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Witness for the Execution
November 19, 2000
by Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Hebrews, chapter 10 and follow along as I read verses 11-14. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).
11 And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins:
12 But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;
13 From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.
14 For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks Be to God.
Prison wardens complain that it is getting tougher to find volunteers to witness the death penalty. While in the ChristBody we don't have to watch an electric chair, we do need to be willing to keep our eyes on the cross.
Let us talk about executions. The vast majority of Americans when asked about the appropriateness of the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh said, "He deserves to die, so let him fry." After all, he remorselessly reduced a federal building to rubble, crushing 168 innocent adults and children. Whether he had partners or not is beside the point. He did it, and many of us have no problem with saying: "Hang him high."
But let me pose another question: Would you watch his death if it were a prime-time TV special? The notion of a televised execution arises from time to time. Phil Donahue proposed showing one. More recently, "Sixty Minutes" host Mike Wallace suggested televising the McVeigh execution.
Talk about violence on the tube! A full-color, real-time, high-definition image of a murderer being put to death would take TV violence to a new high, or perhaps a new low. It does not look like it is going to happen soon, however, because "Sixty Minutes" has decided not to televise McVeigh's execution. Of course, TV is full of reality-based "shockumentaries" and other shows without so many scruples, so the idea is still alive.
And some folks would say rightly so. Hank Hill is the working class hero of the Sunday-night program "King of the Hill." This raunchy, Texas-based cartoon was recently praised as the best television show by top critics, including TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly. Hank Hill says, "My position on capital punishment? As close as possible to the switch." And many of us feel that way when there has been a particularly gross and ugly murder. I am aware that the capital punishment debate is a thorny issue, that good people of faith are anchored firmly on both sides of the issue. I do not intend to debate that issue today. I am talking not about executions but about witnessing executions.
Neither executions nor the witnessing of them is a new thing. "Gladiator" was last summer's blockbuster film spectacular. The crowds who went to see it were not interested in Roman art and architecture. They went to see executions and blood and gore, just like the original crowds that went to see gladiators fight in the colusseum in ancient Rome. In the Middle Ages, Executions were highly public events, carrying a strong deterrent message. Watch us rip this guys entrails out, and do not do what he did or the same thing will happen to you. And people loved to watch. Things have not changed that much.. Recently, the Fox TV show, "America's Most Wanted," followed a serial killer right up until minutes before his execution.
Here we are in the third millenium after Chirst, and we still enjoy the mayhem at hockey games, when gloves come off and fists start flying, and a record audience watched in fascination when "Sixty Minutes" televised Dr. Kevorkian "assisting" a terminally ill person to commit suicide. We are not so genteel that we can't handle - and even enjoy - a little gore. That is why it is surprising that a grim and unanticipated problem is emerging from American's recent sharp rise in executions: Prison officials are hard put to find enough civilians to act as witnesses. Fewer and fewer people are willing to walk into prisons and make sure that criminals are put to death in a dignified manner.
To address this problem, corrections officials are hitting the phones, issuing press releases and going on the Internet to drum up witnesses. Of the 38 states that have capital punishment, most require law enforcement and media officials to attend the execution. Almost half have the further requirement of "civilian witnesses." In states such as Arizona, Florida and Virginia, officials had to get about 300 people last year to witness some 50 executions.
Can you guess why these are such tough slots to fill? Perhaps people today just don't want to get their hands dirty in the work of government, don't want to descend into a dark and depressing place to make sure that inmates aren't stabbed, kicked or beaten to death. Or, folks fear emotional trauma. One college sophomore who witnessed an execution in Virginia was haunted by the question, "Is God going to forgive me for what I saw?" Then again, maybe it's simply a question of rapidly rising demand. Between 1976 and 1983, just eleven people were executed nationwide, and wardens had more than enough volunteers to fill the designated civilian-witness slots. But then in two recent years, 1998 and 1999, 166 convicted criminals were put to death - and those executions severely drained the pool of available witnesses, leading one corrections official to start calling state legislators and personally to invite them to attend! I guess he figured that since they voted for the death penalty, they would not mind witnessing that penalty being carried out.
