What does the crucifixion have to do with Thanksgiving?

October 9th, 2005
Gary Harder

Luke 23: 32-38

(Our thanksgiving service was a celebration held in three languages, Spanish, Korean and English. Because of translation, the sermon needed to be quite short)

It comes as a bit of a shock to read the crucifixion story from Luke on this Thanksgiving Sunday. We read the crucifixion story only on Good Friday, don’t we? And shouldn’t we be reading upbeat praise and joy texts today? The reason for this text today is that we’re testing the new Sunday School material being produced by the Mennonite Church. We have to test it now so that it will be ready for lent and passion week, so of course we are out of sync with the calender year.

But you know, when I read the crucifixion story a number of times this week, I came to really appreciate its message for this thanksgiving season. I thought that the story of crucifixion fit really well with thanksgiving after all. After all, what is at the heart of our thanksgiving?

Of course we are all grateful for God’s particular blessings in our lives. I am always deeply moved by the symbols that people bring forward, as you have done today. These symbols represent very specific, special gifts from God that fill your hearts with joy and with praise. The fruits of the earth. Relationships of love. Work. Home. Nature. Health. Family.

There are many symbols I thought of bringing to add to the table of symbols of thanksgiving you have brought to this table here this morning. I decided to bring only the simplest of all of them. I chose today to bring only an apple, an apple from our own apple tree, the most simple and small of many delights.

I go to our garden every day to enjoy some small piece of God’s world. I have tended these apples all spring and summer, pruning, thinning, spraying. And now we harvest these huge apples every day, one or two at a time, to enjoy fully their taste and nourishment. Just like we try to taste every day the nourishment of God’s love.

But in the end it is the cross, more than any of these other symbols, which is the profoundest source of our thanksgiving as Christians. The cross. The story of the crucifixion of Jesus. The story that says how profoundly God loved the world, how deeply God loves each of us, that God did not spare his own son, but allowed the forces of evil to kill him on a cross. The story that shows us more of who God is, how God works, than any other story we know. The story that offers us salvation in the fullest sense. The crucifixion of Jesus shows us the love of God in it’s most powerful display.

The symbols we bring are very particular and very personal. They need to be that because they reflect our lives and what brings us joy at this time. But the story of Jesus is universal, much much bigger than any of our personal stories. And that brings us a much deeper and more permanent sense of joy and praise. Joy even when life is difficult. Praise even when we are suffering. Joy even when we have few symbols to bring.

Reflections on the Text
I want to make a few observations about the text from Luke.
    1.    Luke seems to make a major point of the fact that the people present at the crucifixion scene have very different responses to his death.

In the first place Luke contrasts the response of the Jewish leaders with that of the Jewish people. The leaders Mock Jesus. “The leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one.'” (35). The people are silent. They don’t join in the mocking. And when the crowds witness the ending of the crucifixion, the death of Jesus, “they returned home beating their breasts”. (48). They knew that an awful injustice had been done. They knew, I think, that Jesus was innocent. The rulers, on the other hand, saw only the threat that Jesus was to them, saw only that he must be destroyed before they lost their power over the people.

    2.    The second contrast Luke spells out is that between the two thieves crucified with Jesus. The first criminal joins in the derision of Jesus. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” (39). The second criminal defends Jesus. “We have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds. But his man has done nothing wrong.” (41). But then this second criminal seems to see something more yet in Jesus, more than just innocence. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (42). Jesus responds, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (43).

    3.    The third contrast Luke makes a point of emphasizing is that between the soldiers. Those who are carrying out the crucifixion also mock Jesus mercilessly. Perhaps that is the only way they can do their job. They offer Jesus sour wine. They yell at him, “If you are king of the Jews, save yourself” (37).

But another soldier, a centurion has a totally different response. A centurion is a leader of soldiers, a commanding officer over 100 soldiers. It is not clear whether this centurion is here on official duty, in some ways supervising the crucifixion, or just a bystander with the rest of the crowd. But his response is a striking contrast with the other soldiers. “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.'” (47). The Gospel of Mark says that this centurion proclaimed, “Truly this man was God’s Son”! (Mark 15:39).
Luke makes these contrasts, I think, to show that it has always been so, and will always be so. Always, in that world and in ours, there will be people who mock Jesus, or reject him, or dispute that he is the Messiah. All who mock him do so by mocking his and the people’s claim that Jesus was the Messiah. They knew about the claim but rejected it. (“Let him save himself if he is the Messiah”).

And yet others there will always be who see Jesus as the Son of God, who offer their own lives to God through him, and who end up praising God, because they become convinced that Jesus was and is the Messiah, the one sent by God.

And so we too are in the crowd at the crucifixion, making our own responses, making our own decisions about who Jesus is to us.

Today we have brought together crucifixion with thanksgiving. Does it fit?

Our own lives will always go through seasons, including seasons that will feel dark, perhaps even like a time of crucifixion. Our lives will experience times of darkness, of pain, of despair, of trauma, of illness, of the death of loved ones. We will also celebrate many thanksgivings, I hope, many times of joy and love and sunshine and a good harvest and good health and community support and an abundance of blessing.

But I think for us Christians it is the story of the crucifixion of Jesus – together with the resurrection of course – which most profoundly creates the foundation for a life lived in thanksgiving mode, whether our season is one of struggle or of peace.

This universal story connects with our very particular and personal stories. Jesus meets each of us in our very personal circumstances:
A thief on a cross;
A centurion who sees God in Jesus;
The followers of Jesus, now in despair, who will yet witness the Resurrection;
Each of us dealing with our complicated lives today and tomorrow.
And that is profoundly, deeply, the essence of thanksgiving.
Thanks be to God.