Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Friday, March 29, 2013

He Died For Our Sake

For our sake he [Jesus] was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
The Nicene Creed

And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  And he said this plainly.
Mark 8:31-32a

Probably no other tenet of the Christian faith is more difficult for the natural mind to grasp than the proposition that the crucifixion of Christ is the very heart of God's dealings with the human race.

If we are to take the New Testament seriously, which is after all the only reliable source we have for information about Jesus, we have to come to terms with the fact that the cross looms large in every book.  The four Gospel writers, men whose viewpoints and purposes differ greatly, all devote major space and emphasis to the events of Holy Week.  A full third of Mark and John deal with the period from Palm Sunday to Good Friday.  Jesus himself spoke extensively, and often, about the suffering awaiting him when he got to Jerusalem; though it was only after the resurrection that the disciples understood what he was telling them.  Luke's accounts of the preaching of the Apostles, which we find in the Book of Acts, show that the death and resurrection of Jesus was the core of apostolic preaching.  Paul, John, James, Peter and the writer of Hebrews all focus on the cross and its significance.

Throughout the New Testament the death of Jesus is represented as the clearest possible proof of the extent of God's love for his human creatures.  So clear and insistent is this message that any creed or confession of Christian belief must inevitably bring us to the foot of the cross.

The cross is pivotal in John Bunyan's classic Pilgrim's Progress.  In that story, the hero, a young man named Christian, sets out seeking the Celestial City.  As he sets forth, he is bearing a backbreaking burden of sorrow, guilt and despair.  He labors over miles of tortuous roads, his strength worn down with each step.  At length his journey brings him to the cross, and there he is finally able to lay down his burden and leave it behind.  Though he has many adventures remaining on his quest, leaving his burden at the cross is the critical first step to real progress.

Why this should be is, in truth, something of a mystery.  Scripture gives us hints and clues, but most attempts to explain the whys and the wherefores leave a lot to be desired.  As a matter of fact, the very difficulty one runs into when trying to explain what it all means, is one the indication of how important it actually is.  If you or I were trying to invent a religion, and with it a teaching to stand at the very heart of what we had to say, and if we wanted to make sure that all our followers passed on that teaching, we would go out of our way to make it easy to understand, sound natural and be very convincing.  We would probably also take the precaution of making the teaching pleasant.

This does not describe the teachings about the death of Christ.  To say that in the death of Jesus God forgives our sins, makes peace with us, and identifies with our suffering is not easy to understand.  It is certainly not what we'd call a "natural" idea, it is not immediately convincing, and it is not a pleasant thing to think about.

So what does Christianity say about the crucifixion?  The answers are several, and so are the possible levels of understanding.  It is tempting to think of it as a kind of accident: Jesus was just too outspoken in the wrong places.  Or we might prefer to think of it as a kind of tragic mistake in which the authorities mistook Jesus for a revolutionary.  However, one thing Christians have never said is that it was an accident.  From the mouth of Jesus himself we hear that it is the very reason why he came into the world.  So, if we are to seriously try and understand, we need to leave behind the "accident" theory, along with its cousin the "tragic mistake".  Neither will square with the words of Jesus, nor the understandings of the Apostles.

Using the Bible as our source book, we see the cross presented in at least five dimensions.  First, it is sign of the reality of sin and evil, and a demonstration of their consequence, which is death.  Evil is not passive.  Indeed, played out in the opposition to Jesus, it aggressively opposes good.  On the cross Jesus accomplishes something that shakes the world to its core.  The confirmation of this is the resurrection, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

In a second dimension, the cross is a sign of the extent of God's love. Though we will never, in this life, fully understand how it works, Christ's willingness to die on our behalf is a stunning demonstration of a reality so deep it could not be accomplished in any other way.  Further, and related, it is a sign that our personal sin has a cure.  God loves us enough to undertake even this.  If God is for us, who can be against us?

Third, the cross is a sign that God does not play favorites.  You can't earn God’s love by obeying rules.  You can't impress God by learning a deep philosophy.  You can't plead innocent - it's not only futile, it isn't necessary.  We stand as equals before the cross, all our inflated pretensions exposed as fraud.  We can't earn or accomplish a relationship with God.  All we have to do, all we can do, is receive the love, forgiveness and companionship he is offering.

And last, the cross is a sign that whatever we may personally have to suffer in this world, we have a companion in God, because God in Christ has also suffered, and can understand.  God does not promise to exempt his people from the difficulties of living in the world, but does promise to walk with us. The cross is our assurance that no matter how bad it may be for us, our Companion has endured worse.

This last point perhaps comes closest to summarizing and combining all the others.  If Christians are right in saying that Christ's undeserved suffering was, in a very real way, the suffering of God himself, then God is no longer distant and remote.  Though God asserts a rightful claim, and we are right to call Jesus “Lord,” he offers us companionship through whatever life sends us, on the sole condition that we admit our need, and open our minds and hearts to receive him as we would any other friend.  This gift beyond all price demonstrates what love is, and fills the heart of God with knowledge of, and compassion for our condition.  And it was not done in folk tale or myth, but in the midst of our history.  For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.

Howard MacMullen
© March, 2013

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