If the story causes you to tremble, you are in good company. Sometimes it causes me to tremble too. We have heard once again the story of Jesus’s death on the cross, and we tremble from fear, we tremble from frailty, we tremble from regret, we tremble from grief.At the end of this hour, we will tremble again, a chill seeping into our bones when we hear the lyrics to that old slave spiritual which asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord”
To us, it may seem a peculiar question to ask. No, of course we weren’t there physically. We are not time travelers. We are not Roman soldiers or Jewish pilgrims reincarnated. To our comfortable 21st century ears, the question sounds rhetorical. It invites symbolism, metaphor. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? If we answer it affirmatively, we mean to be understood figuratively:
Yes, we “were there” in the sense that we relive the painful story through the retelling of the Passion narrative on this day.
But to the victims of slavery in the American South, the answer was obvious.
Of course they were there, and not just figuratively. The slaves who composed and sang, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord” knew something of the sufferings of Christ. Their own abuse at the hands of slave traders and plantation masters made them direct witnesses to the abuse of Jesus at the hands of both the religious authorities and the Romans. They were there, and they trembled.
There have been others throughout history who have suffered so much pain and evil that the crucifixion was not just some event that happened long ago, but rather something experienced in the here and now. And indeed, there may be some
in this room who can attest to this. On this day, to uphold and honor those in every time and place who have seen firsthand what happens love and innocence are crucified, I invite you to enter into the narrative with as much realism as possible. Close your eyes and consider your role. Ponder the sights, the sounds,
the smells of those moments, as we contemplate again our own answer to the question: “Were you there?”
Are you Judas? Have you ever betrayed someone you loved and who loved you? Have you ever felt the awareness of your betrayal sink down into the pit of your stomach and stay there? Were you there? And did you tremble with remorse
at the realization that your actions were evil and irreversible?
Are you Simon Peter? Have you heard the commandment to wash feet, but has it sometimes taken a while to sink in? In tense moments, have you lashed out,
drawing your sword on the wrong person because you can’t control the course of events? Have you ever downplayed or denied the fact that you are a disciple of Jesus? When the stakes are high, have you tried to blend in rather than claim your identity? Were you there? And did you tremble with tears of regret
as you heard the sound of your own voice, claiming not to be who you are,
claiming not to follow the one who has called you?
Are you Caiaphas or another one of the Temple authorities? (An important note: the “temple authorities” are the ones John was talking about when we hear all those references to “the Jews”) Have you used your religion as a weapon? Have you resisted much-needed change because it would be different and scary? Have you rejected your allegiance to God in favor of a national allegiance, claiming to “…have no king but the emperor”? Have you privileged being safe over being faithful? Did you mask your cowardice with swagger? Were you there? And did you tremble with fear because standing up for love would mean standing up to brutal power?
Are you Pontius Pilate or one of the Roman soldiers? Have you wielded power
in ways that oppress others? Have you claimed purity and blamelessness when you don’t deserve them? Have you used violence? Were you there? And did you tremble
with a perverse sense of pleasure at your own skills of manipulation?
Are you Barabbas? Did Jesus’s death save your life? Did you feel both guilt and relief that it was him on that cross and not you? Were you there? And did you tremble with overwhelming gratitude for his sacrifice?
Are you the one who was crucified on Jesus’s right or on his left? Have you known intense physical and emotional pain? and through it all, was Jesus beside you, suffering with you? Were you there? And did you tremble with frailty?
Are you Jesus’s mother, or one of the other women present, or are you Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus? Have you at times been powerless to stop awful things from happening to your nearest and dearest? In times of trial, have you found
reserves of strength you didn’t know you had? In the face of gutwrenching anguish, did you do what needed to be done? Were you there? And did you tremble with profound grief?
Allowing ourselves to enter into this story with a sense of realism can be very powerful. We can see ourselves in many, if not all, of the principal players who witness Jesus’s experience of the cross. Certainly, our journey into the story today is still largely symbolic, and is not anywhere close to the experience of crucifixion felt by the slaves who composed the haunting refrain of “Were you there when they crucified my Lord”
But even so, we might still answer in the affirmative: Yes, I was there. And yes, I trembled, for I have known remorse and regret and fear and pleasure and gratitude and frailty and grief. Up to this point, I have left out one character
in our exercise of entering into the story. Just after the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’s clothing, we hear these verses:
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’
Through the millennia, there has been much speculation about the identity of this unnamed disciple who Jesus loved. Some claim it was the John, the very author of today’s gospel narrative, referring to himself. Others have claimed it was Mary Magdalene, or Lazarus, or the James, the patron saint of our ongregation.
I do not know for sure. But since our exercise today is to enter as fully as we are able into the experience of the crucifixion, I am going to make a bold claim. I ask you to picture yourself as one final character. You are the disciple whom Jesus loved. You were there. And you trembled from astonishment
at what Jesus was willing to do to say “I love you.”