Why Golgotha Matters (What It Means to be Christian, Part 5) Rev Dr Durrell Watkins Once upon a time there was a man whose name was probably something like Yeshua, whom today we know as Jesus. Well, this man we know as Jesus was a healer, a prophet, a wisdom teacher, an unschooled philosopher, a […]
Why Golgotha Matters
(What It Means to be Christian, Part 5)
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Once upon a time there was a man whose name was probably something like Yeshua, whom today we know as Jesus.
Well, this man we know as Jesus was a healer, a prophet, a wisdom teacher, an unschooled philosopher, a prophet, a reformer, a peaceful revolutionary, an itinerant preacher, and supposedly a carpenter (but I don’t recall him actually ever building or repairing anything), and he helped his commercial fisher buddies with their fishing (which was only fair since they helped him with his activism, healing, and teaching).
This gifted Jesus…healer, justice seeker, teacher, worker, artisan, peasant from an occupied territory, charismatic leader…this Jesus developed a reputation and did so quickly. John’s gospel would have us assume that Jesus’ ministry lasted about three years…not very long. But Mark, Matthew and Luke show Jesus’ ministry only being about one year. Jesus’ rocked his part of the world in three or less, probably closer to one. That doesn’t prove any claims made about him, but it shows why incredible claims were made about him.
Jesus touched and changed lives. He gave oppressed people their dignity back. He showed people that even when they were occupied by military forces, they could experience an inward freedom. He demonstrated that even when the world seems upside-down, we are always free to dream of it getting better, and we can work to make our dreams come true. Jesus gave hopeless people hope, and powerless people a sense of empowerment, and they flocked to him because of that, and so he became someone with both a compelling message and a following. That made him dangerous to the status quo.
One day Jesus and his friends went to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage for Passover. He had become a bit of a celebrity in the backwater, but now he was bringing his message to the big city. And some people who had met his followers and heard about this remarkable man were excited to see and hear him in person. When he got to Jerusalem, a small crowd was waiting for him. He did not disappoint them.
While the army and nobility were having a grand parade at the main entrance of the city, Jesus comes along on a donkey through a back gate into the city. No Roman soldiers, no chariots, no politicians, just Jesus and his traveling companions and a donkey and a small crowd of admirers. People started treating him like an official dignitary. They were throwing their cloaks on the road and palm leaves, to carpet his way. They shouted Hosanna, which means “save us.” They were breaking out into improvisational street theatre, acting as if Jesus were a conquering hero who had come to save them from Roman occupation!
They were pretending that Jesus posed a military threat to Rome, and they were treating Jesus as if he might be someone with real political power. They were thumbing their noses at Rome, and please know someone noticed and someone got word to the authorities and this act of artistic sedition would not be ignored. Strike 1.
Within a day or less of Jesus’ impromptu street theatre performance, his unauthorized, satirical parade, he went to the Temple. That’s were one goes on a pilgrimage. But he didn’t just go there to admire its beauty or say some prayers or have a couple of doves sacrificed. He went there to see how the Flagship institution of his own religion had sold out to Roman imperialism. The Temple was allowed to exist because it didn’t oppose Rome in any way. Its priesthood was Roman approved. Its commercial endeavors contributed to the Roman economy. Graven images were not allowed in the Temple, so people had to exchange their Roman coins with Caesar’s image on them for coins that had no image so they then could buy animals to sacrifice and make offerings in the Temple; but the Roman approved money-changers were charging for this service. So, they were exploiting the Jewish prohibition against graven images by charging people to exchange their money. It amounted to charging a tax for the privilege of worshiping.
And Jesus had a fit and fell in it. The accounts of how disruptive he was, are probably overstated, but the fact is he publicly challenged a Roman approved system. The Temple is there by Roman consent, and participates in the Roman power system and economy. Jesus doesn’t like it.
He doesn’t get angry about a fundraiser for the Temple. He doesn’t get angry about the sacrificial meat which actually feeds the priests….of course they should be fed or otherwise paid. He doesn’t get upset about tithing; he expects people to be generous and to worship with their resources as well as with their prayers and presence. But when the Temple is complicit in governmental exploitation of people, Jesus hits the roof and calls it out. Strike 2.
He’s participated in agit-prop theatre where he is treated like a conquering hero; and then less than 24 hours later he is challenging something that is part of the Roman governmental and economic system. And he does it boldly, with witnesses.
