For the Sake of Joy
By The Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Friday, April 2, 2021
Reading: Hebrews 12:1-3
A very blessed Good Friday to you all. I hope that today you will be able to take some time on your own – either at home, or here in the sanctuary this afternoon – to slowly and meditatively read through one of the scripture narratives about the crucifixion of Jesus: possibly Matthew 27, or John 19. Let us pray.
Now, you may be wondering why I didn’t choose one of those narratives from John or Matthew that I mentioned for a Good Friday reflection instead of the brief passage from the book of Hebrews that Andrew read a few moments ago, and it’s because I didn’t want to focus this time so much on what happened – I suspect many of you are already familiar with the events (and if you’re not then I do strongly encourage you to read those passages I mentioned).
It was important to me today to focus on why it happened, which is a complicated subject; it’s something we never really stop reflecting on and learning about as we grow in our Christian faith. In fact, any reflection on why Jesus was crucified is bound to be imperfect and incomplete, and so what I offer you here today is hopefully just a “nudge” for you to spend more time studying and reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion, and why he endured the things he did 2000 years ago, and why it’s still important for us today.
There were only three verses in today’s scripture passage, and in two of them the writer of Hebrews emphasizes that Jesus suffered: that he “endured the cross” and that he “endured hostility.” We know what kind of hostility he endured: the cross, of course was an execution device used in the Roman Empire that was unlike any other. There was not a shred of humaneness to it; it was pure violence and was designed to inflict the most suffering possible: pain; humiliation; extreme exposure to the hot middle eastern sun; suffocation in the dry air; a slow, agonizing death. Those who ordered it were far away, in comfortable positions of privilege; those whose job it was to carry out the orders lost their minds because you’d have to set aside any sense of humanity to inflict those kinds of things on another living being.
The writer of Hebrews tells us he endured the cross, and while the physical agony seems like it would be significant enough to stop there, the writer feels it’s just as important to tell us that Jesus disregarded and endured the shame of the cross. That’s because the cross was the form of execution reserved for the lowest of the low in the Roman Empire, for common criminals who were treated worse than animals; as they died, they would be ridiculed and derided by the executioners and by people who walked by; they were stripped naked, their misery on full display, every shred of human dignity stripped away.
The shame of being executed in this way would extend to the whole family as well. This concept of honour and shame is not strong in modern western culture, where we’re more individualistic and place more emphasis on personal accomplishment and failure; but in other cultures around the world, and certainly in first century Jewish culture, family honour and shame carry a lot of weight. For that reason, the writer of Hebrews found it important to mention Jesus’ willingness to even endure even the shame and the knowledge that he was shaming his mother.
And once that point has been made, the writer reinforces in verse 3 that this hostility and shame was inflicted by the hand of sinners, which is the very height of injustice! What could be more unjust in the history of the world than the sinless son of God being executed as a common criminal at the hands of mere mortals, and not just mortals – the writer of Hebrews says – but sinners!
If ever there is a time in our lives when we truly appreciate the significance of the cross, it is when we are at our lowest – when we endure hostility, suffering, psychological pain such as shame and dishonour, and when we suffer injustice – because God himself came to earth in the person of Jesus and endured those things as well; then we know that he relates to our suffering. If ever there is a time in our lives when the significance of the cross comes home, it is when we are at our lowest – when we are the inflictors of hostility, shame and injustice on others; then we are the ones who nailed Jesus to the cross.
In fact, our lives are like a constant back and forth, it seems; a struggle between not wanting to suffer hostility and injustice, not even for the sake of our faith; and resisting – often in the name of our faith – our tendency to all to easily become the perpetrators of hostility and injustice if we feel sufficiently provoked. In the 17th century Thomas Hobbes referred to this natural state of humanity as being like a war where “every man is enemy to every man,” and the life of humankind is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
The writer of Hebrews compares this life-long struggle to something a little less dire: that is, to a race: In v.1 we read, “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” The analogy of running a race is one that I’m particularly fond of, as you can imagine! A race is not easy, and our lives as Christians seldom are completely easy either. A race is something that requires effort, intention, training, and perseverance; and living life as a follower of Jesus does as well.
Often, training for a race involves intentionally increasing our burden while running to make it more challenging – whether by carrying a heavy pack; by pushing ourselves to run at speeds that get our hearts pounding; or by running longer distances than the race we’re actually planning to run; or by running up and down hills instead of staying on a flat course. The idea is that if we intentionally take on the extra challenges then when we come to race day our bodies can withstand the burden, so we can persevere through the trial of the race and finish it well. As the writer of Hebrews says, when we then lay aside the burdens we are better prepared to persevere.
So the writer of Hebrews says to the church to lay aside their burdens and fix their eyes on Jesus, and in that way run with perseverance, and endure the struggles of their lives as Christians. Fixing our eyes on Jesus is the most important aspect of this. And the writer does not say to fix your eyes on Jesus: how he lived; but to fix your eyes on Jesus: how he endured the cross.
In our lives as Christians as we navigate the struggle between enduring hostility and lashing out in hostility, we can grow weary and lose heart. But the writer of Hebrews says, “Consider him who endured such hostility…so that you may not grow weary and lose heart.” It’s easier to navigate the struggles of life when we fix our eyes on Jesus.