Witnesses for the execution are hard to find - in Departments of Corrections, and in the Body of Christ. In the Christian community, we do not need volunteers to watch an electric chair. We do need people who are willing to keep their eyes on another execution. We need witnesses for THE execution, people who will keep their eyes on the cross. The cross was a political execution. It makes all the difference in the world that Jesus did not die by being run over by a chariot outside of Jerusalem, or after living to a ripe old age. He died as he lived. He lived for us. He died for us. So, are you willing to be a witness to his execution?
The letter to the Hebrews contains a theology of the cross, with such details on why the death of Jesus is important and how Christ's sacrifice is superior to the old priestly system.
Hebrews has been attributed to a number of authors. From the fourth century to the Reformation, the Western church held the opinion that it was the fourteenth epistle of Paul, the apostle. Martin Luther believed it was the work of Apollos, first a student and then an independent missionary of Paul. Clement of Alexandria believed Luke to be the author, impressed by the similarities between Luke-Acts and Hebrews. Adolf von Harnack proposed Priscilla (tutor to Apollos and resident of Rome) as the author.
Regardless of authorship, the focus of Hebrews is on Jesus Christ, our great high priest. Hebrews is about his sharing of our human temptations and sufferings, and the eternal power of his death. Unlike the letters addressed "to the Corinthians," Hebrews is not addressed to any specific geographical locale. The author indicates that his readers are people of faith, whose original enthusiasm may be faint or sluggish. Readers are warned that they are in danger of losing all they had gained in confessing their faith, so they need to open their ears and hearts to this divine word by which they should be living.
The daily sacrifice performed in the temple ritual is compared to the priesthood of Christ. In chaapter 10, the work of a Jewish priest in verse 11 is contrasted with the redemptive accomplishments of Christ in verse 12. Day after day, the rituals at the temple continue: One day a priest offers the sacrifices and then the next day another priest repeats the same ritual. Hebrews points out that this work is essentially futile and ineffective, since such work is never finished. The animal sacrifices go on and on, never fully accomplishing anything.
This insight is reinforced by the observation in v11 that every priest stands. In the Sanctuary one can find the altar of incense, the table, the lap, the ark - but no chair. God was always served by standing priests. They stood, not merely as a mark of respect, but as a sign that they had an unfinished task. On the other hand, Hebrews tells us, Christ came and sat down. He had finished his work, which unlike the work of the Temple priests, was a redemptive work. He removed sin and broke the power of sin. He was therefore entitled to take the seat of honor by God the Father. His work was finished, and now he waits at the side of God.
This "waiting" is not passive but eager expectation. V13 says that Jesus is "from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool." This reference to Psalm 110:1 appears frequently in Hebrews. Who, exactly, the "enemies" are is uncertain, but more important than conquering the enemies is the one offering by which Christ has perfected for all time those who are being made holy.
Scholars debate the term "sanctification" in verse 14. The Greek word here is the verb agiazo. It was used of something or someone dedicated to God. For example, it was used of the gold adorning the temple and of the gift laid on the altar.. Since every believer is sanctified in Christ Jesus. A common NT designation of all believers is "saints" or "hagioi" that is sanctified ones or holy ones. Thus sanctification is not an attainment, it is that state into which God in grace calls sinful people and in which they begin their course as Christians. The sacrifice of Christ brings about a holiness for the believer, whose sins are forgiven and conscience is cleansed. A believer is perfectly sanctified in the sense that through Jesus Christ the believer is made acceptable to 'God. We are not perfect, but we are made perfect in God's eyes through Christ. This is a perfection that we already have, but yet we are not perfect, so we must still resist sin, endure hardship and submit to discipline.
Verses 15-18 of chapter 10 contain a reference to Jeremiah about the new and inward covenant that the Lord has promised. This covenant is not written in stone and stored in an ark, but inscribed on our minds and deposited in our hearts. God has promised to establish a new covenant with the people. With the coming of Christ and by his sacrifice, the era of the new covenant has begun. All believers are redeemed by Christ and live a life of gratitude by keeping God's commandments. Verse 17 stresses the accomplishment of Christ's atonement: God remembers our sins no more. This new covenant is a perfection. It is a full and final forgiveness of sins. It destroys every barrier for us and enables us to realize full communion with God. There is no need for further offerings of sacrifice; our sin has been unconditionally canceled. Thus v. 18 says, "there is no more offering for sin."
