There is nothing simple or haphazard about an execution. No detail is left to chance. For example, some years back, one state released an explanation of its plans to build a new execution facility. In this facility, everyone involved in the execution is to be isolated from everyone else. The witness room is to be done in light and cheerful colors. The family lounge is designed to resemble a living room. There is to be a special lounge for the executioner.
The events leading up to an execution are also carefully prescribed. A 42-page document issued by one prison warden details what is to happen during the last five days leading up to an execution. It explains how everyone is to act toward the condemned person, what may or may not be said, how each action is to be carried out. Three days before the execution, the prisoner is moved from death row to a small building especially designed for him and what will happen to him. Before leaving death row, he is allowed one phone call. After leaving, he is to have no further contact with other inmates. All visiting, except from his attorneys, is to be non-contact and subject to maximum security, in other words, not private.
These details and many others begin to make sense when we realize that an execution is not simply the fulfillment of a judicial sentence. It is a ritual. In its own way, it is as much a ritual as what we do here in church. Like any ritual, it is a series of prescribed activities that bear a profound significance. In particular, an execution is a ritual of exclusion. As Joe Morris Doss, a campaigner against the death penalty, has observed, it is “the ultimate removal from community.” [Joe Morris Doss, “Baptism and the Death Penalty,” Liturgy 7:4 (Spring 1989), p. 33. This article is also the source of the information about modern capital punishment in this sermon.]
Today we remember the execution ritual that is central to our faith. The passion of Jesus was an execution. He was condemned and put to death. He did not undergo a modern execution by firing squad or lethal injection or electrocution. He was not put on death row, nor did he have lawyers scrambling for a pardon, but he was executed. He underwent the ultimate removal from community.
The reading from Luke we heard this morning gives details of this execution ritual. Some of these details apply only to Jesus. Others are standard parts of capital punishment at that time. He is mishandled by the authorities. Ridiculed by soldiers. Hated by the crowd. Forced to walk to his place of execution. Taken outside the city. Stripped of his clothes. Mocked by those surrounding him. Nailed to the beams by his wrists and feet. Lifted up on the cross. Left there to die. The ritual was carried out to its conclusion.
When a prisoner is electrocuted today, there is a doctor present who pronounces the prisoner dead. In the grim logic of capital punishment, a dead prisoner means a successful execution. Were a doctor to examine Jesus when he is taken down from the cross, then Jesus too would be pronounced dead. No heartbeat. No vital signs. A corpse becoming cold. But in this instance, a dead prisoner does not mean a successful execution.
Through his death at human hands, Jesus suffers the ultimate removal from community. The ritual of execution is accomplished. True, there are some present at the scene who do not despise him. Friends stand at a distance and watch the proceedings, numb with grief. One of the criminals crucified with Jesus recognizes him as the messiah, and a Roman army officer says aloud that he is innocent. But none of these has power to alter the course of events. They are utterly unable to prevent the execution of Jesus, his removal from community.
But still that execution is not a success. It fails to exclude him from community. Jesus returns to life. He appears to his disciples. He forgives them for their desertion, bestows peace on them, and commands them to share that peace with others. Thus Jesus the excluded, Jesus the executed, becomes the center for a new community, a new humanity.
Human attempts to remove this one man from community fail in a way that is highly ironic. What happens instead is the establishment of a new community stronger than death, a community that will prevail forever. Humanity is reborn, set free from the bondage of violence and counter-violence, and starts to experience the peace of God’s reign.
We are part of this new community! True, the reign of God is not yet fully established among us. But whenever the church is true to itself, it is a sign of that reign, a portion of that new humanity. Whenever the church glimmers with light, it is the light of this reign.
As the church, we are born out of the death of Jesus, and we gather around the living Jesus. The Holy Eucharist is our ritual, which does not deal death, but gives life. It is the Holy Eucharist, which keeps reconstituting the church as Jesus active in this world, alive with his indestructible life.
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Yet how sad our choices often are! Like the people in the passion story, we fall tragically short in recognizing Jesus and responding to him. Repeatedly we play the same fatal game. We desert him in the hour of crisis. We crucify him one more time. We dishonor him through the contempt we feel for ourselves. We exclude him from community in the person of his brothers and sisters.
In so many ways we put him to death, but this execution, though real, is never successful. Our sins are stronger than we are, but they are not stronger than divine life. Crucified by us, Jesus always returns, bestows peace, establishes his new community, and invites us, even us, to participate.
By our sins we break his body and shed his blood. What does he do? He makes himself food and drink! We abandon him to death. He leads us to life. We exclude him. He welcomes us.
— Copyright for this sermon 2004, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.