We gather today as followers of Jesus Christ to stand, as it were, at the foot of his cross, remembering how he suffered agony and bloody sweat so that all might be forgiven and reconciled to God by his sacrificial death. Crucifixion was a tortuous means of execution and sometimes it took days before death stopped the suffering. With others it was a matter of several hours. Mercifully, the duration of our Lord's crucifixion was one of hours and not of days.
Crowds of spectators gathered at the scene and we can almost hear the mocking, jeering crowd hurl insults at the dying man. But there were others, too: Jesus' mother, some friends, and a lone disciple. The others had scattered in fear. These few stood by in sorrow to offer what comfort they could as the crucified's life ebbed away.
Just below him were the centurion and the soldiers who had nailed him to the cross now standing watch to guard their victim. Many of the soldiers would have been young men, some just beyond adolescence, who had become accustomed to executing hardened criminals. Jesus must have seemed to them a harmless lunatic claiming to be some sort of king. So, filling up the time they had to wait to do their duty, they had placed a purple cloth about him and set a crown of thorns upon his head. Then, encircling him, they had bowed in mockery and shouted loudly, "Hail, king." Then, they crucified him.
Those were the executioners, but they cannot be held totally responsible for they were professional soldiers carrying out their orders. Yes, they had displayed cruel roughness in their mockery, but a few hours afterward they expressed a certain kindness as they tried to ease his pain by offering him some sour wine.
Then there was Pilate who had pronounced the death sentence on Jesus. Certainly he had responsibility for the crucifixion. Still, what else was he to do? It was his job to keep the peace without interfering in the internal affairs of the Jewish leaders. This man claimed in some sense to be their king. Upon interrogation he did not deny it. Pilate perceived Jesus to be well meaning and decent. But the Jews would not withdraw their misguided accusations. When Pilate tried to intercede, they warned him he was treading on thin ice. "If you let this man go, you are not Caesar's friend," they warned.
A discreet man does not let his personal likes and dislikes interfere with his principal mission or detail his career. Therefore, having gone as far as he reasonably could, Pilate washed his hands of the entire affair and ordered the crucifixion to proceed. What other decision was he to make?
Then there were the members of the authoritative Sanhedrin who had incited the crowds of people to join them in insisting that Pilate pronounce the death sentence. Certainly they bore responsibility for the crucifixion. Recall, however, they were acting from strong conviction, seeking to protect their holy religion and their culture from all threats.
Jesus openly had threatened the supremacy of the temple and even talked of its destruction. He had alienated the pharisees, characterizing them as hypocrites. He had undercut their strict legalism by teaching and demonstrating that adherence to the Law was not enough. So, they saw him as one who threatened to undo all the centuries of teaching people to keep the Law.
Going even further, he claimed he was the Messiah. Just what were the leaders of Judaism to do in the face of what they understood as a clear and present danger, indeed a blasphemous threat to the integrity of their religion? Was it not their responsibility to insure that their religion, nurtured generation after generation by faithful forebearers, would remain pure and undefiled on their watch, as well? So they sought to get rid of him by crucifixion.
Finally, there was Judas. Perhaps he was the one man who was completely wicked. But I find it difficult to make that assertion with any kind of certainty. It is his suicide which is confusing. That hardly is the act of a person who gets what he wants. Rather, suicide is an act of desperation and despair. It is an angry action by an individual whose universe comes crumbling down in pieces all around him, so much so that he is overwhelmed by hopelessness, guilt and depression. So he strikes inward to self-destruct.
Some have reasoned that Judas was an ambitious zealot, determined to end all uncertainty about the Messiah and the Kingdom. By selling Jesus out, he may have hoped to force God's hand to rise up and triumph over all evil with irresistible force. But not so! The one who betrayed Jesus soon saw that his betrayal had condemned Jesus to death. There must have seemed nothing else to do than to take from his purse the dirty silver coins, which he had received as his reward for betraying Jesus, and throw them back into the faces of the authorities and then go out and hang himself. A defeated, desolate man took his own life in bitter anguish.
All of that is in the end, though, no more than conjecture. If we insist we shall leave one scapegoat, namely Judas. But the others -- the soldiers, the pharisees and temple priests, the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate -- have we not been at table with the likes of them and shared our bread and wine together? Have we not condoned difficult, destructive choices made by people who hold positions of leadership and power and who face complex problems of government and of church?
It is not quite accurate to say that wicked people crucified Jesus. Those who caused the crucifixion were community and church leaders, persons of good reputation, acting from motives to preserve the peace and protect the sacred in their society and in their religious life. The responsibility for Jesus' crucifixion lies precisely there.
Because we share much in common with those people it is we, as well as they, whom Christ sees as he looks down in agony from his cross. We, too, bear some responsibility. It is futile to blame any one person or group of people. For the fault is everywhere and it is no farther away than our own hearts and wills. Sinfulness is universal and, like a deadly disease, infects us every one. So, with St. Paul, we must confess that the good we would, we do not; and that which we would avoid is the very thing we do. O, sinful one that I am!
Dear Christian friends, we watch now with Christ. Let us do so with contrite and humble hearts, praying for our own forgiveness and for the forgiveness of the entire world. Let us pray with the understanding that Jesus Christ, knowing all there is to know about each and everyone, submitted to death on a cross that we might be forgiven and restored to unity with God and each other through the merits of his self-offering sacrifice. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Accept his forgiveness. Receive and share his peace. Amen.