I was walking through the tiled corridor of the history building at the University of Wisconsin, having just finished teaching a class, my mind focused on pressing ahead to the cafeteria for a bite to eat. But my way was blocked by a cluster of twenty or so students who stood motionless and quiet, staring up at a TV monitor mounted high on a wall in the lobby, listening to the news anchor’s low and slow voice, which echoed among the tile and stone. I too could only stop and look up.
There on the monitor was a picture of a few dozen people in an outdoor reviewing stand-and they too were looking up, straining to see something, heads tilting, hands shielding their eyes from the sun. The next shot was of a strange pillar of smoke that branched out in two directions at the top. I heard a student whisper to another who just joined the cluster, “The Challenger blew up. The space shuttle.” And the other student said in a hushed whisper, “No way.”
Though I may not remember what I did or where I was the day before yesterday, I remember exactly where I was standing when I heard that the space shuttle blew up just after launch, though that was twenty-five years ago now. We all looked up, and have looked up a hundred times since seeing video replays of that yellow and black explosion, the chaos in the sky, the cross-like shape of the smoke with a fireball at the middle.
“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Of all Jesus’ statements pointing to his cross and what would happen in the world because of his crucifixion, this is one of the most poignant. He said this, according to John, “to indicate the kind of death he was going to die.” Flesh nailed to a cross piece, hoisted up on a post, hanging in such a way that it was hard to draw a breath. Left to dry, left to die. And all that the people around could do was to stop, and look up. But as they looked up at the torture, they were also looking up toward heaven, and the world-changing transaction that was taking place at this crossing point.
There were the crowds who flowed out of Jerusalem, following the procession out to the “Place of the Skull” as we might follow an ambulance to a smoking heap beside the road. Gapers’ block. Hard not to look, hard not to slow down.
“The people stood watching…” (Luke 23:35).
Jesus’ own followers followed him to that place that they did not want to go to. “A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him” (Luke 23:27). They dared not stand too close. “But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things” (Luke 23:49).
Some of those close by participated in the crime, soldiers for whom a crucifixion was one more dirty duty on one more dirty day in the desert so far away from home. “The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself‘” (Luke 35:36-37).
The authorities who saw the wooden post as a decisive way to lance the boil of Jesus’ ministry, to be rid of the problem once and for all, “sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself is he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One‘” (Luke 35:35).
We all seek salvation. People use different words for it, but really all people living in all places at all times recognize through injury and disappointment and death that something has gone terribly wrong in the world, and we need rescue.
So when the soldiers ridiculed Jesus by saying that he should save himself from his torture, and when the rulers claimed that the least the “Messiah” should be able to do is to save himself, and when one of the criminals being crucified next to Jesus taunted, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us,” they all spoke through bitter, teeth-clenched mouths of their own most deep personal need to be saved-but in a way they could barely imagine.
They all looked up. How could they not?
When Jesus was lifted up in that way at that time, he did draw all people to himself.
Excerpt from Putting the Pieces Back Together: How Real Life and Real Faith Connect. Complimentary DVD available now.