In the original Greek, HB10:19-25 are a compactly constructed sentence. In these verses, for the first time since the third chapter, the author addresses the readers as "My friends" or "Brethren." Having vibrantly described Christ's entrance into the heavenly sanctuary, he now focuses on the consequence for the community: By sheer grace and through the "blood of Jesus" we may enter the sanctuary with "confidence." Jesus dedicated and opened the heavenly sanctuary for our use. He is not dead like the countless victims of animal sacrifice in Jerusalem; rather, his blood purified us to stand in the presence of the most high God. V20 speaks symbolically of the flesh of Christ as a curtain veiling the inner sanctum of the temple. Through the death of Christ on the cross that veil has been pulled aside, providing access to God's presence for all eternity.
Note that Hebrews stresses that the cross is intended to be a visible event, something to be seen and witnessed. It is a public and provocative display that confronts us with a divine invitation, and that forces us to deal with an offensive scene.
In HB10:19, we are faced with a challenge. When we stand at the cross and witness the execution, we are required to make a decision: Are we going to "enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus" or not? It is not an easy choice. The way of the cross is not an easy route because not everyone can stand the sight of blood. But if we do enter God's house by the blood of Christ, this choice makes an enormous difference. It means that we are able to look to the cross with gratitude, instead of disgust, that we can see Christ as a single and all-sufficient sacrifice for sin. When we look at the cross in this way, this particular instance of capital punishment switches suddenly from horror to hope, and from gore to good news. We can even share it with others, and help them to see it and rejoice in it, too - something you simply can not do with an execution by electric chair.
But perhaps we are too afraid of public opinion to witness to the cross. Maybe we would rather hide the fact that we were there "when they crucified my Lord." We know that the cross is as unpopular today as it ever was, exciting people to anger, passion, grief and confusion. And in our more honest moments, we have to admit that it confuses us as well because we can't always see what's so good about Good Friday, and we can't quite grasp why a loving God would let his only son die a truly agonizing death.
The cross is provocative, no doubt about it, and yet, we can not avoid it. This agonizing instrument of death is central to our identity as Christians. We wear it on our lapels, we hoist it on our steeples and we claim to take it up as we follow Christ. It remains a majestic, mysterious and fitting focal point for our worship of a God who transforms evil into good and provokes us to follow him in faith.
There is no escaping the cross. It is not a prime-time TV special that we can turn off at will, and it is not a public execution that we can choose to turn away from and ignore. No, as Christians we are required to be witnesses for this execution, and to witness it in a way that means more than giving intellectual assent to the central role of the cross in a plan of salvation. Our role is to be truly "provoked" by the cross. The word "provoke" comes from the Latin provocare, which means "to call forth." God uses the cross to provoke us, to call us forth, to stimulate us to action, to arouse our passion.
This means that we witness the execution by embracing a life of sacrificial service for Christ. In vs 24-25 of ch10, Hebrews speaks of a ministry of encouragement and mutual support, one that involves meeting together, provoking one another to love and good deeds, and acting as a passionate community of faith. The cross is powerfully provocative as it calls us forth and stimulates us to love one another, to do good and to be the Body of Christ in the world.
Consider the example of Tesfamariam Baraki, a Catholic priest to 2,000 Ethiopians and Eritreans in Washington, D.C. Although back home in Africa these two groups are involved in a bitter border war, here in the United States there is a sweet sense of sanctuary in Baraki's church. His mission is to support struggling immigrant families, steer young people from drugs, sex, alcohol and other social ills, and focus his diverse flock on love, not war - all while performing the ministerial roles of a parish priest. In his effort to wage peace among his parishioners, Baraki mediates conflicts, marries Ethiopian-Eritrean couples and speaks five languages. Somehow his community is sticking together and not allowing the crisis back home to divide them. "People have a tremendous need for peace," asserts Baraki, as he pushes his congregation to love one another and do good in the world.
This is a challenge for us all, even if we - like most people - do not like being provoked. But like it or not, our Lord is at work in the cross to stretch us, and challenge us and to arouse our passion for sacrificial service and life in the Christian community. The Christ whose execution we have observed is now waiting for us to rise to the challenge of walking his way - the way of the cross.
Only then will we witness something shockingly new. Not the same old frying and dying, but a truly new form of giving and living. Amen.
Kenna, Kathleen. "Why America kills off killers." The Toronto Star, May 16, 2000.
Prager, Joshua Harris. "As Executions Rise, Prison Officials Scramble to Find Witnesses." The Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2000, B1, B4.
The Washingtonian. January 2000, 43.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, November 17, 2000