The old African American spiritual, “Were You There,” has a powerful message for us as we reflect on Jesus’ crucifixion. The first verse of the spiritual goes, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord” (Lutheran Book of Worship #92). The answer to the spiritual’s question is, “Yes,” we were there.
It is easy for us to read the gospel accounts and harshly judge the actions of the religious rulers. “We would never do that,” we say to ourselves. Wouldn’t we? We who choose physical force rather than the power of love are responsible for Jesus being nailed to the cross? We who declare our independence and turn our back on God are the reason for the lashes Jesus endured and the cross Jesus carried. We who selfishly use our blessings rather than share them are part of the crowd who watched Jesus suffer on the cross.
The cross of Jesus does not condemn us or judge us. Instead it is an invitation for us to live in a relationship with God and to exercise the power of love in our lives. Standing at the foot of the cross, we also hear Jesus’ daunting call, “If anyone would be my follower, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”