It is sometimes said that time is a great healer. Strictly speaking, it is not, of course, time that heals but the capacity of the human mind to forget. With the passage of time and the crowding into the mind of other things memory tends to fade and the image of past happenings becomes blurred, and it may be that eventually the event is pushed out or the mind and forgotten. By far the vast majority of past happenings, together with the men and women who took part in then, are now forgotten and unknown. It was of such that the prophet Isaiah wrote: “O Lord thou hast visited them and destroyed then, and made all their memory to perish.” Or again, as the Wise Man says, “The memory of them is forgotten.”
But there are events which sometimes as a result of own doings, are never forgotten. “As a man sows, that shall he also reap” is an unalterable principle or life; and it may be that the effect of things done in earlier life, either in ignorance or in folly, or even things done with the best of intentions and a clear conscience, or matters over which we have no control, remain with us in our memories all our days as a constant reminder.
We read of such an example from the life of the apostle Paul. In the first chapter of his letter to Timothy, the apostle recalls how that formerly he persecuted the Church of God. He was a blasphemer, a persecutor and injurious, something done ignorantly and in unbelief , and for which cause he says “The grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” Those impressions never faded from Paul’s mind as long as he lived. As he again says:
“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”
It was that constant reminder of his former manner of life, and of the abundant love and mercy that he had received at the hands of the Lord, which sustained him in all the trials which he endured for the Truth , that, as he says, “In me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to that which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” Or as he again says:
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
Now we meet this morning nearly 2000 years after those words were written, to remember Christ. Our meeting is based upon his memory. This is primarily a memorial meeting and this is dependent upon our keeping in memory those things which have been preached unto us. It is as often as we “eat this bread, and drink this cup, that we show forth the Lord’s death, till he come.” But our obedience to that commandment is not merely a matter of remembrance. For that remembrance to be complete and acceptable before God, it must be coupled with both an intelligent understanding and a deep appreciation of the events we are commended to keep in memory, together with our responsibilities to those events, and a firm resolve to follow the example of the One so remembered.
But as we have said, the events symbolised by the bread and the wine on the table happened nearly 2,000 years ago. Customs have altered, times have changed and those events, in any case, are quite outside our experience. Now we live in a different age and under different circumstances. As an incoming tide obliterates the footprints on the sands, so time tends to sweep away our sense of closeness and participation in that tragedy enacted upon Calvary’s hill so long ago, unless we continually bring it to mind. Indeed, in the unresponsive formalism by which that death is sometimes, we fear, ‘remembered’, it would seem that those pierced hands and feet and wounded side have been quickly healed in the minds of those whose ears are closed to appeals to the love of Christ. Those whose hearts are cold and unmoved and unresponsive to that saying which Paul says is worthy of all acceptance, that Christ came into the world to save sinners.
According to the depth of the impression which the Truth has made upon our minds will be the value which we place upon what Christ has done for us. We shall remember in the prophecy of Zechariah where is brought to our notice the incident in which the prophet, as a man of sign, had weighed to him his price, at which he was value even thirty pieces of silver. This incident is referred to in the Gospel record, as a prophecy of the events which happened at the crucifixion. Thirty pieces of silver was the amount which the priests covenanted to give Judas as the price of the betrayal of his Master. That was the price at which he was “priced at of them”, and which eventually went for the purchase of the potter’s field in which to bury strangers. That was the value which they placed upon Christ in the furtherance of their schemes against him.
Perhaps by way of remembrance we can recall some of those events and by way of exhortation ask ourselves:
What is the value which we place upon him today?
Perhaps with the passing of time this meeting is not always celebrated with the same fervour and intensity of meaning as would have been shown by Christ’s immediate disciples and the early believers. Crucifixion would mean so much more, we should think, to that generation of believers than it does today. Jesus said on one occasion:
“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
That allusion to taking up a cross and following Jesus cannot perhaps have the same impact upon us today, who happily, have never witnessed such a spectacle. It would be quite readily understood, however, by those in the first century, and the lesson therefore would be the more penetrating.
Death by crucifixion was the punishment of those tines inflicted upon criminals and malefactors of varying degrees. It was the most cruel and excruciating of deaths which man’s evil art of ingeniously tormenting and extinguishing life has ever devised. It would scarcely be possible to describe the horror and brutality of such punishment. However, one writer has said; “The Wise Author of our being has formed and constituted the fabric of our bodies in such a merciful manner that nothing violent is lasting. Death came generally in three days. Hunger, thirst and acute pain dismissed them from their intolerable sufferings.
