From Decimation to Celebration by way of Crucifixion
This Good Friday we focus on Jesus' second word from the cross: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise." These words were spoken to a thief and have been spoken to virtually every dying person visited by a faithful Christian pastor. Don't wait till your deathbed to hear them, but how do you hear them amid the world's din and life's roar? You trod the path the thief traveled - from decimation to celebration by way of crucifixion.
To us decimation means that something is utterly destroyed. When we see tornado ravaged towns or hurricane ruined cites, we describe the area as decimated. However decimation really means 1 in 10. Ten percent destroyed not total destruction. How did a word that originates in a Roman practice of killing every 10th person come to mean utter destruction? This eluded me till I read about Spartacus, the gladiator who led a revolt against Roman rule.
He amassed a 100,000 man fighting force that sent Roman legions running. The troops of the last Roman general to be assigned to hunt him down did the same thing. So he ordered decimation for the units that ran. Every tenth man selected by lot would be clubbed to death by the other 9. 750 men of the 7,500 cowards were beaten to death. That means over 6,000 survived. How then did decimate come to mean obliterate? Because the practice indelibly marked, scarred, ruined with guilt the 9 wielding the clubs. They all knew they were just as guilty as the man they were beating to death. They all deserved to be in his place, but they were the ones causing his death.
Jesus hangs on the cross the only Human Being who did not run when all others did. Though tempted in all the ways you are day in and day out, He didn't sin. In the face of Sin, Death, and the Devil, Jesus stood firm, not using the divine power He has as God but with nothing more than any of us have. He resisted the temptation to give into sin, to run like a coward from Death, to use the excuse the Devil made Him do it.
The innocent sometime suffered in Roman decimation too. Centurions rarely ran; they didn't desert even when their soldiers did. Yet they were numbered with their soldiers for decimation. Imagine if your centurion stood firm while you ran and yet he was chosen for decimation. There he was kneeling surrounded by you and 8 other cowards. You would be ordered to strike him in the head until he was dead. The one brave man among you was beaten to death by all you cowards.
Our thief on the cross knew this is how it was in the case of Jesus. He knows he himself is guilty. He tells the other thief, "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." "Wrong" is too strong a word. He literally says, "This man has done nothing out of place." Not only wasn't Jesus guilty of doing evil or even doing wrong, He never did anything untoward. The thief knew two things: he deserved crucifixion and Jesus didn't at all.
I know neither. I think I am wronged when I have to sit too long at a traffic light. When a clerk is rude or isn't nice enough, why that's a terrible wrong done to me. If a company sends the wrong item, then Katy bar the door, I am suffering unjustly. The truth is my sinful thoughts of just today deserve not only long traffic lights but for the traffic light to fall on me and paralyze me. My unbelieving words deserve not just rude words but physical violence. And my sinful needs deserve nothing short of crucifixion. I'm the one who deserves decimation not Jesus. I should've been selected not Jesus. The thief said that, do you?
We're really not going to be able to hear Jesus' words to the dying thief "Today you will be with Me in paradise" - till we get to where he does and crucifixion is the gateway. The Romans feared crucifixion. It was against Roman law to crucify a citizen. It was Roman mercy to break the legs of the crucified so they could die quickly. What killed you were not the nail holes or bleeding. If fact, when they crucified 6,600 followers of Spartacus they tied them to the cross as was the usual practice. What killed you was asphyxiation, but that took 3 - 5 days. The weight of the body outstretched on the cross fixed the man's muscles in an inhaling position. In order to exhale, he would have to painfully pull himself up, and as soon as his strength gave way he would sink back down inhaling again. As much as he wanted to die quickly, the involuntary reflexes of inhaling and exhaling made him keep on living in this dying.
Crucifixion is just not ghastly enough to us. It's not to us what is was to the thief: abominable torture. The Roman orator Cicero said, "Let the very mention of the cross be far removed not only from a Roman citizen's body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears" (Pro Rabirio 5). Even among Christians it was vilified. Third century church father Origen refers to "'the utterly vile death of the cross'" (Bruce, Hebrews, 388). It wasn't till about 100 years after the first Christian emperor outlawed crucifixion that an image of the crucified Jesus appeared on the cross and even then His eyes were open. It took 200 more years for the church to put the image of a dead Jesus on a cross (Oxford History of Worship, 820), so horrible was crucifixion till then.