Strike 3 is his on-going message. Long before he came to Jerusalem he was preaching about the reign of God, God’s counter-kingdom, or non-empire. The Roman empire has slaves, and conquers and occupies countries, and basically taxes people for their religious devotion. Jesus has been dreaming about and speaking about a different way the world could be.
Jesus touches the untouchables and affirms the least and the lowly, he confronts long held prejudices and he offers fresh, empowering interpretations of ancient scriptures, and he goes even further by suggesting this model of liberation and compassion and justice is what God would have our world look like! The Roman Empire is in opposition to the kin-dom of God, the counter-kingdom, the anti-empire where the last are first and the first are last and everyone deserves dignity and love, and peace rather than power is what is pursued.
Jesus preaches a counter-cultural message, and has brought that mess to the big city, and has roused the rabble with public demonstrations and street performances. That’s revolutionary. That’s subversive. And that will get a person killed in ancient Rome.
An informant, one of Jesus’ own friends, turns Jesus in. Why is that important? Well, if a popular, charismatic figure is taken in broad daylight in front of his supporters, there might be a revolt. Of course Rome could squash it, but why bother when it could be done more easily? So, they pay an informant to let them know when Jesus will be in a secluded place. And Jesus is apprehended in a garden at night, he is arrested, and tried, and convicted, and executed.
That’s why Jesus was killed. That’s why he wound up at Golgotha, being executed the way that runaway slaves and revolutionaries were executed. If he had simply broken religious laws, the religious community could have had him stoned. If he had committed less serious infractions against Rome, he could have been beaten, or enslaved, or fed to the lions, or fined, or run out of town, or jailed. But insurrection, even a hint at insurrection, even pretending that insurrection might be on your mind…that gets a special form of capital punishment in ancient Rome…the brutal, horrific, inhuman torture called crucifixion.
You see, Jesus didn’t die to satisfy God’s wrath. What sort of God would that be?
Jesus didn’t die because we are so unholy that a price had to be paid, and the only price suitable was the life of a really good person.
Of course an infinite God could find a less violent way to be in relationship with humanity.
And since God is omnipresent, we could never be separate from God anyway.
And since God is love, God would never condemn us forever for any reason.
No, Jesus wasn’t a kamikaze savior on a suicide mission; he wasn’t the sacrifice to an angry and vengeful god.
Jesus was an ambassador of the kin-dom of God, a realm where violence is abhorred, where compassion is the supreme law, where justice and generosity are most highly prized, where every person is a citizen and every citizen has every right that every other citizen has. And that idea offends the keepers of power, and to silence Jesus’ message, they brutally slaughtered the messenger.
But true hope cannot be crushed, truth cannot be killed, love cannot stay dead, and those who were touched by the life and ministry of Jesus affirmed that he continued to touch, inspire, and bless them beyond Golgotha. The miracle of Christianity isn’t that Golgotha happened, but that it failed. Resurrection is the story of Golgotha’s failure.
Jesus didn’t want to die; he didn’t need to be killed. But he was determined to live in such a way that his life would make other lives better, and he wouldn’t back down from that even if it meant losing his life. Oh, his was a noble and loving sacrifice, but it was a sacrifice to cripple Empire without a single weapon other than integrity. It was a sacrifice that proved a life well lived cannot be destroyed, and a life that enriches other lives can help bring about the kin-dom of God.
The hero who sacrifices himself so that others can live more freely is a story that finds its way into every wisdom tradition, every culture, and every religion, but Jesus is the hero of our story. It would be about a thousand years after Jesus’ execution before the idea that Jesus has to die in order to appease God’s wrath or to satisfy God’s sense of unyielding righteousness became a popular idea in Western Christianity. But for the first centuries of Christian history, Jesus’ death was a story of courage, a story of resistance, a story of a fight for justice, a story reminding us that we are God-filled beings, and a God-filled life cannot be destroyed, a story that God would have us live with justice and hope and peace and goodwill, and we are the ones to make God’s will be done on earth as it is in God’s Mind, heaven.
Golgotha matters, not because we are worms that needed to be saved from our own wretchedness; but because we are children of God and even against overwhelming odds, we can make a difference. That is what Jesus’ life, and death, and victory of over death means for us.
Following Jesus’ example, we can live so fully that even the threat of death is powerless against us, because a life lived with compassion, courage, and generosity does good beyond its years and such a life blesses all who remember it; and this is the good news! Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2015
I am forever in God.
I cannot be separated from God’s love.
Through me, God is blessing the world.