In addition must be added the ignominy with which it was surrounded. It was reputed, we are told, “the most shameful death, to which one could be exposed. It comprised every idea and circumstance of odium, disgrace and public scandal.”
To all that Jesus voluntarily submitted himself. Those were the limits of the priests and Judas’ estimation of him a mere thirty pieces of silver; a parcel of ground in which to bury strangers. With what depth of feeling, then, would the apostle acquainted with these things of his own day represent Jesus as taking upon him the form of a slave, and being obedient to death, “even the death of the cross.” Yes, the apostle conjures up all the disgrace connected with such a death when he uses that word “even” saying “even the death of the cross.” Although not expressed in words, undoubtedly the apostle had in mind (which he would clearly convey to the early brethren by that emphasis) all the public indignity and infamy together with the indescribable suffering, which Jesus endured at his death.
Or again, how fall of meaning are his words, when all the circumstances are taken into consideration, in which he extols the selfless love of our Redeemer “in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Or again, that it was “for the joy set before him that he endured the cross, despising the shame.”
The depth of contempt and reproach which greeted the preaching of the apostles in their day is completely unknown to us. From the ideas surrounding such a death the Greeks treated the apostles with the utmost scorn, if not pity, for embarking on the cause of One who had been brought to so reproachful an end by his own nation. The preaching of the cross to them was foolishness. The promulgation of a system of religion taught by a person who had suffered the death of a slave, or a common thief. The teaching that salvation was to be found in no other name than that of Jesus of Nazareth who perished upon a malefactors cross, appeared to them the last thing in absurdity and madness. “What will this babbler say?” was what the men of Athens reproached Paul with as he preached unto them Jesus and the resurrection.
Historians tell us that the Greeks looked upon the attachment of the early Christians to a religion whose publisher had come to such an end as undoubted proof of their ruin, that they were only destroying their interest, comfort and happiness in this life by adopting such a system, founded upon such a dishonourable circumstance. That was the value which the wise of this world placed upon Christ and God’s offer of salvation.
The Jews held Christ’s death in the same ignominy as did the Greeks. Indeed, to them more was added inasmuch as they esteemed one guilty of such an end as not only abandoned by men but forsaken also by God for in their Law it was written “Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.”
Perhaps in these circumstances we can perceive why the chief priests were so careful to ensure that Christ died by crucifixion. They no doubt thought that such would put an end once and for all to his teaching and memory, and no doubt it would have done so had it not been followed by the indisputable fact of his resurrection. We can see, then, with what aversion the Jews would receive the preaching of the Gospel. To them the preaching of the cross was a stumbling block. At the same time we can perhaps also realise what it would mean to accept the Truth in those times. The whole world, Jew and Gentile, was bitterly opposed to the preaching of the gospel, and to follow Christ then, under those conditions, meant a very literal fulfilment of his words:
“If any man will come after me let him renounce self” – utterly – “and take up his cross, and follow me.”
The circumstances related by the writers of the Gospels show that the death of Jesus followed the usual customs in such executions, so that when we read:
“They did spit in his face, and buffeted him, and smote him with the palms of their hands,”
“when they had stripped him, they put on him a scarlet robe,”
“Herod with his men of war set him at naught, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe,”
and so on, we are reading of things which the narrators and their readers of the first century would readily understand were the tokens of contempt and ridicule in use and meted out to such an one in those circumstances.
The same would be observed when, after Pilate had pronounced sentence against Jesus, he gave the order that he should be scourged. Among the Romans scourging was always inflicted prior to crucifixion. Also the carrying of one’s own cross, was a principal part of the shame of such a death. The very last term of reproach amongst the Romans was the expression “cross-bearer.” Historians of the time tell of such people covered with wounds from the scourging of the solders, staggering under the weight of the cross, and subjected all along the road to abuse. License was given to the rabble to heap upon such a one every act of insolence and inhumanity which their depraved minds could conceive.
Was that, then, the picture which Jesus wished to pass before the minds of any who would come after him, when, he said: “Let him first deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”? That was the picture they would see, undoubtedly, and how much more real would it become when Jesus himself had trodden that road. Perhaps the picture has become a little blurred after the passing of twenty long centuries. It may want reviving in our minds, for it is still there for us to see as we strive to keep in memory those things which have been preached unto us. Jesus said “Follow me…”
There is no reason to think that our Lord escaped the customary abuse on the road to Calvary. Lacerated and bruised (for our iniquities) by the stripes laid upon him; exhausted by the cruel mocking and scourging; fatigued and spent because of the bestial treatment meted out to him, there is little wonder that now oppressed with the weight of the cross he could go no further, and they laid hold on one Simon, a Cyrenian, and compelled him to bear it for him. And yet although his flesh was weak. His sufferings beyond endurance, his spirit still was willing to be obedient unto the end, even the death of the cross.
