The Forgotten Who Stand at the Cross

Good Friday
April 14, 2017

Tonight’s gospel reading is the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (ch. 18-19).

Because this story of Jesus’ passion takes place in some ways at the centers of power – at least the local and regional centers of power – it’s easy to sweep right over the surprising number lesser characters in the narrative, many of whom remain unnamed: some untold number of soldiers and temple guards, at least two slaves of the high priest – one named Malchus, the woman who guarded the gate and those warming themselves by the fire, the nameless, faceless crowd of locals, Barrabbas the bandit, two unnamed and in John’s gospel voiceless criminals crucified by Jesus, nameless people who see the sign above Jesus on the cross as they pass by going from here to there, a few of the women and men who have been disciples of Jesus who stand together witnessing the crucifixion to the bitter end.

Why does it matter that Jesus’ story of suffering and death includes these mostly unnamed and powerless people? It matters because the cross of Jesus will not allow us to forget the powerless ones, the ones whose lives and livelihoods have been stripped away, whose grief and pain is more than human beings should endure. The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ does not let us forget the millions who died in the Holocaust, justified by anti-Semitism based often on the passage we’ve just read. The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ does not let us forget the millions of refugees who long for safety and welcome or immigrants who work in unsafe conditions for unfair wages. The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ does not allow us to forget the 9 people condemned to die at the hands of the state next week in our own country. The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ does not allow us to forget the people who work three jobs and still cannot pay rent and buy food and pay for healthcare for themselves and their children. The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ will not let us forget the soldiers who fight at much risk to themselves and their families for low wages, many of whom do so because it is the only path toward employment and education. The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ will not let us forget the grieving parents and grieving spouses and grieving friends whose lives are searching for peace again. The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ will not allow us to forget that we, who so often feel nameless and powerless in the face of injustices great and small are both innocent bystanders and complicit participants in the injustices that take place around us.

Like the suffering servant of our Isaiah reading, Jesus bears the pain of violence, oppression, and loss shared across our human communities. This story of salvation of the world weaves in the lost, the lonely, the grieving, those who have no hope, those who do not hold power in the world, and those who misuse even the little power they possess against their own self-interest. Like the rest of the story of Jesus, the passion is not about being the kind of king the world is seeking or about using the kind of power the world rewards. It is about an inclusive vision of love that triumphs over hate, and life that triumphs over death – a vision that those who hold positions of earthly power in the story fail to comprehend.

So we stand tonight as witnesses to this magnificent and heart-breaking story. And it brings us to our knees at the foot of the cross both in contrition and in awe. And there at the foot of the cross we pray an ancient prayer we call the bidding prayer. A prayer that seeks, always imperfectly, to include the broadest possible list of people and needs, so that here tonight, all those in power and all those whose names will be forgotten to history are gathered together at this cross, just as they were at the cross of Jesus.

And it is here at this cross with all the world that we recognize the victory already won. Won before the resurrection is discovered, before the joyful Easter shouts, the victory already won as Jesus breathes his last. A victory won by the God who rejects traditional forms of power found in money, violence, and greed, even if it means death on a cross. A victory won for the nameless and voiceless, and also for the people in power who silence and put to death, and also for us, who long for the coming reign of God for all creation.

-Pastor Steven Wilco