24 hours that changed the world: torture
I love this church. We are finishing 9 years together and it has been a great 9 years. I have said, “If things keep going well and if the bishop were to allow it, I wouldn’t mind another 9 years.”
One of the reasons I like it here is you are basically good folks. Although there are occasionally disagreements, we can always work those out. You are really good people and I like to think that I am basically a good person too.
That is why it is so hard for us to imagine the events that we read about in today’s gospel lesson. None of us good folks would want to have anything to do with such an inhumane, ugly, cruel, atrocity as the torture of Jesus. It is hard for me to believe that any of you would participate in torturing a man to within an inch of his life. If you are like me you probably think, “There’s no way I would have been part that.”
You see, we are not talking about a spanking like one you might have received as a child. We are talking about intentionally and systematically shredding a human body.
Jesus Would have been stripped naked above the waist and handcuffed to a large post, stretched out so he could not move while he was scourged. There would have been two “lichters” trained in the science of doing as much damage as possible with the "flagrum." The flagrum was a short handled whip. At the business end of each piece of leather there was attached one or more razor sharp pieces of lead, glass, or pottery. A 3rd century Roman historian wrote that, "Christian martyrs in Smyrna were so torn by the scourges that their veins were laid bare, and the inner muscles, sinews, even entrails, were exposed." Although many people died from the scourging alone, if the prisoner was to be crucified, the lichters were instructed to stop while the prisoner still had the ability to suffer on the cross. Wasn’t that nice of them? Of course that was only the beginning. Then came the cohort of 600 soldiers mocking him, the purple robe, the fake scepter, the crown of thorns, the spitting and the contemptuous games. What kid of person does that?
Before we stand in self-righteous judgment of those who participated in the mocking, torture, and cruelty inflicted upon Jesus; however, let's look a little deeper inside ourselves.
In 1963 Stanley Milgram paid Yale University students $4 an hour to deliver electric shocks to other students who gave the wrong answers to questions. They were instructed to increase the voltage with each wrong answer. The lethal dose of electricity was clearly marked on the dial at 450 Volts. Unbeknownst to them, there was no electrical shock, but only an actor screaming in pain in the next room every time they turned the dial.
Before the experiment, researchers estimated that only 1% of the population would increase the voltage to what they thought were lethal doses.
If you were being paid to do it, would increase the voltage to lethal levels? We want to say no, but are we really any different from the of students who kept increasing the voltage in spite of the screams coming from the other room? Are we really that different from the 65% of students who were willing to increase the voltage past the lethal level, even when the screams of pain fell silent in the other room. 65%!
Do you really think we would do any better than 65%?
• Are we really that different from those students?
• Is the person sitting next to you in the pew really any different from or the dozen subway riders who watched silently as one man stabbed another 30-40 times, stomped on his head and kicked him to death on a busy Washington DC subway?
• Are you really that different from the seemingly fine upstanding German citizens who happened to have the job of running the furnaces at Dachau?
• Are we really that different from the Roman guards who taunted and tortured Jesus?
We are talking about the deepest darkest corners of our fallen human souls, whose existence we would rather deny. We are talking about sin. Although this seems extreme, we know that we are all capable of that.
In a way, it was not just Jesus who was on trial in these last 24 hours of his life. All of humanity was on trial.
If humanity was on trial, they failed miserably.
The evidence? …Betrayal, abandonment, cowardice, denial, lying, rioting, capitulating to crowd pressure, scourging, mocking, and ultimately killing the one and only almighty God of love and forgiveness who became incarnate and walked among us. Humanity failed miserably…We failed miserably. We were guilty of murdering God. Humanity’s desperate need for salvation was never clearer than it was that day.
The question is, where is God in all of this? Why did God apparently let sin win? Why did God let this happen? What was God doing here?
I assure you, God was there, and God knew exactly what he was doing.
God was doing the work of atonement.
Atonement… a big word that is not too hard to understand if we break it into three words, AT-ONE-MEANT. Sin is brokenness in our relationship with God . Atonement is the process of bringing us back to God, so we can be “at one” with God the way we were “meant” to be. In other words, atonement asks the question, “what difference Jesus’ death and resurrection make.”
