(Photo: Greater Grace Temple)
On Good Friday, Christians around the world pondered the suffering Jesus endured on the cross – his back bloody from the cruel whippings he received prior to his crucifixion; his hands pierced by iron nails beaten in with a hammer; and his agonizing death on a wooden cross.
For the thousands of people who observed Good Friday at Michigan’s Greater Grace Temple, the crucifixion was more than just a thought – it was a vivid portrayal visible on the stage thanks to the illustrated sermon entitled “The Whip, Hammer and Cross.”
Throughout the production, audience members saw and heard every lash on his back. They saw the centurions laughing and mocking Jesus. They heard nails being pounded as the production depicted the actor portraying Jesus affixed to the cross. They saw Jesus hoisted high and hanging.
Melvin Epps, the church’s communication director, said the production is a great tool to reach the un-churched who are not interested in long sermons and Bible readings. “Bishop Ellis … he always said ‘You can’t minister to an iPad generation with an 8-track mentality,’” quoted Epps. “What we were looking to do was to try to involve ourselves in innovative ministry that really touches lives.”
Throughout the whipping, Greater Grace Temple’s pastor, Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, was exhorting, “That whipping that he took was for somebody’s deliverance. Don’t let that whipping be in vain. Get your healing on tonight. Get you deliverance on tonight. Get your breakthrough.”
“It’s a powerful production,” said Epps.
The production was adapted from Pastor Tommy Barnett of Phoenix First Assembly, he explained. “We took it and gave it an urban flavor,” described Epps.
The church added Gospel music to the opening Palm Sunday scene. They also added special effects so the audience can see scars on the actor’s back and hear the whips and hammer. “We really took the basis of what he gave and transformed it into what it has become today,” he shared.
People traveled from surrounding communities and states to see the play Friday. “We [had] buses coming from Columbus and people emailed us and told us they were coming from New York state,” he said. “One year a lady took a train from Connecticut to come down here to see it.”
Greater Grace Temple has put on the play every year since 1997. In those 13 years, the church has always managed to fill its 4,000-seat sanctuary plus several overflow rooms – even with multiple show times – with people eager to see the play.
This year, Greater Grace reduced the production to one day only to better manage the crowd.
The Detroit church is not the only church that produces the dramatized sermon. Type in the play’s title, “The Whip, Hammer and Cross” in YouTube and you’ll find renditions from several churches around the country.
However, what seems to draw people to Greater Grace is the graphic depiction of Jesus’ torment.
“We made it graphic because the point is what happened at Calvary is the love that cannot be explained,” said Epps. “It’s a love that is beyond human comprehension, and I think that’s the thing that touches people.”
The church also plans to host another production on Easter Sunday called the “Greatest Mountain.” The play is new, but the church hopes it too will become a crowd-pleaser.
Greater Grace Temple is a 6,000-member church located in Northwest Detroit in the complex it named The City of David. Founded in 1927, Greater Grace Temple has become an established spiritual pillar of its surrounding community, the website says.