When I ran a half-marathon race (21 kms) in Mt Tremblant in 2019, I faced plenty of struggles: this was the Laurentians, so there were some pretty steep hills to climb! About 18 kms in I faced what I knew would be my last big, long hill. My legs were exhausted and sore, and I just kept trying to put one foot in front of the other. Then right in front of me was a woman who was running just slightly slower than I was, and that presented me with a dilemma: do I push myself past my exhaustion and speed up to overtake her, which I didn’t feel I had the strength for; or do I give up and walk the hill? Well, I decided to do neither: I got behind her (not too close) and I matched my cadence to hers, and then I just followed her up the hill. And you know what? Having someone to follow up the hill made it easier to persevere.
Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus has the same effect: we don’t have to muster up the strength within ourselves to push through our struggles in life, which often feel overwhelming; but neither should we give up. We can persevere in the face of trials when we fix our eyes on him, and on the cross that he endured – the cross that he also overcame!
Gerard Sloyan, a Roman Catholic priest who died last year at the age of 100 put it this way: “The cruel and inhuman way that Jesus died has had a paradoxical twofold effect ever since. It has cause revulsion in some, making it in Paul’s words a stumbling block or scandal. It has been strangely consolatory for others. Both the wretched of the earth and the more comfortable in their time of extremity – war, famine, illness, separation, death (and dare I add, pandemic?) – have taken comfort from their faith that deity itself was acquainted with injustice, abandonment by friends, physical pain, and mental anguish. It is not likely that the Christian [masses] will soon desert a God who has experienced their pain.”[i]
When we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, what is the result? Well, as Sloyan says, we can take comfort in knowing that he understands; we also gain the courage of knowing that we don’t have to endure our challenges alone. But it’s more than that: it’s the hope of knowing that the cross did not end in death: when we keep our eyes fixed on Christ we can’t go long before we recall that in Him, the cross and its hostility, injustice and death were overcome by the resurrection.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that he endured the cross, the shame, the hostility, the injustice “for the sake of the joy that was set before him.” What was the joy that was set before him as he faced the cross? Did he know that he would be resurrected? Well, there have been great debates over the centuries, involving theologians much more qualified than me, about whether or not Jesus knew that the resurrection would happen. There are biblical hints to support both sides of the argument, and theologians have argued convincingly (in my view) for both sides.
But what Jesus did know was that by his sacrifice humanity would be made right with God. Just as with the Jewish sacrificial rituals, when an undeserving lamb or animal was sacrificed and the humans were absolved of their sins for a period of time, Jesus knew that his willing and undeserving sacrifice would put an end to this continual animal sacrifice, as humanity would once and for all be reconciled to God. He did it for us, not for himself!
That was the joy that was set before him: the knowledge that by his self-giving love we would be made free. As the writer of Hebrews says in verse 3, he endured such hostility “so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” It was for our sake that he endured the cross. It was to give us hope for a future that would not be defeated or defined by death.
United Church theologian Douglas John Hall writes that this theology of the cross is “first of all a statement about God, and what it says about God is not that God thinks humankind so wretched that it deserves death and hell, but that God thinks humankind and the whole creation…so precious in its intention and its potentiality, that its actualization, its fulfillment, its redemption is worth dying for.” [ii]
When I kept my eyes on the runner ahead of me, I was able to get up and over the hill, and once I did that I was able to complete the race – I knew the hard part was over and the finish line wasn’t much farther. When we endure challenges in life and in our faith, we can keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. We can follow him up the hill. Once we crest the hill of Good Friday, the joy of the resurrection is before our eyes.
Now, I want to add that there were other people who helped me to finish my half marathon well. When I approached the finish line, from about half a km away I could hear loud, boisterous music and cheering, and suddenly there were more and more people lined up along the side of the road – total strangers who were actually looking at me, cheering for me, encouraging me. It was like a party – hundreds of people celebrating; as I approached the finish line, I could see my husband Chris, and my friend Moira was calling out “Lori, way to go! Lori, you did it!” And then the announcer called my name over the loudspeaker, and for a minute I felt like a celebrity!
The encouragement of other people makes a big difference when you’re running a race. The writer of Hebrews says, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” I sure felt like there was a great cloud of witnesses cheering me on at the end of my 21kms.
In the church, we have a community of people who encourage us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as we run our race with perseverance. We have a great cloud of witnesses that extends throughout history – from Abraham, to Augustine, to Andrew Stirling…okay, maybe I’m stretching for the alliteration a little! But the point is that all believers throughout the world, from the earliest days right up to today, form a part of the community of sinners for whom Christ died, a part of the community of believers who have been reconciled to God through the cross of Jesus. We may struggle in our lives of faith – we struggle to be faithful to God; we struggle with our own inner temptations; and sometimes we fall. But we surround each other and hold each other up, as together, we keep our eyes fixed on the cross of Jesus Christ.
Let us run with perseverance the race that is before us. Let us not grow weary. Let us not lose hope. Amen.
[i] Douglas John Hall. The Cross in our Context, p. 71.
[ii] The Cross in our Context, p. 24.