Yet millions were crucified. Josephus says in Rome's siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD as many as 500 a day were crucified (Wars, 5, 6). 100 years earlier they crucified 6,600 followers of Spartacus. So in one sense, lots of people died like Jesus did. In another sense, no one did. You know that guilt, that pang, that shame that can still steal upon your heart for some sin of yours? Jesus died with that. When He was nailed to the cross Paul says every accusation against us was nailed with Him. You know how angry you get when you think it's justified? Jesus died with the just anger of God Almighty against Him. That's why Isaiah can say the Father was pleased to crush Him.
Weren't you pleased that Bin Laden was crushed? Lee Harvey Oswald killed? Timothy McVeigh executed? That was the judgment of men against them, yet we think it just. How much more the judgment of God against sinners for their sins, against you for your sins? But sinners don't bear that; neither do you. Jesus did. God turns away from Him in disgust at the sins of yours that He bears. God forsakes His only Son because covered as He is with the world's sins, He deserves to be abandoned, forsaken.
But what's this? The thief turns toward the crucified Jesus whose face Isaiah says was marred so much that He didn't even look human and asks to be remembered when Jesus comes in His kingdom. When the Romans crucified those 6,600, they put one cross every 100 feet for the entire 118 miles between 2 Roman cities. It was on a major highway, and they left them there for 18 months. I believe they put them on only one side of the road so travelers would be able to turn away from the horrific sight. Our thief turns toward the horrific sight of not just a tortured and crucified Man but a damned Man and asks to be remembered. Do you?
You do if you look on Jesus' crucifixion as the thief did. First let the innocent suffering and death of the One decimated not by 9 guilty ones but for uncountable guilty ones, show you your true self. See your guilt the way the thief did his. Be terrified and crushed by this knowledge. Unless we are Luther says "we do not derive much benefit from" the cross (LW, 42, 10). But don't stop there, but don't go to a pity party for Jesus either. On the very day Jesus said, "Don't weep for Me but for yourselves," we ought not to seek to be moved to tears for anyone but ourselves, for our sins and the judgment they deserve. But again don't stop there.
Luther said that if we seek anything else from the crucifixion of Jesus other than faith that is fruitless and heathenish (LW, 29, 210). So go to where the thief does. What others were turning away from in horror and shame, remember how they went away beating their breasts, the thief turn towards. Remember that thief is guilty as sin. Remember he might have stolen from his parents. Remember he might have stolen from the state, the church, his wife, his kids. Remember that that thief is as guilty as you. Yet in faith he asks Jesus to remember him when He comes in His kingdom.
And what does Jesus say? Fat chance? No way? You've got to be kidding? No, Jesus says, "You're not waiting till some future day. Today you will be with Me the Me is emphatic not in an earthly kingdom but in the (The Greek has the article.) Paradise. You my dying friend are getting back into what Adam and Even got kicked out of. You're not going toward some blinding light alone. No you're going to the Paradise of God with Me."
Church legend tries to explain how Jesus could make such a grand promise to such a wretched thief. On of them says the thief was a son of the captain of the thieves who robbed the holy family as they fled to Egypt. Jesus was so beautiful that the boy couldn't bear to lay hands on Him and said to the then two year old Jesus, "'If ever there come a time for having mercy on me, then remember me and forgot not this hour'"(Barclay, 286). Hogwash. If this were true, Jesus couldn't tell any of us on our deathbed, "Today you will be with Me in Paradise."
No, the grand promise of Paradise today is made to sinners who have been brought to faith in the innocent, willing suffering of Jesus for them. Since Jesus bore their shame, they are not ashamed to ask anything and everything of Him. Since Jesus paid for everyone of their sins, they are not to let any one of them or everyone of them prevent them from asking all things of Him. Since Jesus died the death they deserve, they are to believe they will die the death He deserved: one that ushers them into paradise.
And they are to believe all of this today. Today in the Waters of their Baptism; today in the Words of their Absolution; today in the Bread that is the Body of Christ and the Wine that His is Blood, they are to celebrate being with Jesus in the Paradise of forgiveness, of life, of salvation. Today the decimation that comes from our sins has been turned into celebration by way of Jesus' crucifixion. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Good Friday (20130329); Luke 23: 38-43