Let me say right away, that in spite of what many people think, the Bible does not speak with one voice on this matter. Atonement is a divine mystery beyond our words and beyond human comprehension. There are, however, several ways that the Biblical authors tried to help us understand what happened on the cross that day.
To my thinking, no single explanation of atonement is adequate. So today I want to lift up two ways of thinking about the atoning suffering and death of Jesus Christ because I think together brings us closer to the truth than any single explanation can by itself.
The first is the classic doctrine of substitutionary atonement with which most of you are familiar. The substitutionary explanation of atonement says that Jesus suffered and died FOR my sins, or in my place. You see, Jesus’ suffering was punishment intended for criminals. It was intended to punish the guilty. Jesus was not guilty of anything.
We, on the other hand, are guilty… justice demands that we be punished. How can a just God NOT punish us for our sins?
I hope to offer you a mission weekend at the Miracles Can Happen Boys Ranch next fall. The ranch accepts boys who are in deep trouble, to live on the farm for up to two years at a time. One of the strict rules is that the punishment for swearing is ten pushups, and those pushups must be done before anyone eats supper. You might guess that some of the boys rack up quite a debt of pushups by suppertime. One time a particular young man was having a terrible time. Of course, as he struggled to complete his punishment, he would let loose with another cuss word and get ten more pushups added to his sentence. When the sentence got up to about 1000 pushups and the rest of the boys were getting hungry, one of the other boys asked the director if he could do some pushups to help his struggling friend. The director smiled and said of course. Soon all the boys were doing the pushups and the punishment was paid in full.
The innocent took the punishment for the guilty and made it possible for them to all sit down at super together. That is substitutionary atonement.
By substitution, the guilty boy’s punishment was satisfied by the innocent boys. That explains how a just God can forgive us for our sin without demanding punishment. It is called grace. Because God’s grace trumps sin, “Grace always wins.” God sees our guilt but grace declares us guilty but forgiven, “Grace always wins.”
I said a few minutes ago, that humanity was on trial that day, but in another sense, God was on trial too. What would God do when sinful humanity killed his son?
• Would God banish us like after the incident in the Garden of Eden?
• Would God destroy us with a great flood?
• Would God wrestle with us like Jacob?
• Would God lead us out of sin, like the Israelites were lead us out of Egypt?
• Would God exile us to a spiritual Babylon?
• Or would God finally destroy us for our sin in one final fiery cataclysm.
As it turns out, God did not do any of those things. The moral explanation of atonement says that instead of Jesus dying FOR my sins, Jesus died BECAUSE OF my sin. There is a very subtle difference between Jesus dying for our sins and dying because of our sin.
The moral explanation of atonement says that Jesus’ death does not change God, rather it changed us. It says that God’s plan was that no human being could look upon the terrible suffering of the innocent son of God and not be changed. No human being could look upon the beaten and bloody face of God in skin without understanding how much God loves us. It was an object lesson in love intended to transform the way we look at God once and for all.
In the suffering of Jesus, people pushed God to the extreme. They pushed God further and further to see if there was any end to God’s patience, God’s grace, and God’s love.
When we whipped him as much as we could, we pushed on to degrading him and dehumanizing him.
When we had degraded and dehumanized Jesus in every way possible, we pushed God again to the farthest extreme we could imagine,
We murdered him.
And even when we murdered God, The saving message of the resurrection is that not even death can separate us from God’s love. “Love NEVER fails.”
The moral explanation of atonement says that even when sin did its absolute worst… …even when humanity did its worst … even when we do our worst… God’s love NEVER fails. No matter how broken we are, we cannot break God’s love.
Now I think the deep mysterious truth of the atonement lies at the intersection of many of the theories of atonement. Somewhere at the intersection of “grace always wins” and “Love never fails” lies the truth and the power of what Christ’s suffering and death did for us and means to us. The sum of God’s grace that always wins and God’s love that never fails is life itself…, which is new life in Jesus Christ.
Today, I claim that grace and love anew for myself, and I invite you, whether it is the first time or the 101st time, to claim for yourself the reality of God’s grace that always wins, and God’s love that never fails in your own life.
While we sing of God’s amazing love, I invite to you either come to the altar rail, or stay right where you are, claim or reclaim the heights of God’s amazing grace and the depths of God’s amazing love that you might experience, for yourself, the reality of new life in Christ.