He refused the medicated cup, offered no doubt by the kindness of some of his few friends. Instead he drank the dreadful cup of pain with all its bitter ingredients, which the Father had placed in his hands; and mercifully his sufferings were shortened; he gave up the spirit and it was “finished.” The one whom men thought worthy of only a few pieces of silver, in whose tongue was found no guile, and in whose character was found no sin, was at last beyond the sufferings of this present mortal span.
“Follow me …” God forbid that he should ever require us to tread that same path. Some have done, of course. Almost without doubt his beloved apostle Peter perished in the same manner, and maybe there were others also, the memory of whom is now unknown, at least to us. How then should we apply the Lord’s words to ourselves? As noted before, this is the most privileged of all generations of believers. We live in an age of luxury, tolerance, ease and comfort which have been denied those of former years.
We have to acknowledge with the psalmist that “the lines have fallen unto us in (very) pleasant places.” Tonight we shall rest in peace upon our beds in the shelter of our homes. The One we remember had not where to lay his head. We have met here this morning by our modern methods of transport, with little effort or inconvenience on our part; the One we remember trod the rough roads and hills and mountains of Judaea and like Jacob before him, he doubtless had to endure “the drought by day, and the frost by night.” We do not know what it is to suffer such hunger or thirst that Christ was tempted to turn even the stones of the wilderness into bread to sustain him.
So as we examine ourselves consider:
- What have those abundant privileges done for us?
- What value do we place upon them?
- What is our real estimation of the One whose life and death is reflected in these emblems?
- Have we been transformed by the renewing of our minds by his spirit into an energetic, self-sacrificing, enthusiastic courageous, whole-hearted band of believers, knit together as one by our love for Christ?
Well, as we look around those been have been called to the Truth in these last days and find apathy and indifference, resentfulness of the discipline of the Truth; when we see the encroachment of the spirit of the age with pleasure put before the work of the Ecclesia, comfort and business put before Christ’s work, slackness in the work committed to our hands; when instead of an eagerness to read and study and learn and grow in the knowledge of the Scriptures there seems to be a satisfaction to leave off with a bare (and sometimes threadbare) knowledge of the first principles; when doubtful habits, and worldly entertainments and friendships, are cultivated regardless of the warning, lest we cause one of Christ’s little ones to stumble; when instead of unity and love and self-effacement in the laying down of one’s life for the brethren, we experience fellow servant smiting, bitterness and resentment against those who would uphold the purity of the Truth, it surely should cause us much heart searching self-examination before we partake of these emblems before us.
What is the price we are prepared to pay for Christ’s fellowship, his friendship, his love and care and protection? We have not been redeemed by silver and gold, but by the precious blood of Christ. He who though he were rich, yet for our sakes he became poor and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Nothing can repay our debt to him. We stand in our privileged position of forgiven sinners, called to be saints, by his grace and love. What he demands of us is our love. He said: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” Christ has suffered for us, leaving us an example. He expects us to follow him by the cultivation of his spirit.
He did not endure the shame and the agony and the degradation and the buffeting and the spitting, that we might follow our own ways and fulfil our own desires, and live our own lives to please ourselves. Unless his sufferings were in vain on our account, we must experience the renunciation of self, and the crucifixion of the flesh and the lusts thereof. Our sacrifice is to be a living sacrifice, a martyrdom daily to the things of the world. Our bodies offered in a willing service, no longer our own, our will surrendered to his bidding.
No longer should we be thinking according to the mind of the flesh, or giving way to every whim and temper at the least provocation, but rather bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.
If our values need adjusting, let us do it now. As he laid down his life for us, so ought we to lay down our lives for one another. To renounce self is to win Christ. To die to the world is to gain that life which is to come. To take up the cross now is to gain that crown of righteousness which fadeth not away. To follow him now, bearing his reproach, suffering beyond the gate, will be to reign with him in glory.
That reward is sure and steadfast, reserved in heaven for us. One day it will be ours if we keep in memory those things which by the word of the gospel have been preached unto us.
(R. Stubbs, 1966)