Jesus was killed for treason, a treason that changed the world and can transform our lives. His journey toward and into death on Good Friday was the onset of a revolution that I think is beautifully summed up by U2’s song, “Love is Bigger than Anything in Its Way”. To be more specific, Jesus was tortured and hung to die because He began a nonviolent, enemy loving revolt that’s still in progress and always looking for new recruits.
Today many people around the world celebrate Jesus’ dying for us. The question is: Why? Why was a nearly universally esteemed and respected man, whom many believe is God in the flesh, brutally killed by being nailed to a cross (a slow, public, humiliating, and excruciating death)? While usually we (or at least us Christians 🙂 answer this from a religious perspective (i.e. He died for our sins), I think it’d be SUPER helpful to ALSO look at it from a historical angle.
Executing people via crucifixion was a tool used by the Roman Empire to maintain control of regions and keep people “loyal” to the Caesar (aka the Emperor). To make a long story short, you essentially had to be treasonous, i.e. AGAINST the empire, to be crucified … at least in their eyes. For a few years Jesus had been gathering a group of followers who were won over by His message that heaven was at hand and in our midst, meaning that the Reign of God was breaking into the world here and now, which led to healing, care, inclusion, forgiveness, and love for all sorts of people … ESPECIALLY those marginalized and on the borders of society (think prostitutes, homeless, disabled, foreigners, and the like).
Now, at this point it’s important to note this was a Jewish movement (Jesus was a Jew after all), and Israel, the home of the Jews, was occupied by and part of the Roman Empire. I point this out because in the Jewish tradition they believed one day God was going to send a Messiah (an Anointed One), who would once again lead them out of slavery and oppression, just as Moses had led them out of Egypt over a thousand years before. Jesus’ people began believing He was the Messiah, which meant they thought He was king and was going to free them from their Roman oppression.
In those days the Roman Emperor ran a tight ship. After all, he was the son of god, king of kings, and prince of “peace”. Since the empire spanned much of Europe, all the Mediterranean, and went into Africa and the Middle East, in some provinces the Caesar would appoint loyal and malleable kings and/or lords to run the area for him. The thing was, Jesus was NOT appointed by the emperor, so when His people began proclaiming Him Lord, King, Son of God, King of kings, and Prince of Peace, it was treason, as for the Romans there were NO rulers apart from the emperor.
The Sunday before Good Friday is called Palm Sunday, and on that day Jesus purposefully and humbly made a royal procession into Jerusalem, wherein a large amount of people cheered Him on and celebrated His entry as the coming of their king. While MUCH more could be said, I’ll cut to the point: The Romans killed Jesus because they viewed Him as a threat to the empire and this could NOT be tolerated. They were both very wrong and very right.
I say they were very right because it was a worship question. “Worship” simply means what/who do our words and deeds give worth to. While the Roman Emperor allowed other deities to be worshipped and other kings to rule, NO ONE was allowed to be equal to or above him. Jesus and His followers, however, made it clear that nobody merited more love and loyalty than God, of whom Jesus was at least the uniquely chosen spokesperson of and at most God in the flesh (remember the titles they gave Jesus were the SAME as those for the emperor). In short, Jesus was crucified for being worshipped above the Caesar.
Conversely, and this is key to Jesus’ Revolution, I say the Romans were very wrong because the Way of Jesus is NONVIOLENT … PERIOD … end of story. Jesus’ summary of the point of life, the purpose of law, and the helpfulness of religion is Love; love God and others, as you love yourself. A “sub-bullet” of this that’s hard to do, but changes EVERYTHING is His call to love, serve, give to, pray for, and care for our enemies. Caesar and the Romans didn’t have to worry about Jesus violently overthrowing them because that NEVER was His way, it’s always been to win the people most mean and hateful to us via our care, encouragement, kindness, hospitality, and so on.
The thing is, this radical love is NOT easy. Bring to mind the person who’s wronged you the most. Think of a person you REALLY don’t like. How much do you feel like loving her/him? Not much right? It occurs to me the revolutionary, enemy-embracing love of Jesus might only come from a Divine source. I don’t know about you but it’s super easy for me to want vengeance and suffering to come upon a person who hurt my wife, daughter, sister, brother-in-law, dad, mom, etc. YET, I’ve also experienced a deeper, broader, richer, expansive, and unending Love that is in me and around me, but not OF me, which I think is the Spirit of Christ that enlivens us and binds us together.
I’ll end with two quick stories from Jesus’ death that get at His revolutionary and AMAZING Way. When Jesus was on trial, the Roman governor Pilate gives the people a choice. Since they were celebrating the Passover (a Jewish holiday), he said he’d set one of his prisoners free as a gift of sorts. “Do you want Jesus who you named ‘king’ to go free or Jesus Barabbas?” Jesus Barabbas was a violent revolutionary zealot of a man. So, effectively Pilate asked the people: Do you want to follow the nonviolent, love everyone to pieces including your enemies Jesus or the divide, conquer, build walls, and build a massive military Jesus? I think this question is also being asked of us.
After the crowd picked Jesus Barabbas, our sweet Jesus hung suffering and dying on a cross. Christians, like me, believe Jesus was the full revelation of God and what happened on the cross was the pinnacle of that revelation. A life Truth is what/who we worship we become and/or are formed by, so I leave us with this: While Jesus’ life faded away and His enemies laughed and played games, He proclaimed forgiveness for them, because as U2 sings “Love is Bigger than Anything in Its Way.” After he died one of these enemies, one of the witnesses of Jesus’ crucifixion was won by this love and proclaimed: “Surely this was the Son of God.” Will we join Jesus revolution?
Grace and peace,