the edges of the crowd, during the mockery that the powers-that-be called a trial. The disciples were there, conspicuously “present” in their absence at Jesus’ crucifixion . . . . When the hammer slammed the nails into His wrists, and His feet ~ where were they? When the cross was lifted into the sky, and dropped into a hole with a thud – racking every one of His bones, tearing apart His tendons, jarring Jesus’ every muscle – where were they? Where were they when Jesus writhed in pain? Where werethey when the spear pierced His side ~ where were they? Where were they when He cried out – in anguish, of body, and soul, and spirit? Where were these friends of His? Save John, almost all of them had deserted Him! They’d wanted to stay with Jesus, they’d wanted to remain loyal to the Master – that had been their pledge – that had even been their boast ~ but now cowardice overtook them!
When the soldiers came the disciples ran for all they were worth. Except Peter. You remember what Peter did: he, too, followed at a distance. Then someone in the crowd, a maid-servant noticed him: “Aren’t you . . . – you’ve got a Galilean accent! – aren’t you one of His followers?!” And Peter used language that he hadn’t used in years, he lied: “No! I don’t even know the man!” Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus. For three years these disciples had lived with Jesus. For three years they’d felt His love. They’d taken His teachings to heart. And then, in the hour of trial, they deserted Him. Yes, the disciples were there ~ in their cowardice.
And Judas. Judas was there. Judas, the “betrayer” (as the other disciples seem to highlight, deflecting their own complicity and unfaithfulness upon a weaker member of their group). Judas, it is true, was the disciple who had led the authorities to Jesus. All of the accounts of that night were written some time after his suicide, and you can’t help but wonder by their descriptions if the guilt the other deserters felt somehow found a scapegoat in Judas. “Satan entered into Judas,” that’s how they put it. Yes, what Judas did was wrong. But remember, Judas, too, had been chosen by Jesus – after a full night of prayer. Have you ever thought of Judas as an answer to prayer? Jesus had called Judas, had built a relationship with him, had given Judas all of His love, had held back none of His love, had welcomed Judas into the inner circle as one of His twelve disciples. Judas had a relationship with Jesus.
Judas, too, had high hopes for the Kingdom, great hopes for the Kingdom! In fact, it was maybe his downfall that he was overly zealous for the Kingdom of God ~ at least as he thought he understood it. Judas hoped that the “Kingdom” that Jesus had spoken about would bring about a political revolution, that Rome would be crushed, that the oppressed of his nation would be freed. “The time seemed right; how long would they have to wait, anyway?” The air was tense with expectancy. Rumors were circulating throughout Jerusalem . . . : “It was the right time for a revolution!” “If, if only ‘certain things’ were in place – then the events could bring it about! Maybe the events needed just, just a little bit of pushing.” “If only he could force things just a little. ‘If, if there could be, just, some kind of a confrontation’ – only just a minor confrontation – then surely the revolution would begin!” And so Judas decided to take matters into his own hands; he led the authorities to Jesus. “Surely this would precipitate the revolution.” But then, when he saw that Jesus didn’t take the sword into His own hands in defence, he suddenly knew what he’d done: he had betrayed The Innocent One. He thought – (he was wrong, but) – Judas thought he’d committed “the unforgivable sin.” He thought that he himself could destroy a relationship that Jesus Himself had initiated. He thought that he could never live with himself again. And so, he gave way to despair, and took his own life. Yes, Judas was there ~ as a betrayer.
That’s who was there. Those guilty of compromise. And cruelty. And self-righteousness. Who were there in their exposed guilt. And their befuddled weakness. In their cowardice. And in their betrayal. They were all there ~ in all of their . . . sin.
Yet there was another one there. One there precisely because of that sin. One who took all of that sin upon Himself.
The psychologist Henri Nouwen tells the story of a family he knew in Paraguay. The father, a doctor, spoke out against the abuses of the police state and their violation of human rights. And so the local police decided to punish the father by arresting his teenage son and torturing him to death. The townspeople were enraged, and wanted to turn the funeral into a great protest. But the father took another way. At the funeral, the father displayed his son’s body ~ just as he had found it in jail. Naked. Scared by beatings, electric shocks, cigarette burns. All the villagers filed past the corpse, which lay not in a coffin but on the blood-soaked mattress that the father had found him on in prison. It was the strongest protest imaginable for this grotesque injustice.
God the Father did something like that at the place of The Skull. God allowed the sins of humanity to have their full effects against His Son. And then He put the effects on public display, for all the world to see, for all history to see, for all humanity to witness. “Here,” God was saying: “this is what sin does! This is what compromise, and cruelty, and self-righteousness, and weakness, and cowardice, and betrayal do.”
And it’s for these very reasons that the Son of God came. To bear all this sin in His own body and Person on The Cross. To take it all upon Himself . . . .
It’s an ugly scene at the place of The Skull. It’s a terrible scene on The Cross, on the hill of Golgotha where Jesus died. They would tell you that. Pilate. And the soldiers. The religious leaders, the criminals, the women, the disciples, Judas – they’d all tell you that, any one of those who were there.
There was another one there. I was there. For I see something of my-self in every one of these people. At the arrest. And at the trial. And also at the crucifixion of Jesus.
“Were you there? Were you there with us? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” “Wait! Don’t run! Don’t run from the foot of The Cross. Stay put! Don’t wash your hands, like Pilate. Don’t make excuses, like the soldiers. Don’t deceive yourselves, like the religious leaders. Don’t just stand around in helplessness, like the women. Don’t flee in terror, like the disciples. Don’t give way to the giant of despair, like Judas did. Wait! Just ‘stay put’ for a minute! Don’t run from the foot of The Cross. Be quiet a moment; listen. Listen! He’s speaking. The bloody, beat-up One on The Cross. Listen carefully – He has only enough strength for a whisper . . . .”
“Father, forgive them. For they know not what they are doing. Father, Forgive. Forgive them all. Forgive all of them. ‘For-Give’.” And He did. He did just That. The Father heard the prayer of His Son . . . . Truly, God “was there!”