Took us a bit, but here it is!
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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. Acts 5:30
When I was a kid, the phrase “hanging him on a tree,” meant only one thing – lynching. But, strangely enough, since I grew up in the segregated South, it was not the infamous lynching of African-Americans by the Ku Klux Klan that I thought of. No, I don’t remember hearing anything about that until I was in High School. The lynchings I knew about were on TV, in the Westerns, where the people “took the law into their own hands,” and deciding to forego judge and jury they “strung up” the bad guys on a tree. Most of the time, in the westerns I was allowed to see as a child, the lynching didn’t actually take place. The “good guy;” that is, one of the Cartwrights, or the Rifleman, or Matt Dillon, or Paladin, etc; arrived just in time to prevent injustice from taking place.
When I got to college, studied a lot about the Civil Rights Era, which was only natural at a Quaker College still deeply involved in protests against the war in Vietnam. I learned a lot about the KKK’s use of lynching as a tool of terror, employed to keeping an oppressed minority in line; not only in the south but all over this country. And yet, I still failed to connect the dots – I still saw Jesus’ death through a theological lens, as an action which saved me from my sins on a cosmic plane – while at the same time viewing the multiple lynchings of Black men, women and children as the awful consequence of human sin. But, in those days, I never thought of the death of Jesus on the cross as a lynching. Nor did I begin to think of it that way when I entered Divinity School and began to study the bible in depth. For some reason, I never put two and two together and got four.
Then I became a Lutheran, and went back to seminary for further studies, and one day I was in the library of the Lutheran Seminary in Columbia, SC doing my homework for worship class. I was reading through and commenting upon the “Proper Prefaces,” parts of the Great Thanksgiving Holy Communion prayer that change with the season, and I read this line in the Proper Preface for the Passion – “you gather your people around the tree of the cross, transforming death into life . . .”
And suddenly it hit me “Jesus was lynched!” Jesus was not just executed; he was lynched, strung up, “strange fruit,” hanging from the tree of fear, rage and injustice.
I raised my head from the book and looked around the room and I spotted a cross upon the wall. And I had something like a vision, or a dream, or an hallucination. The cross changed into a hangman’s noose dangling and twisting in non-existent wind. Then it changed again, and again; first into a hangman’s noose, then an AK-47 machine gun, then a sword, then a suicide bomber’s vest. The image changed, over and over – instruments of death and destruction used by governments and terrorists alike, to kill, demoralize and intimidate. “Jesus was lynched!”
In the lead up to the story we read this morning, Peter and the other Apostles have been preaching in the Temple about the resurrection of Jesus. They have also been performing healings. The High Priest hears about it and has them arrested and put in jail. Why? Because back in Acts 4:18 the Sanhedrin had told them not to preach anymore in the name of Jesus. They are in clear violation of their parole. Off to jail they go. But God sends an angel to release them.
Now, if I had been arrested twice and jailed once by the people who had cruelly tortured and killed my leader, and if I had ordered to cease and desist and I had already angered them by defying this order, and if I found myself standing outside the jail in the wee hours of the morning, free as a bird and with a good head start, I think I would have gotten out of town as fast as my rented donkey would carry me. Or at least I would have gone into hiding deep in the bowels of the city.
And I really would have expected Peter and the others to do the same. After all, these are the same people who denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. These are the same people who were nowhere to be found as Jesus breathed his last upon the tree. These were the same people who hid behind closed doors even after they heard about the resurrection.
But no. Peter and the other Apostles went right back to the Temple, went right back to preaching the gospel, right back to casting out demons and healing the sick. I’m sure the Sanhedrin were filled with equal parts anger and wonderment when the guard came to them and said, “The Galileans have escaped prison. But, we don’t have to call out the bloodhounds – we know where they are. They’re back in the Temple, preaching away.” The High Priest and the others must have just shook their heads. “They must be stupid, or stubborn, or both.”
So, of course they have them arrested, again. And they are hauled in front of the High Priest and the court, again. And they are talked down to and ordered about and treated like insignificant nobodies, again. And they are ordered to quit preaching in the name of Jesus, again. But instead of cowering and kow-towing and quaking in fear and trembling – Peter and the Apostles stood and spoke “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Then Peter and group spoke further truth to power and called out the Sanhedrin, the lynch mob, the posse, the town council, the citizens defense committee, the community watch, all those defenders of the status quo and the power of those in power, naming them a lynch-mob. “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you lynched.”
How could they be so bold? What had happened to change them from cowardice to courage? An encounter with the Risen Christ had happened. As we read about in our Gospel Lesson, Jesus pushed through their locked doors, frozen hearts, and terrified minds and freed them from their fear. God reversed the power of death by raising Jesus to new life; and Jesus reversed the power of the lynching’s terror by raising the disciples to new courage.
So, what does it mean for us to follow a man who was lynched? Writing in “Christianity Today,” Duke Divinity School professor Christena Cleveland says, “When people who were on the outskirts gathered, Jesus was among them – not only because he ministered to them but because he was one of them. . . . . .Jesus didn’t simply care about people who were victims of Rome-sanctioned violence, he was a victim of Rome-sanctioned violence. In order to follow Jesus in his mission today, we often must choose a love that is based in solidarity . . . . we must not only minister to people who are marginalized, we must stand with them as Jesus stands with them” (CT, April, 2016)
Yes, Jesus, the one who was lynched, stands with them and he stands with us. And he stands with the Sanhedrins of this world as well. Did you notice Peter preaching the opportunity for salvation to the very people who had been most instrumental in getting Jesus killed? “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Acts 5:31. Repentance and forgiveness. The good news is for the oppressed and the oppressor, for those on the bottom and for those who put them there. The Good News is that those who were lynched are vindicated and those who have sinned are given the opportunity to be saved. The Risen Christ changes everything.